What You Need to Know About Hair-Smoothing Treatments

Brazilian blow-outs and keratin treatments are all the rage these days. Do you know how they work? And if they're safe?

Medically Reviewed by Karyn Grossman, MD on July 15, 2012
3 min read

Tara Kennedy's mornings were made busier by her strawberry-blond hair. Thick with tight curls, it expanded to Little Orphan Annie dimensions on even slightly humid days. Taming it took the 32-year-old lawyer from Long Island more than an hour and a half and a dozen styling products. "By the time I left for work, I'd feel exhausted and exasperated," she says.

That changed when she spent $350 and three hours in a beauty salon on a keratin hair-smoothing treatment. "Now, twice a week I wash my hair, blow-dry it for five minutes, and flat-iron it for 12," she says.  "It's straight, shiny, and soft whatever the weather. I love it!"

Whether they're called "keratin smoothing" or "Brazilian" treatments, salon frizz-fighters work by breaking apart certain bonds in your hair, then gluing them back together in a sleek new pattern, says John Vater, a longtime colorist who owns Spa Adriana, a salon in Huntington, N.Y.

If you magnified a strand of hair a few hundred times, you'd see amino acids arranging themselves in what looks like a ladder if the hair is straight, or a spiral staircase if it's curly. Disulfide bonds, or linked sulfur atoms, form the "steps" of those amino acids. The more disulfide bonds your tresses have, and the more erratically they arrange themselves, the curlier your hair.

The salon process works like this: After a deep-cleansing shampoo, a stylist applies a straightening solution to the hair. Next, he blow-dries the hair straight and meticulously flat-irons it at a high temperature. That creates a waterproof seal that helps hair strands maintain their new shape for three to six months. It also cuts down dramatically on at-home blow-drying time.

Some keratin hair products contain formaldehyde, which is linked to problems including headaches, teary eyes, and skin rashes.

Formaldehyde exposure is a bigger risk to people who work with it, such as salon workers, rather than people like Kennedy, who straighten their hair every few months. But the FDA advises consumers to "limit exposure" to products that contain formaldehyde. 

Be sure to choose a salon that does the service in a well-ventilated area. "Do your homework. Ask the salon for the exact name of the product they use and Google that name along with 'material safety data sheet,'" Vater says.

Or try one of the new smoothing treatments that swap out formaldehyde for gentler ingredients. Rather than break the hair's disulfide bonds, they bend or suspend them, leaving hair frizz-free and shiny but not stick-straight.

Vater sees this as an advantage: "You're not stuck with one-note hair that won't hold a curl," he says. "Instead, you have volume at the roots, and you can achieve broken waves or soft spiral curls if you want."

Want to embrace your curls instead of straightening your hair? Here's how:

Choose the right cut. To avoid what San Diego hairstylist Don Bewley describes as "curly hair that looks like a topiary," ask for a cut that gives your ringlets a structured silhouette. That means long layers -- no shorter than six inches, save for a few face-framing pieces -- and a sharp line at the ends. 

Use moisturizing products. Well-hydrated hair is less likely to soak up humidity. Build a frizz-defense by using a moisturizing shampoo and conditioner in the shower. Squeeze out extra water, then immediately apply a leave-in conditioner or styling product that contains silicone. "Your hair is most submissive while it's still wet," says stylist Natasha Sunshine, owner of Byu-ti Hair Therapy salon in Santa Monica, Calif.

Do the twist. Take small sections of your damp hair and wrap around your fingers, twirling away from your face, Sunshine suggests. Then keep your hands off while your hair air-dries into soft, shiny curls. 

Have a go-to style. On days when you don't have time for curl control, pull your waves into a tight braid with a nickel-sized mix of hair gel and leave-in conditioner. "It's more chic and modern than a slick ponytail," says stylist Tina Dizon, owner of The Private Room, a Beverly Hills, Calif., salon.

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