The Everything Guide to Keratin Treatments

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Photo: lambada/Getty Images/Vetta

For many women (including, reportedly, Meghan Markle), the secret to smooth, shiny hair sits at the end of a keratin treatment. The de-frizzing process is more popular than ever, but can you afford it? What does it actually do, and how long will it last? There’s a lot of mystery surrounding keratin treatments, so the Cut created a handy guide to explain it all.

What is a keratin treatment?
A keratin treatment is a chemical process that smooths and shines frizzy hair. Results can last up to six months. There are many different versions of the treatment, and your hairstylist can customize a blend of the formula to suit your needs. Some versions of the treatment release formaldehyde when heated (more on that later), but many newer versions, like Manhattan hairstylist Arsen Gurgov’s proprietary “Rio” keratin treatment, are formaldehyde-free. No matter the formaldehyde content, on a basic level, keratin treatments dive into the hair follicle and inject porous areas with keratin, an essential hair protein. Your hair will appear healthier, because it actually is.

Can you walk me through the process?
“The length of time it takes to do a keratin treatment depends on the formula the stylist is using, as well as your hair texture, and how much hair you have,” explains Gurgov. Expect your salon visit to last anywhere from two to four hours. When you arrive, your hairstylist will first wash your hair. Then, the hairstylist will either apply the keratin treatment to your wet hair and let the formula saturate each strand for about half an hour, or the hairstylist will blow-dry your hair first and then apply the treatment — again, it all depends on your hairstylist and your hair needs. “Finally, I go over any coarse strands with a flat iron on low to medium heat depending where the treatment needs to be sealed in,” Gurgov says, and then you’re done!

Is this different from a chemical relaxer?
Absolutely. While keratin treatments are temporary and wash out after a few months, straightening chemical relaxers are permanent. The two treatments also use different ingredients that produce different results. Using a main ingredient of sodium hydroxide, lithium hydroxide, potassium hydroxide, or guanidine hydroxide, chemical relaxers break and restructure the bonds in curly hair so that the hair becomes weaker and straight. Instead of altering the chemical composition of your hair, keratin treatments actually inject the porous parts of your hair with protein, so that it feels smoother. After a few months, this washes out. Some treatments may contain a solution that releases formaldehyde when exposed to heat (there are also many new formaldehyde-free options).

Can I do this at home?
Yes, but don’t expect salon-results. You’ll first need to buy the right products. Many treatments contain the word “keratin,” but that doesn’t automatically make them “keratin treatments.” All hair is made up of “keratin proteins,” so keratin-named products aren’t rare. To get the best experience at home, look at the products’s ingredient list. A lot of smoothing treatments are actually intense silicone and conditioning treatments. After that, look at the instructions. Do they provide extensive instructions on how to wash, dry, and straighten your hair? If not, you probably have a standard conditioning product, and not a keratin treatment. And even if you buy an actual keratin treatment, your results won’t last as long as the salon version. Where a salon treatment can last for several months, at-home versions tend to wash out after a few weeks.

Is it safe?
Formaldehyde is a carcinogen, and although the amount of formaldehyde released in a keratin treatment is small, you should avoid it. It’s much better to seek formaldehyde-free treatments. They are not as brilliantly effective and long-lasting as the formaldehyde formulas, but they are much safer.

I colored my hair. Can I still get a keratin treatment?
Yes! Unlike chemical straightening relaxers, you can safely have both dyed hair and a keratin treatment without the risk of damage. “I recommend my clients use sulfate-free shampoo and conditioner for maintenance,” explains Gurgov. “I also recommend they shampoo their hair once or twice a week, only when necessary. When you shower, rinse your hair with water without shampooing and then apply conditioner only. Do not use salt-based sprays for beachy, textured hair.”

Who should avoid it?
Keratin treatments are not recommended for women who are pregnant.

How much does it cost?
Again, this depends on your hair length and your hairstylist. Gurgov’s “Rio” keratin hair treatment starts at $500. Other options can begin around $200.

Read This Before You Get a Keratin Treatment