THE QUEST for straighter hair has moved from the simple mechanics of ironing to chemical relaxing and, most recently, to exotic hybrids from Japan and Brazil. Brazilian keratin treatment, which burst onto the scene a couple of years back, proved to be especially exotic. Its promise of slinky hair involved both keratin (it's a protein) and a secret active ingredient: formaldehyde.
The stuff familiar to anyone who's ever dissected a frog.
In an "anything for beauty" world, that wasn't necessarily viewed as a drawback. The Brazilian products, by many enthusiastic reports, did what they promised, leaving hair looking shinier and smoother for up to 12 weeks. "It's the best thing I ever did for my hair," says Daisy Separzadeh, who'd struggled to tame her unruly curls. The treatment, which is quickly gaining popularity in salons across California, left her hair not unnaturally pin-straight, but frizz-free and full of body.
Those who pitch the products professionally say the treatment can be used on any hair type, no matter how brittle, bleached or over-processed, and makes it look healthier temporarily. "Get me the worst hair," says Marcelo Teixeira, chief executive of Márcia Teixeira Brazilian Keratin Treatment. "Then you'll see what this product really does."
But concerns about the health effects of formaldehyde on consumers and hairstylists have led to the roll-out of new formulations just reaching the market. The next catch words in the world of Brazilian keratin treatments: "safer" and "formaldehyde-free."
Why put formaldehyde in a hair-straightening product at all? Dr. Paul McAndrews, a Beverly Hills dermatologist and hair restoration expert, explains that it plays a key role in the process, which takes roughly an hour and a half and costs between $300 and $400.
Hair is first shampooed to make it more porous so the keratin solution can bond with the hair shaft effectively. When the keratin is applied, McAndrews says, it "fills in the natural defects of the hair shaft, which makes the hair look smoother and silkier, but it does not actually straighten the hair." After the hair is blown dry, a stylist uses a flat iron to activate the formaldehyde, temporarily altering the structure of the hair. "The straightening occurs from the heating process combined with the formaldehyde, causing it to appear straighter," McAndrews says.
Those who market the formaldehyde-based products say they can be applied safely. When "applied professionally and properly there is no risk whatsoever," says Devin Semler, chief executive of Brazilian Blowout.
But McAndrews disagrees. "The customer, the stylist, whoever is in the vicinity are at risk during the application," he says.
There are no Food and Drug Administration limits on the use of formaldehyde in hair products, but the Cosmetic Ingredient Review expert panel recommends a concentration of no more than 0.2%. Many of the original formulations, still on the market, contain up to 2% formaldehyde.
"Formaldehyde at this concentration can have short-term health effects: coughing, nausea and skin irritation," McAndrews says. "Long-term effects include increased risk of various cancers."
(Semler declined to offer specifics about Brazilian Blowout, but said that its original formula contains less than 2%.)
Separzadeh admits that the formaldehyde makes her nervous, but her hairstylist at Beverly Hills salon Giuseppe Franco assures her the levels in the salon's air are consistent with federal safety regulations. "I guess that I'm vain, so I'd rather have pretty hair than worry about cancer," she says half-jokingly.
Happily, a new formaldehyde-free formulation created by Brazilian Blowout is available in salons this month.
The new formula uses a nontoxic chemical to help bond the keratin to the hair, and each treatment lasts up to four months. Cost: about $350 a session.
Rita Wisotsky, a Los Angeles sonographer who's tried both formulations, reports that she couldn't tell the difference. "I had nice body and my hair was so shiny and soft, it's amazing," she says.
Aside from Brazilian Blowout's formaldehyde-free formulation, two other companies, Márcia Teixeira and Peter Coppola Salon, offer Brazilian keratin treatments using derivatives of formaldehyde formulated to be safer. Teixeira advises salon customers to "ask to see the product and a copy of the training certificate. There are a lot of black market products."
A formaldehyde-free at-home kit offers results similar to salon treatments, but lasts only until the next shampoo. Márcia Teixeira now sells the 4-Step Deep Conditioning Treatment ($70; www.braziliankeratin.com); Brazilian Blowout (www.brazilianblowout.com) launches its at-home kit in September.