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How Keratin Treatments Work with Black Hair

Black woman with metallic makeup and long, wavy hair

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You might enjoy having straight hair, but pressing, ironing, and relaxing all take a toll on your strands. That's to say that more often than not, smooth strands come at the expense of hair health (Read: dry and damaged). But luckily, there isn't only one process that straightens hair. Keratin treatments, also known as Brazilian keratin treatment (BKT for short) and Brazilian straightening treatment, have become one of the most popular straightening processes, particularly for black hair.

What Is a Keratin Treatment?

Brazilian keratin treatments don't have the often-used, but damaging chemicals you'll find in typical natural hair relaxers, such as sodium hydroxide or calcium hydroxide. They also don't contain the chemicals you'll find in perm solutions, like ammonium thioglycolate. Instead, your hair is straightened through the use of "active" ingredient keratin, a protein that naturally occurs in human hair. Keratin is less abrasive than the typical salon treatment. Actually, since natural hair can be quite dry, keratin can help hair health by providing it with a nice protein boost. This process not only strengthens hair, but some people swear that it even leaves strands the healthiest they've ever been.

Who Is It For?

Anyone who relaxes their hair knows that some coloring processes are particularly harsh on already processed hair. You also can't apply a relaxer to previously processed hair without the worry of overprocessing, which can cause breakage. In contrast, a keratin treatment works well on colored, highlighted, or previously processed hair. As long as you use a nonacidic relaxer, this treatment should work just fine. Keratin straightening could also be a good option if you want to transition from relaxed to natural hair, as it offers a little grace period until the relaxers grow out.

No matter what you've previously done to your hair, it's smart to check with your stylist first. Let them know every process your hair has undergone in the past, and they'll be able to choose what will work best for you. If you're looking for a total change, it's often recommended to get color done either two weeks before or after a keratin treatment. Some stylists may be able to do it the same day, but it takes a long time.

How Does It Work?

Expect your keratin treatment to take at least a couple of hours, from beginning to end. During, a stylist will apply a keratin solution to your hair, just like they would hair color. They'll then blow your hair dry, and seal it with extreme temperatures—up to 450° F. The heat, usually in the form of a flat iron, is required to seal the formula into the hair's cuticle. Immediately following the treatment, your hair may be so straight that it lacks body, but don't worry, the volume will return over time.

Cost, Results, and Maintenance

Admittedly, it's not a cheap process. Depending on where you live, prices will range, but on average you can expect to pay anywhere between $150 and $350. It's particularly expensive when you consider that it needs maintenance. Unlike relaxers and perms, which permanently change the structure of hair cuticles and need to be grown out, keratin treatments gradually wash away. You'll notice your hair's natural curl return over time—anywhere from six weeks to a few months.

As with all hair products or treatments, not everyone will get the same results. While a great degree of the outcome depends on the competence of your stylist, much also depends on your hair texture. Some people will get super sleek hair that has no wave to it until the treatment begins to wear off, while others will see a lessening of frizz with no real straightening unless they use a flat iron when styling. So if you're seeking bone-straight hair, you may be disappointed. On the other hand, if you're looking for an easier way to manage your hair without worrying about how straight it turns out, a keratin treatment may be right for you.

Your stylist might also have options when it comes to the strength of the treatment. Depending on the product they use, they may be able to customize it to reach the desired results on your particular hair texture. Like with anything in life, there are no guarantees, but advancements in the process have given stylists significantly more control over the results.

It's important to note that there are a number of different keratin treatments available, and each will have different aftercare requirements. Make sure you fully comprehend your stylist's aftercare instructions prior to leaving the salon and follow them when you get home.

To get long-lasting results, use shampoos that have a neutral pH and are free of sulfates and sodium, like Living Proof's Perfect Hair Day line.

Some newer keratin treatments may allow you to shampoo right away, but plenty do not. For the first several days after more traditional treatments, you won't be able to wash your hair or get it wet at all. A secure hair cover while in the shower or bath is essential. Shhhowercap ($43) has some cute, eco-friendly options. You won't be able to exercise because sweating is out, as is putting any kind of product on your hair—in addition, you should avoid putting your hair into a ponytail, pinning it up, or even tucking it behind your ears. Any of these typically harmless things can lead to kinks that will stick in your hair as long as your treatment does.

Know Before You Go

One of the biggest concerns with keratin treatments is that some brands contain formaldehyde, and some of these formaldehyde-containing formulas aren't approved by the FDA. Others may tell you that they're formaldehyde-free, but they actually contain trace amounts (minimal enough to legally claim they have none). Formaldehyde is most dangerous when it is airborne and inhaled. So when you're choosing a salon, try to figure out whether this treatment will be done in an area that has good ventilation. Most experts say that the real harm from the chemical is not to those who get the treatment, but to the professionals who are exposed to it regularly.

Also, 450° F is extreme heat to place on the hair. This is especially true since the flat iron has to make several passes to thoroughly seal in the treatment. So, if you're considering the treatment, ask around before making an appointment anywhere. It is vital that you have this treatment done at a reputable salon by a professional who is very experienced in it. Even if your most trusted friend says that they got the best BKT ever from their stylist, go in for a consultation armed with questions.

If a stylist doesn't want to answer your questions, is abrupt, or catches an attitude because you dare to question them, leave and look for another salon for your keratin treatment. This is your hair, and if you're not concerned about its health, why should anyone else be?

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