How Keratin Treatments Work with Black Hair

Stephane Cardinale - Corbis /

Getty Images / Stephane Cardinale - Corbis 

You might enjoy having frizz-free 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. Here we'll talk with two hair experts about the pros and cons of using this treatment on Black hair.

Meet the Expert

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 a protein treatment, as keratin is a protein in the hair, hence the name," says Michelle Dixon, hairstylist at Chicago-based Maxine Salon.

"It's a smoothing treatment that strengthens the hair. It doesn't straighten hair, but it smoothes it, reduces the curl, targets weak spots, helps repair damage, and reinforces the hair structure. While it doesn't block the humidity 100%, it does help and helps prevent hair from getting frizzy. It also leaves the hair soft and silky and gives it a beautiful shine." 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. 

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. 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. "[Keratin treatments are] definitely a perfect middle ground. If someone is thinking about going back to a relaxer, I always recommend trying a keratin treatment," says Dixon.

"It reinforces your hair and tames the frizz, which makes it healthier (when it's done correctly)." The stylist shares she has even given the treatment a try. "I have natural hair, and it's curly and have been doing keratin for ten years now, and I love it." For those hoping to embrace their natural texture, while retaining length, the keratin treatment can help, of course, when done properly. "I've seen clients be able to grow their hair past their shoulders when they never could before after doing keratin treatments," she shares. "For those dealing with breakage from relaxers, keratin is a great option." Though she adds, "It's not for everyone."

How Does It Work?

"A keratin treatment helps to straighten the hair and loosen the curl pattern. It can also help de-frizz hair," explains Kim Kimble, celebrity stylist, and the owner Kim Kimble Hair Studio. "A keratin treatment is a different chemical than [a} relaxer or texturizer. Keratin treatments are mostly a physical treatment as you use heat, like with a flat iron, to mold the hair after the keratin treatment." You can expect your keratin treatment to take at least a couple of hours, from beginning to end. 

During the process, 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.

If you're curious about the keratin treatment, but don't want to grow out your hair in the same way you have to with a traditional relaxer, we have some good news. "Keratin coats the hair strand and sits on the top of the cuticle, whereas the relaxers and texturizers break down the chemical bonds of the hair," Dixon explains. "With relaxers, it has to be grown out or cut out of hair versus a keratin treatment, which will wash out of your hair over time (approximately 4-5 months if you're doing the full keratin and 4-6 weeks if you're doing express keratin)."

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.

Before you schedule your appointment, check in with the salon to find out which type of treatment they use and take a look at reviews to ensure you're making the right choice before you sit in the salon chair. "I always recommend being very careful with anything that changes the texture of the hair," says Kimble. "There is less of a risk than with a relaxer or texturizer, but it is not risk-free. For the best results, go to someone who specializes in keratin treatments."

Dixon agrees. "If you have someone inexperienced who's going over the hair too many times with high heat that's too high for that texture, it can damage the hair." If you feel like your stylist is overdoing it, don't be afraid to speak up. "When you do keratin, you have to take into consideration the texture of the hair, the density, and the color (or if it's it colored). You need to pick a temperature that works for all of these elements. The heat is what bonds the keratin to the hair, so having the right stylist who knows what temperature is best for you is key. They need to understand different textures to know the correct temperature and the right amount of passes for your hair."

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. The right stylist will be open to answering your questions and providing education along the way, so don't be afraid to speak candidly with your stylist before trying this treatment.

Related Stories