In the world of haircare, the words keratin and protein have almost become synonymous. When hair is fragile or weak, it makes sense that we pick up products with keratin in them to boost our strands' stamina. Much like how protein shakes can be a useful tool for those looking to build muscle, keratin acts as a repairing protein to the exterior of the hair shaft.
The idea of a keratin treatment can evoke a sense of comfort and security to some, or fears of chemical processing to those who are unfamiliar or heard stories of treatments gone wrong. Maybe you even land somewhere in the middle. However you may feel about the category, we're here to lay it all out and give you the full 411, including on whether at-home keratin treatments are a good idea.
Keep reading to learn hairstylists' thoughts about keratin treatments and whether they're safe to do from the comfort of your own home.
Meet the Expert
- Jackson Simmonds is a hairstylist at Julien Farel Restore Salon & Spa.
- Sirsa Ponciano is an editorial hairstylist and Bumble & Bumble alumni based out of New York City.
- Olivia Casanova is the co-owner of IGK Salon in SoHo, New York City, with nearly 15 years of experience in the industry.
What Are Keratin Treatments?
"A keratin treatment is a semi-permanent process by which a protein solution is sealed into the hair strands," explains editorial hairstylist Sirsa Ponciano, who is best known mononymously as Sirsa. The whole point of getting a keratin treatment for your hair is because it's missing enough of that necessary protein to begin with. "A keratin treatment will infuse keratinous fiber and protein back into hair that's lacking those things," says hairstylist Jackson Simmonds.
When comparing the keratin process to the way a gel manicure works and how "the gel is cured onto the nail by UV light," the proteins in any keratin treatment will be similarly “cured” into the hair shaft, Sirsa tells us, "by the heat that’s applied from a flat iron, section by section." This resealing she details is responsible for the glasslike finish that's signature to most keratin results.
Over time, our hair, much like our skin, ages. It can lose elasticity, get frizzier, and/or become more vulnerable to your everyday wear and tear. Infusing the hair with a keratin treatment can treat some of these changes and help achieve bouncier, stronger strands.
Benefits of Keratin Treatments
Keratin treatments are known for making hair smoother and offering a major shine boost. Simmonds tells us that whether you want reduced frizz, a fast air-dry, or high shine, a keratin treatment can offer it all because it's essentially giving you the smoother cuticles required to permit those types of results.
"Keratin treatments alleviate the need for heat styling so often," Sirsa tells us. We know that day-to-day heat application can lead to breakage and fragility, so if you're a frequent heat tool user, a keratin treatment can be a gentler option for your strands. As a bonus, the finish you receive from a keratin treatment will make your daily styling efforts much more minimal.
"If you live in a humid climate, you can also benefit from this type of frizz reduction, and there are plenty of new formulations now that work great for curls," Sirsa says. Keratin treatments for curly hair are optimized to reduce frizz and smooth out the hair without getting rid of its body and texture. "Depending on the formula and process time, you can use a keratin treatment to reduce volume or straighten the hair," Simmonds tells us, but if that's not your goal, "you don't necessarily have to."
Side Effects of Keratin Treatments
Simmonds recommends taking the "less is more" approach when it comes to keratin treatments, stating that the main potential drawback is over-processing. Ultimately, the same concern(s) as any chemical treatment apply in that a high frequency of treatment can cause damage. "The most I'll administer a keratin treatment in a calendar year to any one client is quarterly," Simmonds tells us, "but to be honest, semiannually is more than enough for most people, and [treatments] should occur at strategically chosen times of year." If you exceed these recommendations, a variety of changes can happen over time, depending on your hair type. "I've seen it change curl patterns from both doing too frequently over the years, or from being done incorrectly," Sirsa explains.
Incorrect application is another major area of concern. "This can happen if too much heat is applied," Sirsa tells us. "Too much protein can cause hair breakage, just as too little protein can." If the application isn't done with precision, Simmonds warns of overlapping, almost like a double-process color treatment. It's simply too much for the hair to handle. "Treatments have the potential of turning your color extremely brassy," cautions IGK Salon co-owner Olivia Casanova. She explains that this can be especially hard to fix after keratin because the hair cuticle is more tightly sealed.
This all goes to say that professional care is of the utmost importance here. If you regularly color your hair, ask your colorist for advice regarding keratin treatments. And if you're daring enough to decide to try this at home, following directions is absolutely key to maintaining your hair's health.
At-Home vs. Salon Keratin Treatments
Since any chemical processing carries potentially irreversible risks, it's understandable why all our experts say the safest option is getting your keratin treatment at a salon. But with somewhat regular maintenance necessary, the upkeep can get pretty pricey. "The average cost of a keratin treatment here in NYC is [roughly] two hundred dollars," says Sirsa, who recommends getting the treatment touched up every three months. Simmonds points out that the price can vary widely depending on the region and salon, ranging anywhere from $125-$700.
However, at-home keratin treatment options do exist, and some of them have benefits worth considering. "Many of them are free of chemicals like formaldehyde," Sirsa says. She recommends GK Hair kits ($114), which are cruelty-free and come with everything you need for a DIY treatment. And while they won't be as strong as the salon counterpart, at-home keratin treatments are a less expensive way to get that smooth, shiny finish that many are seeking from keratin to begin with. If your main goal is a smooth finish or added shine and definition, these alternatives are a great way to go. If you're looking for a bigger impact, however, such as altering your hair texture from wavy or curly to completely straight, you'll need to seek out the pros for the higher-grade formulas.
To help your treatment last longer, Sirsa recommends shampooing less frequently and avoiding any shampoo or conditioner that has sulfates, sodium chloride, or parabens in its formula: "These ingredients can strip the keratin out of your hair fast." A good option is Maria Nila's Structure Repair Shampoo ($32).
How to Do At-Home Keratin Treatments
Any at-home kit you try will come with instructions, and following these thoroughly is key to getting the best results. Also, before you proceed with any solo attempts, a professional consultation will still go a long way to ensure you don't inadvertently damage your hair (remember, consults are usually free, and they don't need to be done in-person if you regularly see the same stylist). All our experts were united in their advice to keep keratin treatments to the pros, but if you're taking matters into your own hands, a general idea of what you'll need to do is as follows.
What You'll Need
- Clarifying shampoo
- Blow dryer
- Flat iron
- Heat-resistant comb
- Application bowl & brush
- Shampoo your hair: Start by thoroughly cleansing your hair, ideally using a clarifying shampoo to remove buildup and ensure you're beginning treatment with a clean canvas.
- Apply the product: For first-time applications, you'll want to distribute the product as instructed from roots to ends. If you're doing a touch-up, you'll only need to cover the roots.
- Let it sit: Leave the treatment on your hair for 30 minutes, or the recommended amount of time from the instructions or your stylist.
- Rinse thoroughly: Be sure to rinse your hair out for at least ten minutes to ensure the solution is completely out. Only use room temperature water during this step.
- Apply heat tools: Blow dry your hair completely before running your flat iron over each section at least three times on a high setting. Again, you'll want to rely on the specific directions you received with the product or from your stylist.
- Wait before washing your hair: Give the finished treatment 48-72 hours, or the directed amount of time in your product's instructions, before returning to your regular shampooing schedule.
Keratin treatments have a lot of potential perks, especially if your hair feels unmanageable or you tend to heat-style it frequently. The initial application is probably best entrusted to the pros, but there still are some safe at-home keratin treatment options worth trying for maintenance or with guidance from your stylist. All in all, we'd say the perks outweigh the risks, and a friendly consultation can help you decide on a plan that meets your hair and lifestyle needs.