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Wake up and smell the carcinogens: What you need to know about Brazilian blowouts

If you have spent your entire life struggling to control frizzy curls and kinks in your hair, a new salon treatment may seem to be a godsend. Keratin straightening, also known as Brazilian hair straightening or a "Brazilian blowout," is now offered at many salons, touted as a way to finally smooth out those wiry flyaways and turn your mane into silky locks worthy of a Pantene Pro-V commercial.

The treatments work. However, there has been much debate in recent years as to whether they are safe. The concern comes over formaldehyde, a chemical used along with the keratin to seal in the hair's cuticle. Here's what you need to know about these magical hair straightening treatments to decide whether they are right for you.

Turning unruly strands straight and shiny

Generally speaking, the process of keratin straightening combines the keratin molecules with a chemical, often formaldehyde (yep, the stuff used in funeral homes), to fill in gaps in your hair cuticle that may occur because of dryness or damage. Hair that has been treated with keratin at a salon can still be color treated – in fact, many stylists recommend the keratin treatment after a dye job to seal in the color.

Unlike previous hair-straightening or relaxing treatments, keratin straightening relies more on this natural protein that is already in your hair to smooth the cuticle than on harsh chemicals found in other straightening or relaxing treatments. After getting a keratin treatment, many women say blow-drying and styling is exponentially easier for months afterward.

Facing the formaldehyde

Formaldehyde is used in many keratin straightening treatments because it helps hold the keratin molecules together as they seep into your hair. However, this chemical has been linked to health problems. It may cause general malaise, runny nose, sore throat, headache, itching and irritated eyes. Plus, it is considered a carcinogen by a number of health and safety agencies. We'll do a lot for beauty, but risk cancer? Questionable.

Clients, hair stylists and others in the salon may be at risk from this chemical, since noxious fumes are released when the chemical is used. Plus, over time, the chemical breaks down, which may pose even more health risks over the few months the treatment lasts.

Until recently, the consumer could decide whether to run the risk with these treatments. But in May 2011, 10 members of Congress sent a letter to the Food and Drug Administration, expressing concern over the risks of Brazilian hair straightening treatments to workers and consumers alike. Earlier this year, California took action with a legal settlement that required one Brazilian blowout manufacturer to warn consumers of the risks of the treatment.

Using keratin carefully

Now that formaldehyde has gotten so much bad press, many salons are offering formaldehyde-free treatments that boast the same benefits. Remember your right as a consumer to ask your stylist about the ingredients in the hair treatments you choose. He or she might be able to suggest a safer alternative.

If you have decided that the professional keratin treatments are just not for you, you can still reap the benefits of keratin without the nasty chemicals. Because so many people are realizing the incredible smoothing effects of this protein, a number of hair products now contain it. Some shampoos and conditioners boast keratin as a main ingredient, and plenty of heat protective sprays, hair masks and other creams can make a big difference. 

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Lauren Stewart
By: Lauren Stewart

Lauren Stewart is a freelancer writer from Michigan. She enjoys writing about beauty, health and fitness! She is passionate about learning new ways to take control of her health and wellness and is a makeup and skincare junkie! You can contact her by emailing