Going Undercover in Search of a Safe Hair-Straightening Solution


When I told friends I was taking a hidden camera to investigate the safety of keratin hair straightening treatments they asked, “How can you realistically go undercover about that?” What they, and you, may not know is that I have naturally curly hair that I beat into submission with a variety of potions and torture devices! I even wore my hair curly (and red!) on the air, early in my career. Here are the pictures to prove it!  






I sympathize with my frizzy-haired friends, especially spending much of my career in humid Florida and Washington, D.C. But one thing I have never resorted to are so-called keratin hair straightening treatments. Oh, this is no holier-than-thou choice on my part. I feared they would damage my hair over time before I learned they could damage my health as well.

Now, after researching these products both for ABC News and Dr. Oz, I’m comfortable with my decision to use smoothing balm right out of the shower and follow that up with a good blowout and flat iron. It troubled me that many salon workers didn’t seem to know that these products can release formaldehyde, a carcinogen, when they’re heated up. And they didn’t have protocols in place to mitigate that risk.

In fact, when we went in search of a salon to use as a positive example, only one place was willing to let us in. The aptly named Keratin Bar  in Manhattan offers stylists face masks to wear while they perform keratin treatments, as required by law. The chain also uses special exhaust machines to purify the air and then tests the air quality in its salons, as required by OSHA. The salons we visited at random, undercover had no such procedures in place.

It’s understandable that stylists might be  misinformed or confused. When the original keratin straightener —Brazilian Blowout—came out, the  manufacturer labeled it “formaldehyde-free.” But authorities say that was sleight of hand, because the product contained a related chemical that gave off formaldehyde when heated. That’s why it’s important to question your salon if they say the product they use is formaldehyde-free.

OSHA has provided this list of what it calls “synonyms” for formaldehyde. Here are the key words to look for:

  • Methylene glycol
  • Formalin
  • Methylene oxide
  • Paraform
  • Formic aldehyde
  • Methanal
  • Oxomethane
  • Oxymethylene
  • Timonacic acid
  • Thiazolidinecarboxylic acid