Why formaldehyde-free straighteners may not be the answer

Formaldehyde is highly toxic and a known carcinogen; it is found in pretty well every organic substance on Earth and is all around us. Exposure to small amounts of formaldehyde is part of our every day life. However, exposure to larger amounts can be quite dangerous and even deadly. High concentrations of formaldehyde can often be found in so called keratin treatments (hair straightening treatments).

Despite popular belief, formaldehyde is not a necessary added ingredient in an effective hair straightening treatment, formaldehyde is included as an ingredient for two reasons (1) it acts as a preservative for the keratin. keratin is an organic substance and will spoil quickly if not preserved in some way (2) formaldehyde acts as a bonding accelerator when bonding the protein to the hair and, at high levels, formaldehyde can speed up the bonding process to take minutes rather than days.

Because of recent media attention around the health concerns and regarding formaldehyde, many products have emerged that claim to be “formaldehyde-free” keratin treatments. I am only aware of one genuinely formaldehyde-free keratin straightening treatment that doesn’t simply replace one toxic chemical with another equally toxic.

This product uses an approved food additive, as it’s preservative, replacing the need for formaldehyde. With this product we advice clients that they are required not to wash the hair for several days, this allows the keratin to bond with the hair without the need to use any formaldehyde containing products which would otherwise speed up this bonding process.

About formaldehyde

Formaldehyde is a dangerous gas that is classified as a likely carcinogen and should be avoided in high concentrations. Believe it or not formaldehyde is present in fruits, mushrooms, meats, and hair. The formaldehyde gas is most often released when organic substances are heated to high temperatures.

Some keratin straightening treatments claim they are formaldehyde free. This can be a cynical marketing ploy designed to cash in on the public concern around keratin straightening and formaldehyde. There are in fact only two ways any genuine keratin treatment can truly be 100% free of any formaldehyde and that is:

  1. If the so called keratin straightener does not contain any organic ingredients at all then the treatment would not actually contain any keratin protein because keratin is an organic ingredient and does contain small traces of formaldehyde as every organic substance does. The public and hairdressers should be wary of using these treatments, as they are often cheap imitations with dangerous synthetic ingredients.
  2. If the product contains other very caustic chemicals (very high P.H) that effectively disintegrate the organic elements in a formula and neutralize any of their natural processes. These products are worse than the ones they are replacing as the gasses that are released while heating these chemicals are probably far more toxic than any reasonably expected concentration of formaldehyde.

Genuine keratin treatments straightening treatments will along with any product applied to the hair that contain organic ingredients, will emit a small amount of formaldehyde gas when heated to high temperatures.

What is of concern to me as a hairdresser are the keratin straighteners that contain extra formaldehyde as an added ingredient and so emit dangerously high levels of formaldehyde gas. Or those that emit less than the low levels associated with genuine keratin, because in order to achieve this, other toxic substances will have been added. These toxic substances will be perming solutions, sodium hydroxide, or aluminum hydroxide and when heated will emit much more toxic and caustic gases.

Here we have another example of how difficult it is for the health conscious consumer to know which products are safe.

This also highlights how important it is for me to take a balanced and holistic approach to providing the least toxic and safest hairdressing options.

About the author

In addition to running a hair and beauty salon devoted to safer natural & organic hairdressing specializing in less toxic hair colouring, James’s passion for the last 20 years has been exploring the world of alternative and complimentary healing. James graduated as a qualified homeopath (MLCHom) five years ago, he has also studied nutritional therapy and various counseling and psychological therapies.

James has run his own practice for a number of years treating people with all kinds of health problems; he has a special interest in allergies and the link between emotional and physical symptoms.

James was led to alternative and complimentary health after realizing that conventional medicine had little to offer by way of relief from the multiple allergy’s and chemical sensitivity’s that had plagued him for years.

James’s approach is very much a holistic one and aims to offer support on a physical mental and emotional level.

James is also involved in co-facilitating residential retreats delivered in nature with the aim of self – healing and inner transformation.

To find out more about James’s work, visit his website.


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