Can you straighten your hair without harming your health?

Ever since the Brazilian Blowout fiasco of 2012, when the manufacturer of this popular hair-straightening product settled a class-action lawsuit for exposing customers and stylists to toxic levels of formaldehyde gas, the search has been on for something that works as well. The French may believe “il faut souffrir pour être belle,” but there was nothing pretty about the nosebleeds, breathing problems, and eye irritation plaguing stylists who were working with the stuff all day. 

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While the original Brazilian Blowout formula still remains on the market (more on that later), there are a slew of new in-salon treatments that don’t emit formaldehyde gas but do smooth the hair. “Smooth” being the operative word: These new products don’t claim to straighten your locks, just lessen the frizz and reduce curl. For significant smoothing, you need some formaldehyde in there (seen as methylene glycol on the box of what are generically and euphemistically known as “keratin” treatments, including the Brazilian Blowout). And to get super-flat hair you need to go commando and risk damaging your hair with a caustic chemical relaxer or a “Japanese thermal reconditioning treatment.” 

Among the new crop of formaldehyde-free smoothers at salons are Trissola Solo, Goldwell Kerasilk, Cezanne Perfect Finish, and Pure Brazilian Clear. They all contain glyoxylic acid (or a derivative of it) to work their magic, but they won’t soften your curl pattern the way the formaldehyde solutions do. But that might be OK. “Ultimately, a lot of people don’t have these treatments to get straight hair,” says the founder of Trissola, Lilly Balasanyan. These smooth hair-seekers like their natural hair and its volume. “They just want to tame the frizz and have a little more control and shine.” Balsanyan’s Trissola Solo is the go-to tamer for health-conscious clients at the John Frieda Salon and the James Corbett Studio, both in New York City. 

On the West Coast, down by the beach at the Art Luna Salon, stylist Desiree Dumas is a fan of Pure Brazilian Clear, a plant-derived formula that’s safe for pregnant and breast-feeding clients. “It lessens frizz and is ideal for fine to medium-textured hair because it doesn’t reduce volume,” says Dumas. And though it’s not in her self-interest, she gave props to some at-home smoothing treatments. “They’re not going to be as effective as an in-salon service, because the manufacturer can’t put in as much ‘good stuff,’ but they’re user-friendly and can work in a pinch, say on your bangs.” Among in-home treatments from hair-care companies are Garnier Sleek and Shine, Organix Brazilian, and Tresemmé 7 Day Keratin Smooth Heat Activated Treatment.

For clients with coarse, thick, or curly textured hair who need to ratchet up from the Pure Brazilian Clear, Dumas offers a stronger formula called the Pure Brazilian, which contains cocoa, acai, and methylene glycol, which does emit formaldehyde gas. But Dumas performs the service outside on the patio at the salon in Santa Monica, where the ocean breeze disperses any fumes. 

Outdoor treatments are also the answer at Chris McMillan salon in Beverly Hills, where stylist Lien Scherr tames the tresses of her clients out in the courtyard using the original Brazilian Blowout product. “When the controversy came out, I tried the formaldehyde-free versions, but none of them worked as well as the original BB,” says Scherr. (The Brazilian Blowout company was allowed to keep its formula but required to add more truthful wording on the label and detailed instructions on how to use it safely.)

When it comes to formaldehyde exposure, “it’s all about proper ventilation,” says Amy Wechsler, MD, a dermatologist and psychiatrist in NYC. “If the treatment is done outdoors, terrific. If it’s done indoors, there should be excellent ventilation from open windows or an air-conditioning system that sucks the fumes out of the room.” According to Wechsler, it’s rare to have an allergic reaction to Brazilian Blowout and similar treatments, but to be safe, she recommends having your stylist remove the solution immediately if you feel your eyes tearing up or any burning on your scalp. Adds Balasanyan: “Make sure your stylist uses a cool setting on the blow dryer; you can’t rush the process by using high heat, which will vaporize the formaldehyde.” At her salon, Envy in Sherman Oaks, she offers the Trissola True, which she says emits half the formaldehyde of other brands.

It all comes down to what works for your type of hair and how assiduous your stylist is in following directions, both for her health and yours. Some of the best hair in Hollywood can be traced to Scherr at Chris McMillan, both in front of the camera (actresses Rebecca Gayheart, Dania Ramirez) and behind the camera (director Nancy Meyers, producer/director Jennifer Beals). The only constant is, none of these Brazilian Blowouts or their alternatives come cheap ($300-$400 at high-end salons). 

Oh, and no one will ever utter the word formaldehyde.