The Safe Way to Get Straight, Silky Hair

If you love the look of your hair when it’s shiny, glossy and straight, you might be saving up for an in-salon keratin straightening treatment, or tried one already. At a cost of $200 to $500, these treatments promise to turn even the frizziest, most unruly manes into manageable sleek locks, with results that last for months.

But recent headlines have warned of the hazards of these treatments. It turns out that formaldehyde fumes from the smoothing ingredients, which are sealed into the hair with a flatiron, can cause lung, eye and skin irritation. This is true, government investigations found, even of treatments that are advertised as being formaldehyde-free. That’s led some stylists to don gas masks while providing smoothing treatments and to offer masks to their clients as well.

OK, so this news might hit you like the blow of learning that Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny aren’t real. But don’t despair. Some simple shower-to-sidewalk steps will help you achieve smooth, shiny hair -- without putting your health at risk.

1. Pick the right shampoo and conditioner. Sun, heat-styling, chlorinated water and chemical styling processes leach protein from hair and make curly hair especially difficult to manage or style straight, says Lindsey Watts, an educator for Empire Beauty Schools. Shampoos and conditioners that are protein-enhanced temporarily smooth the outer portion of the hair fiber, making strands glossier and more manageable, says Dr. Jeni Thomas, a senior scientist with Pantene’s research and development team. Look for products that are labeled acid- or pH-balanced; many contain hydrolyzed keratin.

2. Be gentle with wet hair. Curly hair is especially fragile when it’s wet, so blot -- don’t scrub -- hair with a towel to dry. Keep in mind that those super-plush towels that feel so good against your wet skin aren’t the best choice for blotting your hair. The makers of CURL-ease, a completely flat towel, point out that strands of hair can get caught in the loops of regular terry towels, leading to frizz. You might want to invest in a towel designed for drying hair. Some are made of microfibers that whisk water away quickly, cutting drying time.

4. Detangle with care. Use a wide-tooth comb to gently separate curls. Finer hair may require a leave-in conditioner or detangling product, while thicker smoothing creams and straightening lotions often work best on coarser, curlier hair, says Domingo Serquinia, co-owner of the Paint Shop Beverly Hills salon in Los Angeles.

5. Practice healthy heat habits. To minimize heat damage, coat locks with a thermal protection product, allow to partially air-dry, then blow hair completely dry. Be patient; use clips to divide your hair into several sections and then place a round boar-bristle brush under a 3-inch section of hair. Attach a condenser nozzle to your dryer and hold so the airflow aims downward to smooth, not ruffle, the cuticle. Before releasing the brush, hit the “Cool” button on your dryer. “Letting the dried hair cool while it’s still held tightly in the brush will help set the smooth, shiny style in place,” says Thomas.

6. Add a spritz of shine. Spray your hairbrush or your palms with a shine spray and run it lightly through your hair. If you apply the spray directly to your hair, you’ll likely get too much product on your locks, and that extra moisture could lead to frizz.