Everything To Know Before Getting a Keratin Treatment on Natural Hair

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Getting a silk press is a special moment. When I get my 4C hair pressed (about two to three times a year) I proudly swish my shoulder-length hair back and forth as I admire my coily ‘fro stretched out to three times its length. But after a day and a half (if I’m lucky) that serotonin boost wanes as my hair begins to puff up, leaving me with the look of a subpar blowout. I’m not the only one who deals with this short-lived bliss; Brooklyn-based hairstylist Monae Everett confirms it’s common for type three and four curls to start to shrink and revert back to their natural state after just a few days. That’s why some naturalistas are combating this reality by getting keratin treatments for smoother, longer-lasting silk presses.

Keratin treatments are also said to make coily textures easier to manage when curly. It sounds like a 4C girl’s dream, but “keratin treatments are very controversial if you fancy yourself a natural,” says Everett. Keratin treatments can change the structure of your hair’s follicle, which could mean a change in curl pattern. Many see keratin as being in the same vein as relaxers or texturizers, both of which also loosen curls, though to different degrees (we’ll get to that in a minute). In the case of all three treatments, the underlying connotation of texturism comes into question.

Ultimately, how you choose to wear your hair is up to you. Personally, I wanted to find out how my curls would respond to a keratin treatment, so I got one myself at NYC The Team Salon. Keep scrolling for my experience, and to find out how safe the treatment is, what it’s actually doing to the hair, and how much it costs on average.

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What is a keratin treatment?

Keratin is a protein naturally found in your hair, skin, and nails. “Keratin makes up the outermost layer of the hair cuticle,” says cosmetic chemist Amanda Lam. Your hair’s cuticle provides a barrier to regulate what penetrates the hair (including moisture). A keratin treatment, though, is more than adding extra protein to your strands.

It’s important to distinguish products that contain keratin from keratin treatments. Many shampoos, conditioners, and leave-ins contain artificial keratin combined with silicones or emollients to improve shine. While you can get similar hair benefits (like less frizz and breakage) from both, this type of pro treatment isn’t to be confused with, say, a hair repair mask: An in-salon keratin treatment’s primary goal is to chemically straighten the hair. A keratin treatment is semi-permanent (unlike a relaxer, which is permanent) and temporarily smooths the hair by coating it with artificial keratin (and in some cases, chemicals like formaldehyde; the FDA announced plans to ban on the ingredient in October 2023, but has yet to implement the rule formally).

But both at-home and in-salon hair treatments “come in multiple forms, including creams, liquids, and sprays depending on the brand and manufacturer,” says Brooklyn-based hairstylist and [Salon] 718 owner Michaella Blissett-Williams.

What does a keratin treatment do to textured hair?

On all hair types, an in-salon keratin treatment will result in a less frizzy, smoother look, says Lam. The cosmetic chemist explains that the hair’s cuticle is already made of keratinized cells resembling scales. When these cells become damaged, dry, or when the hair is naturally prone to frizz, “these scales lift and fray.” “When a keratin treatment is added to the hair, the product covers the cuticle and seals in these scales thus reducing frizz,” says Lam.

For textured hair, this process also loosens the hair’s curl pattern. When you wash your hair after your silk press has run its course, your coils will most likely be looser. While some keratin treatments promise strengthening, not straightening, Everett says that, in her experience, most actually change the shape of curls.

While this will make your hair easier to comb and detangle, it does so by loosening your curls. So if you naturally have springy 4B curls, they may appear closer to 4A or 3C once your silk press reverts. The hairstylist can control how much looser your texture gets by the number of times you pass the flat iron over the hair (more on that later).

If the thought of changing your curl pattern makes you uneasy, I get it. But when a keratin treatment is done correctly, the results should be temporary. Unlike a relaxer or texturizer, a keratin treatment sits on top of the cuticle instead of penetrating it, so the keratin will wash out after five to six months and your hair will theoretically return to its natural state.

According to the hairstylists we spoke to, however, there are cases where those with natural hair can experience permanent damage and loss of its natural curl pattern. Since the treatment is heat activated, the more heat applied to the hair while the keratin treatment is in, the straighter it gets—so there is potential for heat damage that takes your curls to the point of no return. This is why it’s important to go to a trained professional and do a thorough consultation to determine the exact results you want.

What is the process of getting a keratin treatment on textured hair?

Before starting my treatment, I briefly chatted with RaeAnne Cotto, my hairstylist for the day. We talked through my hair practices and desired results. I wanted to be able to switch between wearing my hair curly and straight and Cotto confirmed that a keratin treatment would be perfect for this.

Process-wise, there’s no real difference between getting a keratin treatment on textured hair versus straight hair. No matter your hair type, this treatment is a long one (two to five hours) so prepare to spend a chunk of your day at the salon. I started my appointment at 10:15 am and ended at 3:00 pm. Be ready to pay a pretty penny, too—a keratin treatment at NYC The Team starts at $500 and can increase depending on the length and density of your hair (though mine was gratis with the understanding I’d be writing about my experience). You can expect to pay a similar base price in most major cities.

Cotto began by using a clarifying shampoo to remove any buildup before towel-drying my hair and dividing it into quadrants, thoroughly detangling each section. Cotto and I agreed to use the Brazilian Blowout treatment, a formaldehyde-free formula that works best when the hair is wet. (Different keratin treatments have slightly different instructions; Blissett-Williams uses one from Keratin Complex and will get the hair partially dry—about 80%—before applying the treatment.) Cotto began applying the treatment in small sections throughout the hair, pausing every few minutes to rehydrate the hair with a water spray bottle. This took about 30 minutes.

Blay’s 4C hair before the keratin treatment.

Annie Blay

Once my hair had been saturated, Cotto blow-dried my hair with the treatment still in it—no rinsing required. Heat activates the formula by sealing the keratin treatment to the cuticle, (this is what keeps it from washing out after your first wash day) so Cotto was thorough in this step, taking about an hour to blow dry my entire head. The heat doesn’t end there, though—after blow drying, Cotto flat-ironed my hair in small sections, passing over each section three to six times to “really seal in the treatment.”

Blissett-Williams follows a similar method: “I flat iron the hair on 400 to 450 degrees, doing approximately three to seven passes depending on how loose [the client] wants the curl pattern.” The number of times the flat iron goes over your hair will determine how straight the hair gets with the keratin treatment. “One pass, you’ll see a bit of difference; two you’ll see a bit more; three, now we’re getting into straightening,” says Everett. After my own flat-ironing process (which took about an hour—the typical time it takes to flat iron my hair at home), my hair looked shinier and straighter than I’d ever seen it.

Now is a good time to note that while some brands sell at-home kits, stylists warn against attempting a keratin treatment on yourself. “This isn’t something you should do at home,” says Cotto. “It’s a simple process, but it’s easy to mess up [and cause damage] if you don’t know what you’re doing, especially since there’s heat and chemicals involved.”

How long does a keratin treatment last on natural hair?

As your roots grow, the new growth will have a different texture than the keratin-treated hair so Blissett-Williams recommends getting a touch-up every eight to 10 weeks to maintain the look. Blissett-Williams tells her clients to use a sulfate-free shampoo and conditioner while maintaining their hair between salon visits to enhance the smoothness and shine—she recommends the Keratin Complex Keratin Care Smoothing Shampoo and its complementary conditioner.

To get the most out of your keratin treatment, you’ll also want to keep your hair away from water for at least two days after your appointment to avoid disrupting the smoothening process. Stylists also caution against putting it up in a ponytail as this can cause a bend in the hair that will be visible as the treatment continues to set.

Cotto assured me that the results of the treatment would last me up to six months if I washed my hair twice a month. More frequent cleansing would cause the keratin to wash off my hair sooner—so if you wish for your curls to revert to their original texture sooner, you can wash your strands more frequently. A clarifying shampoo with sulfates may even get you there faster.

Who shouldn’t get a keratin treatment?

If your hair is already damaged, you might want to think twice before getting a keratin treatment. “If you have double-processed color, don’t get this treatment because the cuticle of your hair has been degraded from extensive processing,” says Blissett-Williams.

In-salon keratin treatments, especially those made with formaldehyde (though again, many modern formulas no longer contain this chemical) can weaken strands, causing excessive shedding and thinning—so it’s important to ask your stylist what kind of keratin treatment they use.

My Keratin Treatment Results

As I slipped off my bonnet the morning after the appointment, I expected the frizzy pouf my hair usually expands into after a silk press. I was pleasantly surprised when smooth silky strands cascaded down instead. I wore my hair straight for about two weeks, then threw it into cornrows for a week, before finally facing my wash day.

Blay’s silk press after the keratin treatment.

Annie Blay

According to the stylists we spoke to for this story, products with sulfates can strip your hair of the keratin and cause the effect to wear off more quickly. So, I assembled my small collection of sulfate-free products for the occasion: Olaplex Clarifying Shampoo, Herbal Essences Hemp Oil Sulfate Free Shampoo and Conditioner, and Briogeo Don’t Despair Repair Mask. As I began to wet my hair I was a little alarmed when I didn’t see any curl formation immediately, but after about three minutes my hair started to revert from straight to curly—though not the curls I’m used to.

Blay’s curls after her first wash post-keratin treatment.

Annie Blay

As suspected, my curl pattern loosened from 4C to more of a 4A/4B texture—and I’m not mad at it. Where it usually takes me at least three hours to wash and style my 4C coils, I found my hair to be much more manageable after the keratin treatment (mission accomplished). This slightly looser texture is easier to comb through and detangle yet still has a bouncy spring and fullness that allows me to wear my favorite curly styles. I was also able to do a wash-n-go using less product to define my curls and wear the style longer without it frizzing up and losing definition after a few days.

Overall, I’m very happy with the results of my keratin treatment. A part of me feels the tiniest bit of guilt over how much I’m enjoying the look of a looser texture—but that’s a conversation for another time. For now, I’m just excited to wear my (quicker to style) hair curly for the summer.

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