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In light of the recent revelations about potentially unsafe levels of formaldehyde in chemical hair-straightening treatments, WWD Beauty Biz sent our reporters undercover to raod test some safter options.
This story first appeared in the December 10, 2010 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
Awapuhi Wild Ginger Treatment by John Paul Mitchell Systems
Halcypm Days Salon and Spa at Saks Fifth Avenue
New York City
I have long dark hair that has been dried out from years of coloring (my ﬁrst gray hair appeared at age 19!), so I’m always looking to get back to my pre-color texture, which is smooth, shiny, low-maintenance straight hair. I’m at a point where if the treatment isn’t going to kill me on the spot, bring it on. I’ve tried the Brazilian Blowout, which was a life-changer, as well as the Coppola Keratin Complex Express Blow Out, also very effective. I’m not averse to those treatments but do have an open mind to seek out ones with gentler ingredients. I had experienced the Awapuhi Wild Ginger Treatment by John Paul Mitchell Systems during the summer, although it was difﬁ cult to discern its results, as I had gotten the Brazilian Blowout just a few weeks prior. So I thought it would be interesting to revisit the treatment and decided to visit Halcyon Days Salon and Spa, the salon at Saks Fifth Avenue, for two reasons: First, because I didn’t even know there was a salon at Saks, and second, because the JPMS distributor team seemed superproud to land in 17 of these Saks salons across the country.
Halcyon is located on the bottom level of the store, and while it was clean, comfortable and well lit, with a mostly friendly staff (more on that later), I couldn’t help but feel stuck in a time warp—from the reclining chairs at the sink to the Patrick Nagel-esque prints on the wall.
I was greeted cordially and attended to promptly by a stylist who would ultimately blow out my hair. She sat me down for a brief consultation to, one, make sure I knew what the Awapuhi treatment would do (moisturize and smooth my semidry, colored hair), and two, make sure I knew the price of the treatment ($55) and the blowout ($85), a gesture that has never, ever been made to me in my entire experience of visiting salons but one I chose to interpret as consideration rather than insult, merely in the spirit of completing this assignment.
That was the lowest point in my experience at Halcyon, and really everything went up from there. The stylist who would be performing the treatment came over and was as sweet as can be. She comforted me with warm towels, asked if I wanted a beverage and basically mothered me for the next 25 minutes. My treatment started off with two washings of Awapuhi Wild Ginger Moisturizing Lather Shampoo, followed by the KeraTriplex Treatment, a formula derived from New Zealand sheep’s wool, via an ampule (my stylist told me she used two ampules since my hair is long) and then on top of that an application of Keratin Intensive Treatment, a superrich conditioner. Drenched in these conditioners, my hair was wrapped in plastic, and I sat under a heater for 10 minutes. Later, during the rinse, the stylist talked to me about how Awapuhi is much better than other hair smoothers on the market, namely the Brazilian Blowout and Keratin treatments, as they allegedly contain formaldehyde. Well, for one thing, the Awapuhi treatment smelled delicious, deﬁnitely a plus that no other smoothing treatment I’ve experienced can claim. For the last step, the stylist applied Keratin Cream Rinse, a formula so thick she had to unscrew the cap and shake it Heinz 57 style.
After the rinse, she asked me to feel my hair so I could feel how smooth it was, and it actually did feel pretty silky. The stylist mentioned several times throughout the whole process that I should really think about purchasing the at-home products since they will help maintain my treatment. Her multiple suggestions didn’t seem at all pushy but rather like a friend trying to give beauty advice. The stylist who gave me my Pretty Woman moment when I ﬁrst arrived at Halcyon blew out my hair and did a thorough job, asking if I wanted a ﬂatiron pulled through afterward, which I declined. My hair looked smooth and shiny, and upon returning to the ofﬁce, within minutes a colleague commented on how great it looked. Yeah, my hair did look good, and even better the next day. It held through 48 hours, not appearing greasy at all and still smooth and shiny. On day three I was curious to see how my hair would stand up to a wash, and happily it was smooth and frizz-free. No product needed. I am doubtful Awapuhi Wild Ginger will be a life-changer, but I would get it again, perhaps before a special occasion, minus the blowout, seeing that my hair was so smooth from the treatment that I didn’t need to spend the money for a pro to do it. – Andrea Nagel
Smoothing 2.0 Treatment
Sam Brocato Salon
New York City
During the summer months, there was a lot of chatter in the ofﬁce about the wonders of the Brazilian Blowout. I watched enviously as co-workers with the treatment sashayed past with perfectly smooth, straight locks. But after hearing one friend’s account of the smelly, eye-watering service, I steered clear. A couple months later, after writing about the ingredient controversy surrounding the popular treatment, I had nearly accepted the unhappy truth that a good hair day every day remained elusive.
But I became intrigued when I heard about Sam Brocato Salon’s Curlinterrupted Smoothing System, billed as a formaldehyde-free, gentle alternative—so gentle, in fact, that stylists don’t even wear gloves when applying it. The demi-permanent version (there is a semipermanent as well) is said to last up to 12 weeks. I called the salon to ﬁnd out how much the treatment would cost, and there was some initial confusion between the demi and the semi. “I want the one that lasts up to 12 weeks. The one that lasts longer,” I repeated a few times to the receptionist. After some back-and-forth, she said the treatment I wanted would cost about $300.
When I arrived at the sleek SoHo salon, I was greeted by an energetic stylist. I told her I wasn’t sure what the treatment was called, and she said they now call the demi version “Smoothing 2.0.” I started in with a list of questions: Can I wash my hair immediately? “No, waiting 48 to 72 hours is best.” Can I tie back my hair afterward? “Try to avoid it if you can.” How long does it last? “Up to 12 weeks.” Do you do a lot of these? “I just did one yesterday.”
The stylist was patient and politely answered each question. She asked me about how I usually style my hair, saying, “This treatment leaves hair with a little body,” explaining it is designed to leave hair smooth, frizz-free and manageable, rather than poker straight.
She began by shampooing my hair with a keratin- and oil-based shampoo, and then applied a heavy conditioner “to weigh the hair down.” Once back at her station, she twisted and pinned my hair into small sections. Then, starting at the base of my neck, she began painting on the Smoothing Gel, which contains ammonium bisulﬁ te, to soften hair.
She gave me a stack of magazines to read, saying, “This is a long process.” As she worked her way around my head, I smelled an odor reminiscent of a perm solution, only not as harsh. My scalp began to tingle. Keeping the top section untouched, she put my hair under a heat lamp for 15 minutes. More tingling. She then applied the solution to the rest of the hair, combing it precisely straight, and I went under the heat lamp once more for 15 minutes. The tingling got more intense, and toward the end I had to duck my head out from under the heat. I was relieved to head back to the sink to wash the solution out.
She then applied what she called a gloss, but my scalp was really stinging now. I told her so, and she gently applied water to the area. Back at her station, with another stack of magazines, she began to blow-dry my hair. “It already looks smooth,” I said. “Oh, it’s going to be really straight. You’ll love it,” she responded. She then liberally applied a keratin protein spray and dried the hair a touch more. Lastly, she ﬂat-ironed my locks pin straight.
The result was dramatic. The waves I walked in with were gone. After the treatment, which took about two-and-a-half hours, the stylist lead me to a product display and pulled three items for me: Curlinterrupted Smoothing and Hydrating Shampoo and Treatment, and Curlinterrupted Actives Restorative Hair Infusion, an oil-rich ﬁnishing serum. All three were included in the price (a happy surprise), which rang up to $275.
I protectively did not tie my hair back, but did resort to a hair clip on the second day to go for a jog. And 48 hours later I simply had to wash my hair to see how much bounce was actually left in it. (Poker-straight hair does not become me, I’ve learned). Using the regimen, I washed, conditioned and applied the serum to the ends before blow-drying. Afterward, my hair looked and felt smooth, even before a few passes with a ﬂatiron. A week later, the results rival the Brazilian Blowout with a touch of effort put into styling. – Molly Prior
Global Keratin Treatment
Nelson J Aveda Color Salon and Spa
If my hair had a slogan, it would probably be, “I can’t be tamed.” Needless to say, I’ve shelled out more money for products to bust frizz, calm curls or otherwise help the unruly mop on my head than I care to recall. About seven months ago, I resorted to the Brazilian Blowout. It was long before the controversy over formaldehyde erupted, although (and I hate to admit this) I would have tried it anyway. I got the Blowout done at the Argyle Hotel & Spa, the home salon of the company behind Brazilian Blowout, and had a pleasant experience that netted good—but not perfect—results.
Perhaps unfortunately—given what has surfaced about the treatment’s formaldehyde content—the Blowout was performed in a small, enclosed room. But I wasn’t overwhelmed by the Brazilian Blowout solution. It smelled like chemicals, but my nose hairs weren’t singed, nor did I ﬁnd it difﬁcult to breathe. In general, however, I’m not an overly sensitive person. I don’t faint when pricked with a needle, and it takes a genuine effort at pulling my hair before I wince. My one complaint was that the treatment’s effects—my hair was decidedly ﬂatter and more manageable—lasted about eight weeks, when I was expecting at least three months of hassle-free bliss.
Despite my complaint, I was deﬁnitely game for another treatment. A friend of mine had gone to the Nelson J Aveda Color Salon and Spa in Beverly Hills for a Global Keratin formaldehyde-free treatment and gave it decent marks. When I called Nelson J, I was told the treatment would cost me $350 to $450. That was certainly steep, but I’d take a crack at the smoothing treatments again, albeit with diminished expectations. If I could stop spending on my other frizz-reducing products, I ﬁ gured it might be worth it.
As soon as I plopped down in the salon chair, the stylist informed me what I should expect from the formaldehyde-free treatment. It wasn’t going to rid my hair of curls, she said. Fine with me. I enjoy body, as long as it doesn’t invite its ugly bedfellow frizz. The frizz would be eased, she continued, and my hair would be relaxed and have more shine. Sounded wonderful. First, she needed to clean my hair with Global Keratin products, which, she explained, would detoxify it. As she did, I asked, “How long would the treatment last?” I told her about my previous experience, and she asked whether I’d stuck to sulfate-free shampoos and conditioners. Not so much, I responded. If I was faithful to them, she said, the treatment results could stretch for three months.
I started wondering about my stylist’s experience with smoothing treatments. She had applied a Global Keratin formula with a little formaldehyde and didn’t notice really noxious consequences. Her eyes might have watered a tad and her hands got a ﬁlm on them if she wasn’t wearing gloves, but nothing struck her as too bad, she told me. The formaldehyde-free version didn’t seem to have any appreciable ill effects, even the subtle ones she described. It smelled, in fact, like strawberries.
The value of the smoothing treatments to salons became clear as I chatted with the stylist. She had only worked at Nelson J for about four months. The treatment gave the salon an opportunity to introduce her to new clients who might have been hesitant to test her out for cuts. Also, the treatment had created a buzz for the salon. Not only had my friend recommended that I go there for it, the woman in the salon chair next to me was quizzing me about why I wanted to get it. sink to wash the solution out.
After the formula was painted on piece by piece and my hair was blow-dried and straight-ironed, I was instructed not to wash my hair for two days. That was a bummer. I was worried that sweat from a workout would kill the treatment. The stylist assured me that cleaning was the problem, not water. She advised me to be faithful to sulfate-free shampoos and conditioners and pointed out that Nelson J had its own branded products to accommodate me. I already had leftover Brazilian Blowout after-care items, so I declined when I arrived at the cash register. That’s when I got great news. The formaldehyde-free treatment would set me back a paltry $150. (Okay, paltry compared to the $350 I had anticipated.)
When my hair was washed and naturally dried two days later, I ﬁnally got to see what that $150 bought me. My hair was still curly, although the curls were somewhat looser than usual, and it was less frizzy, a bit shinier and overall easier to handle. My boyfriend didn’t detect the changes, but they offered me considerable relief. – Rachel Brown