article

07.10.09

My Illegal, Flammable, Fabulous Hair Treatment

Our fearless, crimson-coiffed correspondent risks a toxic cocktail of keratin and formaldehyde that, when applied with heat, makes the most unruly head of hair silky, straight, and smooth—if it doesn't kill you first.

They had me at Brazilian. It’s really all I needed to know. Brazil, the home of facelifts, Gisele Bündchen, and pubic topiary—clearly they know beauty.

If that wasn’t enough, there’s formaldehyde involved. If a chemical can make you look good when you are dead, imagine the possibilities when you have a pulse. And lastly, it’s illicit: Because of the high percentage of formaldehyde in this product, the FDA does not approve.

Like parents who lock the liquor cabinet, everyone knows the FDA’s main purpose is to keep us from the good stuff.

Because a cloud of hot formaldehyde already surrounded me, I didn’t see how a bit of secondhand smoke would do any harm, as long as it didn’t ignite the fumes.

I’ve been suffering the horrors of humidity all my life. Just a forecast of rain makes my hair retract into ringlets. Due to my fear of frizz I don’t swim, shower, or even drink water. I’d looked into Japanese straightening, but heard it could damage color-treated hair, and this mane of red I’m known for comes from a box of L'Oreal (because I’m worth it). But Brazilian straightening, they say, actually works better on color-treated hair. And don’t the Japanese have naturally straight hair anyway?

Determined to get the treatment, I called several salons. They offered keratin treatments, but not the Brazilian. The solution apparently has to be smuggled in from Brazil, and I was told to beware of American impostors. So I went where any woman would go to find an underground source for luxurious black-market locks: the park.

“Has anyone had Brazilian hair-straightening?” I asked the other mothers sitting on the bench in the fenced-off toddler section.

“Sure, I’ve had it done,” replied a gorgeous mom with a full head of gleaming brunette. She looked healthy to me. I asked for the name of her hairdresser.

When I got home I emailed her source, a Brazilian stylist named Dayler Chagas who gets his supplies straight from his sister in Brazil. He told me there are solutions available in America, but the formaldehyde percentage is lower, and they don’t work as well. This one would last from four to six months, depending on how often I wash my hair. He normally charges $400 for the two-hour procedure, but he would do it for $300, presumably the toddler-park discount.

We made an appointment and I met him a few days later at his salon on 65th Street near Madison. Just around the corner from stores like Chanel, Valentino, and Hermès—not exactly a back alley.

I gave my name at the front desk and was led through the salon to the back garden where I was introduced to Dayler. He had a makeshift station set up outside under a tarp of canvas strung from a tree. “The blow dryer causes the formaldehyde to produce fumes so we do the treatment outside,” he explained. This must be where the FDA comes in. After being brought back inside for a clarifying shampoo and an amazing head massage (thank you, Iris) I went back to the garden to get started. Dayler sectioned off my hair and painted on the South American solution. I felt a small tingle on my scalp when he applied it, but no more than when applying hair color, and frankly I would have been disappointed had I not felt anything. I like my gain to come with a bit of pain.

The next step was to blow dry my hair. Dayler put on a surgical mask, and handed one to me. This is probably where I should have second-guessed my decision and called the whole thing off, but the draw of being able to wash my hair without having to struggle for an hour with smoothing mousse, a blow dryer and heat rollers for a fleeting effect trumped the immediate dangers of what the Centers for Disease Control describes as a “colorless, highly toxic, and flammable gas.”

So I obediently put on my mask and adjusted the small metal strip across the bridge of my nose. As he started the blow dry with a big round brush it began pouring rain. Oh, the irony. I was sitting in the rain getting my hair straightened—this would truly be a test of the power of the product.

Another hairdresser on her break came outside for a cigarette. “Do you mind if I smoke?” she politely asked. Because a cloud of hot formaldehyde already surrounded me, I didn’t see how a bit of secondhand smoke would do any harm, as long as it didn’t ignite the fumes.

I could see the results immediately. My hair really was silky straight, smooth and shiny, even in the rain. The last step was to go over the hair with a flat iron to “close the cuticles.” I looked in the mirror and it was as if I was sitting there with the hair of someone more genetically blessed than myself. When I arrived home, with my hair still flowing despite the humid weather, my 7 year old, unprompted, told me I looked “attractive.” He noticed.

I once had a friend who told me I shouldn’t color my hair because her grandmother never colored her hair and she lived until she was 98. I always suspected that while my friend’s intentions were good, her logic was faulty; surely there were other factors that led to her grandmother’s longevity. I have had the neurotoxic protein Botulinum injected into my forehead to minimize wrinkles. I think I even let a dermatologist once talk me into using sterilized cadaver cells to plump up my lips. I wear four-inch heels despite the risk of bunions or fallen arches, and surely my shapewear cuts off the circulation to my butt—that can’t be good. I jog until my Achilles tendons burn and replace meals with diet shakes that give me gas. In light of all this, what’s a little formaldehyde between friends? Is it better to look good than to feel good?

Probably not, but my hair does look mahvelous.

Laura Bennett was trained as an architect but has since established her career as a fashion designer by becoming a finalist on Season 3 of Bravo's Project Runway . Bennett lives amid complete chaos in New York City with her husband and six children, Cleo, 20, Peik, 13, Truman, 10, Pierson, 6, Larson, 5, and Finn, 2.