Colorist and non-toxic smoothing treatment specialist Tania Whittier operates out of Los Angeles’ famed Meche salon, when she’s not traveling the globe smoothing or balayaging the tresses of celebs on-set. Now a veteran in non-toxic color and hair smoothers, she has become one of the most sought-after experts to smooth and color hair without harsh chemicals.
Here she shares how hair smoothing products have evolved, how she uses them and what to look out for if you’re curious about exploring non-toxic, hair-smoothing treatments.
What is a Brazilian Blowout, or a similar traditional smoothing treatment? What do they do?
The older, traditional smoothing treatments like Brazilian Blowout would mix keratin and formaldehyde to give the illusion of shine. The combination of these ingredients would be applied onto clean, dried hair, and then blow dried and flat ironed into the hair. The high heat would mix the ingredients together and create a coating on the outside of the hair.
Eventually the keratin would fade away but that formaldehyde didn’t, it stayed in the hair like glue. Then you would do it again and that’s when we all started to notice people walking around with those unhealthy straight ends and curly roots. Just like your nail polish starts chipping before it dulls, that’s what happens with the hair.
When people use these treatments multiple times, the hair starts looking like straw. The first time they get the treatment it looks amazing. But, as time goes on, you can start to see ends that look like they are about to break off – the texture shifts. That’s what happens when you’re overlapping the formaldehyde in multiple treatments.
What is a ‘non-toxic’ smoothing treatment?
In order for a treatment to be non-toxic, the smoothing product needs to be neutralized before you start smoothing, and you don’t use toxic formaldehyde. There are many different “active ingredients” or chemicals used in nontoxic treatments. They can be glycolic acid or glycol carbocysteine.
Some nontoxic treatments can now be customized, so you don’t have to have that high contrast grow out. I believe all treatments fade some from the elements like sun, water and even shampooing but that’s ok because when you feel that you’re ready for another treatment you can adjust your formula to only give your hair what it needs, this will keep it looking as healthy as possible.
A lot of companies are making these now, even the original Brazilian Blowout now has a clean treatment called Leaf and Flower which lasts about 10 washes. There are lots of boutique companies that are coming out with clean products. They include Pura Luxe, Cezanne, Pure Brazilian, Oxo Organic. These treatments have been around for around eight years now.
How did you come to start using the new clean version and had you previously been using the conventional version?
A celebrity client of mine had read about Cezanne, which was the first non-toxic smoothing treatment out there, at least the first one I had read about. I started working with the company to learn about what makes it non-toxic.
A lot of these companies don’t use formaldehyde, but there are a lot of other chemicals that are being put into different formulas. Everyone has their own formula. None of these chemicals are good for you exactly, but if they are being used properly then they become non-toxic and safer. If you are rinsing out your product before you begin smoothing, water neutralizes the chemical.
How do you apply it?
You apply the product and allow it to process into the hair. The treatment opens up the cuticle, allowing the amino acids to enter the cortex of the hair. Then, once processed, it is rinsed out of the hair. When you rinse everything out it not only removes any product that didn’t make it into the cortex but you are also neutralizing the treatment creating a nontoxic environment.
After drying, the hair should feel just like hair – not like there is product in it. Then I go through the hair with a flatiron and this is what closes the cuticle so now when you’re done you can wash your hair, get your color done if it’s faded or just simply put it in a ponytail and get on with your life!
In terms of efficacy is there a difference between traditional treatments and non-toxic ones?
A traditional treatment is one-size fits all. One bottle of product for everyone’s head of hair. I’ve used multiple toxic treatments over the years. What I have found with non-toxic is that different products work better with different hair types. Someone with finer hair might be best paired with a different company versus someone with heavy, coarse hair. Having the variety has been really nice for me.
It also depends on what the client is looking for. Most people don’t want stick-straight hair anymore. Consultation is key – being able to see what a client likes and what they don’t. Seeing what their hair is doing, too, is important. The non-toxic products give me more versatility. I have four different treatments in my arsenal that are my go-tos. What I use depends on the type and texture of the hair, and what the client is looking for. Most people right now want to get rid of their frizz but keep their body. Their hair can be a little bit skinnier because the frizz is gone but they want it to still be able to take a curl. They want it to look better than it did before when they air-dry and have the ability to blow dry faster. Nearly everybody wants this versatility now.
Can people use these treatments at home or is this a salon-only treatment?
Some of these treatments have at-home products, the feedback that I’ve gotten is that they do not work as well. It is likely dependent on hair type and texture. For the longest-lasting treatment, you want to go into a salon. Especially if you are color-treated. If you’re really blonde and throwing an at-home treatment on it, you could end up doing damage. If you’re going to make the investment, it’s best to do it in a salon. It’s more expensive to get it fixed than it is to do it professionally.
How did you develop your personal method to toxin-free smoothing?
When I started working with Pura Luxe, there weren’t specific instructions on quantity or processing times. And when that product launched, it was intended to create stick-straight hair.
I like that you have the option to do it that way, but while my clients were looking to lessen frizz and soften curl, they didn’t want to lose their hair’s body. I just started taking notes and adjusting things based on client feedback. I kept diligent notes on what we did and on a second visit from a client I would know if we needed to adjust the timing or the formula or use different irons or sectioning to create what they wanted to achieve. The repetition and my method helped me figure it out and make clients really happy.
Is this just an LA thing/where else can people get these?
You can get non-toxic treatments done anywhere. It is easier to find a conventional one, but if you want to get non-toxic then I would suggest looking up non-toxic smoothing treatments on Instagram and any of the product companies you find will often suggest salon partners near you. The whole way forward for finding non-toxic treatments more easily is clients asking for it for their health and the health of their hairdresser.
What should someone ask for when they do find a salon offering non-toxic smoothing? And how can they know if their hairdresser is taking a customized approach?
You can always go in for a consultation and get a feeling for the person. Ask them how it’s done. Ask them if they are rinsing the hair and if they aren’t rinsing the treatment out, then it is not non-toxic. You can also ask if they can customize their treatment. They will tell you what they can do once they see your hair. Photos are great, too. I tell my clients to come in with clean, air-dried hair so I can best know how to address it.