This is This Is Now A Thing, where we check out the science behind new health phenomena.
The thing: Candle cutting, or the Brazilian term, velaterapia, is a $150 to $200 hair treatment that involves running a candle flame along twisted strands of hair to singe off stray and unhealthy ends.
Popular for decades in South America, velaterapia possibly originated in ancient civilizations among pioneering beauties such as Cleopatra, who supposedly had her locks singed regularly to get that thick, glossy, waterfall look for which she was known. Stylists twist modern-day tresses into dozens of strands, dreadlock-style, and then run a lit candle along each one, holding the flame just long enough for the stray ends to briefly catch fire and burn off.
Ricardo Gomes, a stylist at New York’s Maria Bonita salon, performs the service. He says he first heard about the technique when his Brazilian friends swore by its results. Five years ago, he went back to his native Brazil and spent a day watching a stylist do it. “It took me a little time to learn it,” he says. “I tried it on a few friends and got the hang of it.” His clients now include models—who regularly damage their hair with styling chemicals and constant drying and heating, but who don’t want to lose any length off their locks—as well as women who get regular bleaching, relaxing or straightening treatments, which strips hair of its natural shine and leaves ends damaged and straw-like.
Gomes says he has perfected an after-treatment, which involves a deep conditioning regimen that he won’t reveal, but that he says takes advantage of the hair’s “open cuticle.” “When you run the flame through the hair, it’s such a shock treatment that you need something really strong and powerful to close that cuticle back, and start the growing process to become a lot stronger than what it was,” he says.
Post-conditioning, he goes over the hair again with a pair of scissors, snipping off the singed ends and any rogue flyaways for the smooth, finished look that his clients desire.
The hype: Proponents claim the heat from the candle opens the hair shaft to make it more receptive to conditioning afterward, and burning the ends seals off the annoying split ones. Just as cauterizing a wound stops bleeding, they claim that lighting up hair makes it smoother-looking. Models Alessandra Ambrosia and Barbara Fialho recently posted photos of their precious locks going up in smoke.
The research: But does it really work? Unsurprisingly, there isn’t much research on the practice, but dermatologists specializing in hair care aren’t convinced it’s the best way to smooth out your tresses. “The best way to treat split ends is to get regular hair cuts,” says Dr. Melissa Piliang from the Cleveland Clinic. “Even small trims, called dusting, every six to eight weeks can make hair grow longer, stay healthier and fuller. It’s a much better option than putting fire near your hair, which is flammable, and seems dangerous.”
And exposing hair to more heat, she says, isn’t a good idea. Hot curling irons, straightening irons and high-heat blow-drying aren’t recommended, so the heat from an open flame, however, brief, can’t be beneficial either, they say. Instead, she recommends gentle hair care to keep hair healthy, like using a deep conditioner a few times a week and avoiding hair treatments that strip hair and leave it damaged, such as bleaching and straightening.
Piliang also notes that healthy, shiny hair starts from under the skin, so factors like a healthy diet diet and getting enough sleep can also help. Vitamins like zinc, vitamin D, and iron are critical for making hair grow, and omega 3 fatty acids, found in fish like salmon, contribute to healthy, shiny locks. But it takes a few months of taking these supplements or eating well and sleeping enough to see the results, she says.
The bottom line: Searing off damaged ends may seem like a quick and satisfying way to subdue flyaway hair. But besides doing it all for questionable benefit, you’ll have to sit through what many of Gomes’s clients say they fear is the worst part: several three-hour sessions of smelling your hair lit on fire.