Growing up, many Black women sat in their mothers' kitchens while they tried to 'fix' their hair. Natural black hair is politicized, over-questioned, disregarded, and has long struggled to establish its beautiful footing.
Now, some Black women are weary of the fighting and are once again eyeing relaxers.
While the adoption of hair relaxers may imply the natural hair movement is waning or that Black women want easier hair care, questions regarding their safety remain. Is a healthy hair relaxer possible as Black hair technology improves?
How do hair relaxers work?
Relaxers artificially straighten tight natural curls. After a relaxer, your natural hair pattern is momentarily gone. Ammonium Thioglycolate, Lithium Hydroxide, Calcium Hydroxide, and Lye (sodium hydroxide) are used in the chemical straightening process. These chemicals penetrate the hair shaft until they reach the cortex to destroy 'disulphide linkages' that structure our hair.
Most relaxers have a PH of 12-14. This is like a drain cleaner! High PH is essential so that the chemicals can dissolve disulphide bonds by 50% and penetrate the hair cuticles.
Why are hair relaxers so controversial? Why do people want #NoMoreLyes?
Relaxers are unpopular for many reasons.
63% of the 1000+ Black British women questioned by Level Up and Treasure Tress experienced unfavorable experiences with hair relaxers, according to a recent study. This isn't surprising given the number of harsh chemicals in hair relaxers. If you have excessively curly hair, you must rough up the outside of the hair shafts to penetrate them, which leaves the hair dry and brittle. You're breaking hair connections.
Relaxers have several harmful effects, but Black women still use them.
Two-thirds of Black British women who used lye-based hair relaxers reported scalp burns and hair loss, according to Level Up. Relaxers can cause excessive dryness, hair breakage, and irreversible hair loss, chemical burns, bald patches, and scalp infections. Long-term usage of hair relaxers containing lye is associated with a 33% rise in breast cancer in Black women, according to Oxford University's Carcinogenesis Journal.
Relaxers have several harmful effects, but Black Britons still use them. Over 5,149 Black British women have signed Level Up's #NoMoreLyes petition. Campaigners want beauty brands like L'Oréal and Revlon to remove lye from relaxers or pull them off shelves.
“Hair is such a significant part of our identity as Black women, therefore it was devastating to hear the traumatic first-hand experiences of the Black women we surveyed,” says Jamelia Donaldson, CEO of Treasure Tress.
Are there safer hair relaxer alternatives?
Keratin treatments, texture releases, and tex-laxing are all the rage right now. They are salon-based chemical techniques that allow even the kinkiest hair types to permanently and semi-permanently straighten their hair. Are keratin treatments merely rebranded hair relaxers?
"A keratin treatment and a relaxer vary in how long they straighten hair," says hairstylist T. Cooper. "A keratin treatment loosens your curl pattern temporarily. Your hair's natural texture will reappear. Not so with a relaxer." Philip Kingsley stylists say keratin treatments, like relaxers, contain formaldehyde and encourage formaldehyde-free treatments. High heat and strong chemicals used in keratin treatments can dry, brittle, and break hair, according to What Is Keratin Treatments? “Keratin treatment companies say their products improve hair condition. Not exactly.”
The popularity of these processes shows that if the result is similar to a relaxer, many Black women will use them. “After my hair broke, I didn't return to relaxers, but a texturizer also caused breakage.” Eleanore Richardson, a trichologist, says many products use creative marketing to sound healthy, but they relax hair.
No-lye hair relaxers: Are they safe?
95.5% of women surveyed by Level Up and Treasure Tress say they 'don't trust beauty firms to sell them relaxers,' even if they were listed as safe. Studies reveal that 78% of Black women's hair products include chemicals linked to obesity, infertility, and cancer. Black British women spend six times more on haircare than white women, and the Black hair business is worth over £88 million. Campaigners like Level Up are demanding "real and long-term changes" to protect Black women and the products manufactured for them.
"Technique, not product, improves hair relaxing," says trichologist Enitan Agidee.
What brands can home hair relaxers trust?
Dark and Lovely moisture plus no lye relaxer, Revlon's professional conditioning crème, and ORS olive oil hair relaxer claim to decrease drying, cuticle damage, and overall hair damage. Phyto Specific claims to relax fine hair without harsh chemicals and provide exceptional conditioning. No-lye relaxers with "natural chemicals" are kinder on hair, yet they contain calcium hydroxide, a hair-drying agent. How can DIY hair relaxer kits not cause damage?
"Technique, not product, improves hair relaxing," says Agidee. “If you wish to relax, apply a product with conditioning ingredients and risk-reducing measures and aftercare."
A “healthy” hair relaxer?
Influencer Brianna Rashay recommends getting chemically straightened by a professional, "extending" retouch days, trimming, switching between protective styles, maintaining a consistent wash day, and deep moisturizing. Hairdressers, influencers, and those with lustrous, moisturized, relaxed hair make a compelling argument for "healthy" chemical straightening.
Relaxers require maintenance, like all procedures that alter hair texture. Texas-based stylist Latara Porch told Naturally Curly, "Having straight, relaxed hair is no ‘simple’ endeavor. Relaxed hair needs extra maintenance, including weekly deep conditioning, drinking enough water, and using leave-in conditioners. After relaxing your hair, apply rebuilding shampoo and conditioner and avoid heat.”
Kingsley cautions against inappropriate maintenance for relaxed hair but believes that relaxers may improve hair condition. “Once your hair is straightened, you don't need hot oil, pressing, pulling, flat irons, or hot combs. Because relaxed hair is easier to style, you may wash it more often, which is good for hair and scalp health.”
Does relaxing natural hair matter?
While there's nothing wrong with relaxing your hair, it may not be the healthiest choice. Even as the natural hair movement developed and hair relaxer became the smallest component of the Black haircare market by 2020, with sales decreasing 38% between 2012–2017, hair relaxers remain a polarizing topic. Remember the #TeamNatural vs #TeamRelaxer Twitter wars?
Many of us have left our mothers' kitchens, but hair relaxer scars remain. Black women struggle for acceptance, identity, and self-worth as they learn to care for and enjoy their natural hair. Many are prepared to face physical discomfort from relaxers and hot tools to feel good about their hair, and some are reclaiming relaxers out of convenience. Amanda Mitchell, Refinery29's senior beauty editor, received a keratin treatment for ease.
"I want my life to be as low-maintenance and uncomplicated as possible, and my heavily-textured hair brought me more sorrow than peace," she stated. “I find it interesting that we condemn people so much for their hair choices that it becomes forbidden, although there is no reason to gatekeep this information other than personal embarrassment.
There will never be a product that can permanently modify hair structure without adverse effects, and many products can also damage hair. Knowing your hair and its hazards and consequences is key.”