Is A Healthy Hair Relaxer Ever Possible?

ByKatherine S

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Photo of an African American hairdresser, washing hair to a customer with an Afro hair style

Photo of an African American hairdresser, washing hair to a customer with an Afro hair style

The kitchen used to be my stepmother’s makeshift salon; it was where I got my first hair relaxer. I was 13 and knew nothing about the process of this hair treatment, all I knew was my hair was finally going to be bone straight like some of my white classmates and would soon swing across my shoulders freely. 

So, there I sat as my uncertified stepmother applied a cream that stunk of chemicals I couldn’t pronounce nor spell. Vaseline was placed haphazardly around the border of my head in an effort to ensure the relaxer didn’t burn me — the irony of this is almost laughable now. As the cream was being applied, I wondered how this little cylindrical tub was going to take my ‘naps’ away. Imagine, I was 13 and I knew what ‘nappy’ meant and fully understood the negative connotations of the word for kinky afro hair like mine; I had it hurled at me in the past by classmates and I wanted no parts of it. At first, I didn’t feel anything but eventually, a small tingling sensation started around my head that then escalated to a feeling akin to my head being on fire. I was told to sit with the cream in my hair until it was ready to be washed out, the stinging continued, but I didn’t say anything — I thought the longer I held out the straighter my hair would be. 

I couldn’t have been more wrong, the process of relaxing my hair went on for as long as my hair could take it. Eventually, as if to say I’ve done too much to it, my hair broke off, my scalp succumbed to the stinging and produced scabby patches that itched like no tomorrow. 

It pains me to think that these moments are a distinct part of growing up for many Black women, sitting in our mother’s kitchens letting them play beauticians in an effort to try and ‘fix’ our hair. Black hair in its most natural state is political, it’s over-questioned, it’s overlooked, and it has always struggled to find its footing on the beauty spectrum. And it seems the girls are tired of this and seeking solace in an old friend: Relaxers are back. Browsing the addictive yet annoyingly entertaining app TikTok for the slightest of seconds will show that Black women are reverting back to the creamy crack in a new phase of the Black hair narrative I’m dubbing ‘F—it, it’ll grow back’. Women on the app can be seen proudly exclaiming their return to relaxers and even showing the process of applying the relaxer.

While the rise in hair relaxers’ popularity could suggest natural hair movement has run its course or simply, Black women are looking for ease when it comes to hair, concerns about the safety of chemical relaxers have not gone away. Yet as modern hair technology gradually improves for Black hair types, is a healthy hair relaxer ever possible?


What exactly is a hair relaxer and how does it work?

Remember that scene in Legally Blonde where Elle steps into her lawyer bag and wins the case by name-dropping ‘ammonium thioglycolate’ and its importance when getting a perm? Well, it’s the same story but for a different audience. Hair relaxers are creams or lotions formulated for use on tight natural curls to chemically straighten them. Once a relaxer is applied you can temporarily kiss all remnants of your natural hair pattern goodbye. The chemically straightening process is aided by chemicals such as Ammonium Thioglycolate, Lithium Hydroxide, Calcium Hydroxide and, controversially, Lye (also known as sodium hydroxide) — a heavy-duty chemical used to unblock drains. These agents work together to deeply penetrate the hair shaft until it reaches the cortex to attack ‘disulphide bonds’ which are partially responsible for the shape of our hair.

In the world of relaxers, the higher the PH the better, with most relaxers commonly containing a PH of 12-14. For reference, this is as high as a drain cleaner! The reason such a high PH is needed is that the chemicals need to be strong enough to break the disulphide bonds by 50% and deeply penetrate the hair cuticles.


What makes hair relaxers so controversial and why are campaigners petitioning for #NoMoreLyes?

Hair relaxers have a bad reputation for multiple reasons.

A recent study conducted by feminist campaign group Level Up and Black hair company  Treasure Tress found that of the 1000+ Black British women they surveyed, 63% reported negative experiences with hair relaxers. This isn’t surprising due to the number of harsh chemicals that make up the ingredients list of the most basic hair relaxer .“If you have an extremely curly hair pattern fundamentally you have to rough up the outside of the hair shafts so that you can penetrate it which leaves the hair dry and prone to brittleness,” explains  Fulham Scalp and Hair Clinic Trichologist Eleanore Richardson.  “You are basically breaking bonds that are integral to the structure of your hair.”

There are no shortage of adverse side effects, yet relaxers continue to be a part of the Black British experience.

Level Up’s research found that almost two-in-three Black British women who have had their hair treated with lye-based hair relaxers, experienced effects such as scalp burns and hair loss. Hair relaxers have also been known to cause extreme dryness and hair breakage due to brittleness or the inability to maintain moisture, and the more adverse results include permanent hair loss, chemical burns, bald patches, and scalp infections. Even more worryingly, according to research published in Oxford University’s Carcinogenesis Journal, long-term use of hair relaxers containing lye is linked to a 33% increase in breast cancer in Black women.

There is no shortage of adverse side effects, yet relaxers continue to be a part of the Black British experience. For these reasons, thousands of Black British women are calling for #NoMoreLyes — a campaign started by Level Up that has amassed over 5,149 signatures. The campaigners are demanding that beauty companies, such as L’Oréal and Revlon, remove lye from the formulation process or completely take relaxers that already contain the chemical agent off the shelves.

“Hair is such a crucial part of our identity as Black women, so it was absolutely heartbreaking to hear the traumatic first-hand experiences of the Black women we surveyed, especially those who are dealing with long-term, permanent side effects of using Lye-based relaxers,” says Jamelia Donaldson, Chief Executive of Treasure Tress.


Are there safer alternatives to hair relaxers that provide the same result?

Keratin treatments, texture releases, and tex-laxing are all the rage right now — they are all mainly salon-based chemical processes that also allow the kinkiest of hair types to permanently and semi-permanently straighten their hair, and are often considered “safer” than a relaxer. But, are keratin treatments just hair relaxers with a 2022 rebrand?

“The main difference between a keratin treatment and a relaxer is how long they straighten the hair,” says hairstylist T. Cooper, per Harpers Bazaar. “A keratin treatment temporarily loosens your curl pattern and fades out over time. Your hair texture will eventually return to its natural state. With a relaxer, that is not the case at all.” Stylists at Philip Kingsley warn that keratin treatments, like relaxers, are also associated with heavy-duty chemicals such as formaldehyde, and recommend opting for formaldehyde-free treatments. “The high heat and strong chemicals used in keratin treatments risk making your hair dry, brittle and prone to breakage,” they explain in an article entitled What Is Keratin Treatments? . “Companies that make and/or supply keratin treatments often claim they improve your hair’s condition. But this is not strictly true.”

The growing popularity of these treatments is proof that if the result is something akin to a relaxer, but the name of the process has changed, many Black women will likely use it.  Admittedly, after my hair broke off, I did not return to relaxers, however, I did have a small stint with a texturizer which also resulted in breakage. “These are all clever marketing techniques to make things sound like they’re healthy,” says trichologist Eleanore Richardson, “but they’re doing exactly the same thing as a relaxer.”

Are DIY, no-lye hair relaxer products safe?

Interestingly, 95.5% of the women surveyed by Level Up and Treasure Tress say they ‘don’t trust beauty brands to sell them relaxers’, even if they were listed as a safe option and would still be hesitant to use it. The result comes as studies find that 78% of hair products aimed at Black women contain chemicals linked to obesity, infertility and cancer. Given Black British women spend six times more on their haircare than their white counterparts and the Black hair industry is worth more than £88 million, campaigners like Level Up, are demanding “serious and long-term changes”  to protect Black Women and the products produced for them.

“The hair relaxing process is improved by technique more than the product itself,”

Trichologist Enitan Agidee.

For those who do relax their hair at home, are there any brands they can purchase with confidence?

There are many brands that formulate relaxers with ingredients that claim to reduce the drying impact, and cuticle damage, and prolong the hair’s integrity from overall damage such as Dark and Lovely moisture plus no lye relaxer, Revlon’s professional conditioning creme, and ORS olive oil hair relaxer. Premium relaxer brand, Phyto Specific, also claims to ‘relax delicate and fine hair safely and effectively without the use of harsh chemicals, meanwhile providing ‘superior conditioning. It’s worth noting that while no-lye relaxers boasting“natural ingredients” can be gentler on hair, they do contain calcium hydroxide, a chemical known to dry out hair. How can anyone be sure that DIY hair relaxer kits won’t cause lasting damage?

“The hair relaxing process is improved by technique more than the product itself,” says Hair Coach and Trichologist Enitan Agidee. “I advise if you choose to relax, use a product with many conditioning agents and use techniques and aftercare that reduce risk.”


So, is a healthy hair relaxer ever achievable?

Well, it would depend on who you ask. Those who say they’ve experienced healthy relaxed hair, such as influencer Brianna Rashay, recommend getting hair chemically straightened by a professional, “stretching”  their retouch days, regularly trimming, alternating between protective styles, having a consistent wash day, and deep moisture regime.  And from the looks of hairdressers, influencers and others with well-maintained, shiny, moisturised relaxed hair, they make a strong case for “healthy” chemical straightening.

Like all treatments that manipulate your hair’s original texture, hair relaxers take work to maintain. As Texas-based stylist Latara Porch told Naturally Curly, “Having straight, relaxed hair is no “easy” task — relaxed hair needs special attention by keeping the hair moisturised, along with weekly deep conditioning, drinking plenty of water, and utilising leave-in conditioners. Be sure to use a reconstructing shampoo and conditioner the week following your hair relaxing, and stay away from heat that will further dry your hair.”  

While stylists at Philip Kingsley vehemently warn against improper care for relaxed hair, they tentatively suggest that hair relaxers could be beneficial to your hair’s condition. “Once your hair is straightened, none of the other harmful procedures (like hot oil, pressing, pulling, flat irons and hot combs) are needed,” they explain, via their website. “Also, because it is much easier to style relaxed hair, you will hopefully be prepared to wash it more frequently — and frequent washing is highly beneficial to hair and scalp health!”


Should it matter if I relax my natural hair?

There are many reasons why people choose relaxers and while there’s absolutely nothing wrong with opting for anything that mitigates the natural curl pattern, it may not be the healthiest move for your hair. Even now as the natural hair movement thrives and hair relaxer became the smallest part of the Black haircare market by 2020, with sales falling a whopping 38% between 2012–2017, hair relaxers are still a divisive topic — remember the #TeamNatural vs #TeamRelaxer Twitter wars?

While many of us have left our mother’s kitchens, the scars of burning hair relaxer experiences have not left us. As Black women continue to learn how to manage, care for and celebrate our hair in its natural state, the struggle for acceptance, identity and self-worth can be long and tumultuous. For some, regardless of the side effects, many are willing to endure the risk of physical discomfort from relaxers and straightening hot tools to feel good about themselves and their hair. While that struggle continues, many Black women are also reclaiming relaxers, choosing to relax their hair not out of a need to fit in, but out of convenience. Refinery29’s senior beauty editor, Amanda Mitchell, recently had a keratin treatment on her heavily textured hair for ease above all else.

“I just want my life to be as low-maintenance and easy as possible, and dealing with my heavily-textured hair brought me more anguish than it did peace, and I wanted to rediscover my relationship to it…” she wrote. “Personally, I find it weird that we are shaming anyone for their hair decisions so hard it feels taboo when there is no reason to gatekeep any of this information other than personal shame.”

Years after my very first relaxer, I’ve accepted that my hair isn’t ever going to naturally swing down my back, bone straight.

The very real truth is that there will never be a product that can permanently change the hair structure without some sort of side effect, and there are many products — aside from relaxers — that can also damage hair. Ultimately, it’s about knowing your own hair and the risks and effects of adding products to it.

Years after my very first relaxer, I’ve accepted that my hair isn’t ever going to naturally swing down my back, bone straight. To achieve straight hair, I’m always going to need permanent additives like a relaxer. And this, for me, is the problem. If the reason you are relaxing your hair is connected to feelings of inadequacy I believe relaxers can be just as unhealthy mentally as they can be for our hair. 

This story was originally published on Unbothered’s UK edition.

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