For years, hair relaxers have been used by women with natural hair to straighten it. It’s quick, easy, and convenient. It permanently straightens hair for a period and allows the individual to benefit from minimal frizz and reversion.
That said, while this styling choice is ultimately up to personal preference, it’s essential that anyone using relaxers knows how they work and how damaging they can be to your hair.
How Do Relaxers Work?
As one of the most popular styling products, hair relaxers have been used since the early 1900s. Hair relaxers straighten hair by penetrating the cuticle and cortex layers of the hair shaft. This loosens the natural curl pattern and results in straight hair for weeks.
Not A Problem Right?
Wrong. The chemicals you put in your hair during the relaxation process permanently change the bond of your hair strands. They leave it weak, brittle, and prone to breakage. In fact, the chemicals are so strong that they can even burn your skin if used incorrectly.
What Are Relaxers Made Of?
Relaxers consist of chemicals that break the bond of your hair. The most hazardous ingredient contained in relaxers is sodium hydroxide or “lye.” The soap company, Certified Lye, itself has cautioned uses that using lye in large amounts can cause chemical burns, permanent injury or scarring, and blindness.
Some common relaxers exclude lye from their ingredients. However, this doesn’t make them any less dangerous to the hair or scalp. We’ll talk about this more in the next section.
A second common ingredient you should be aware of is guanidine carbonate. It’s been said that this chemical should only be “used in a chemical fume hood.” Another relaxer ingredient called succinic acid should be kept out of contact with skin clothes and eyes. If it’s absorbed through the skin, then it can be harmful.
How Can Relaxers Harm You
Relaxers not only break the bonds in your naturally curly hair, but they also have the potential to cause additional complications. Research has shown that chemicals used in relaxers can cause harm to your body when they enter via cuts and burns in the scalp. Some of these complications include life-threatening ailments such as:
- Reproductive problems
- Heart disease
- Different forms of cancer
- Early puberty
- Mental health
If you choose to use relaxers, it’s imperative that you are aware of these risks, work with a professional, and use them correctly so you can avoid causing any further damage to your body.
How to Prevent Damage from Relaxers
To avoid permanent damage and hair loss, you should take the following steps:
1. Protect your scalp
The FDA has stated that the side effects of hair relaxers are exacerbated by improper use. If you want to relax your hair, we recommend working with an experienced professional. Having them apply the treatment will ensure that you avoid damaging your hair and scalp in the process.
That said, if you do decide to relax your hair yourself, you should make sure your hair is healthy and your scalp is undamaged. Read the directions of the relaxer and never leave it on for more than the recommended amount of time. If you begin to feel tingling or burning, rinse the relaxer out.
To prevent chemical burners to the scalp, you should consider applying a base of petroleum before the relaxer. While applying the relaxer, do everything possible to keep the chemicals away from all skin
2. Don’t double process your hair
Coloring and relaxing your hair at the same time can cause severe damage to the hair and scalp due to the combination of chemicals. Additionally, if your hair is brittle, breaking, bleached, then you should avoid rebleaching your hair altogether. We recommend waiting a few months to give your hair a chance to recover and your roots a chance to grow before you relax your hair again.
3. Handle your hair with care
After your hair is relaxed, you must handle it with care and give your strands extra hydration. Here are some of our top tips to prevent breakage:
- Use a deep conditioner weekly
- Limit the use of heat styling tools like flat irons and blow dryers
- Applying heat can further weaken chemically-treated hair and cause breakage
- Avoid tight braids and ponytails that pull at the hairline
- These types of hairstyles can start to cause hair loss called traction alopecia
4. “No lye” relaxers can still cause damage
Many people know to avoid lye, also known as sodium hydroxide, in hair relaxers. This ingredient is found in oven cleaners and paint thinners as well because it’s a versatile, yet highly corrosive substance used in the manufacturing of various products.
So, if you’re going to relax your hair, you should be sure to use a “no lye” hair relaxer. That said, beware that these relaxers, while safer, still have the ability to cause damage. These relaxers swap out lye for powerful chemicals, primarily calcium hydroxide and guanidine carbonate, which effectively break the chemical bonds on the hair shaft.
These “no lye” relaxers should be used with caution and applied by a trained professional to ensure your hair suffers as little damage as possible.
Should I Stop Using Relaxers?
If you’ve been reading this blog and thinking, “Maybe relaxing my hair all these years has been causing more harm than good,” listen to the signs! Your body could be telling you that embracing your naturally curly hair is right for you at this moment. Here are some additional indications that you may want to take a break from relaxing your hair.
1. Your scalp is sensitive or itchy
If you have a scalp condition like psoriasis, dandruff, or seborrheic dermatitis, then you should consider discontinuing your use of relaxers. They’re likely to irritate your scalp further, and you may even experience burning when your hair is being treated with relaxers if you’ve scratched your scalp previously.
2. You’re experiencing hair loss
Have you noticed your hair thinning? Are you losing hair? This could be due to your use of relaxers. Relaxers can destroy your hair follicles, and when this is the case, you’ll want to stop relaxing your hair as soon as possible, so you can start repairing it.
3. You love to color your hair
If you want to color your hair, then it may be time to go natural. Double processing your hair can cause major issues. Even if you wait two weeks to add permanent color or bleach to your hair, you still risk causing damage. Your hair may become dry and limp, or worst of all, it could break off.
Instead of loading your hair up with chemicals and hoping for the best, just choose one.
Alternatives to Relaxing
Are you wondering what you can do instead of relaxing? Whether you want to relax your hair or not is ultimately up to you. However, it’s important to know that there are alternatives out there. If you’ve always relaxed your hair, it isn’t the only way to make sure your natural hair looks good! Here’s what we suggest if you want to branch out.
- Straighten your hair
Find a stylist you trust and have them press your natural hair for a fresh relaxed look. This can often be a good way for someone who is used to relaxed hair to feel a bit more comfortable while they’re figuring out what they want.
- Cut it to a more manageable length
Sometimes people seek out relaxers because they want something easy to manage. If you’re struggling to care for your hair at its length, chop it! You could shave it low, fade it out, get it tapered, or just trim a few inches. Whatever makes you feel more comfortable.
- Long-term protective styles
A good protective style is the answer to so many different natural hair problems. Even if your hair isn’t damaged, the right long-term protect style will buy you the time you need to figure out what you want next (and staves off that two-hour weekly wash process).
Check out Crochet Braids: One of the Most Versatile Protective Styling Methods for one style you may like.
Consider installing locs instead of getting a relaxer. You’ll be able to maintain your natural look along with your hair’s health without the knotting, split ends, or shedding struggle that comes with wearing natural hair loose.
Check out Steps to Maintaining and Moisturizing Locs and Protective Styles for more information.
At Taliah Waajid, we believe everyone should know how relaxers impact their natural hair. Whether you want to use these products or not is up to you, but after some time, it can be difficult to return to your natural kinky texture. Enter into this process knowledgeable and empowered to make the right decision for you and your hair!