Relaxers. The Whole Truth.

I am an advocate of Black women going natural and taking the time to learn how to manage and groom themselves. Not only are relaxers a waste of time and money, they also are scientifically proven to be harmful to our bodies. There is nothing safe about applying relaxers, just like there is no safe way to smoke a cigarette. Regardless if we do not burn our scalps, placing these dangerous chemicals in our hair will destroy it and may potentially give us cancer. Below is some research I have done to inform us of what is really happening to our bodies when we relax our hair. Hopefully it will encourage more of us to live a healthier and self-conscious lifestyle.

The Function of Hair Relaxers

In order for a Black woman to have a permanent perm or if she wants to straighten her natural, beautiful, black curly hair, she will need the aid of relaxers. The basic function of relaxers is simple, to destroy and break apart the disulphide bonds that hold the hair proteins together.

In order to break down the protein in our hair, we need the assistance of an alkaline agent that is strong enough to man handle, loosen, and temporarily break our disulphide bonds so that we can manipulate and restyle our new and improved scientifically mutated hair. Hair relaxers are so chemically strong, that if not used carefully, we can permanently damage our hair shafts.
Our hair shafts consist of the following:

  • Hair cuticle
. The hair cuticle is the outermost layer of your hair formed by concentrations of keratins overlapping each other. It provides protection to the inner part of the hair and it’s also one of the toughest parts of your body.
  • Cortex
. The cortex is the inner part of your hair made of dead cells that give your hair its shape, flexibility and elasticity. It stores the much needed oils and water to keep your hair looking healthy and moisturized. The pigment melanin, which provides your hair color, is also located in the cortex where it’s shown through the cuticle.
  • Medulla
. The core of your hair shaft is the medulla, which usually appears hollow and empty. The medulla provides depth and allows the supply of oxygen to your hair.

If we ever wonder why our hair feels weak and brittle, it is because the relaxer is damaging the cuticles in our hair shafts. If we ever wonder why our hair looks so dry and faded in color, and lacks its health and natural moisture, it is because the relaxer is destroying the cortex within our hair shafts. Also, if we find that our hair falls out frequently, it lacks growth, and has no depth, it is because the relaxers are destroying the medulla within our hair shafts. And finally, if we are experiencing all of the above, it is really time to stop applying them. The only way for us to have healthy, naturally moisturized, strong, and consistently growing hair is to stop chemically treating it.

There are mainly 2 types of hair relaxers regularly used today.

1. Lye Relaxers

Lye is a very strong alkaline solution that is also used to make many products you can find in your home, like laundry detergent, pool cleaning supplies, and drain de-cloggers. Some lye formulas are so powerful, they can basically destroy and dissolve anything they touch.

Click here to view a snippet of Chris Rock’s documentary “Good Hair” regarding the chemicals in relaxers.

A lye hair relaxer is made up of a strong corrosive alkaline solution known as Sodium Hydroxide (NaOH) and is mixed with water, petroleum jelly, and other ingredients. When we apply it, the lye relaxer floods through the protein structure of our hair and breaks the disulphide bonds causing our hair to loosen up for reshaping. Keep in mind, 90 percent of our hair is made of protein and dead cells. So as we apply relaxers to our hair, we are damaging 90 percent of our hair. But because our hair is made of dead cells, we usually won’t feel the burning sensation until it comes in contact with our scalp; it can really damage our skin. That is why there is a need to apply a coating of petroleum jelly to help prevent this from happening.

After treatment, it is important to employ some type of neutralizer, like an acidic shampoo to remove the lye and rebalance the PH level in our hair. Otherwise, the lye can continuously break up our hair structure, which leads to breakage and brittleness. Lye also strips moisture from our hair, therefore, after application, consistent moisturizing is required.

There are two type of formulas for lye relaxers, known as base or non base. The base concept applies a layer of petroleum jelly onto the scalp to help protect you from burns and irritations, while the non base formula is just a milder concentration that doesn’t require coating, but will still irritate or burn you if you have a sensitive scalp.

2. No-Lye Relaxers

No lye relaxers replace Sodium Hydroxide with a milder chemical agent that is not as strong as the Lye relaxer, but still very strong. They include:

  • Potassium Hydroxide
  • Lithium Hydroxide
  • Guanidine Hydroxide

The above chemicals share the functions as lye but are milder and are acclaimed to be less damaging than lye relaxers. Here are acidic based relaxers:

  • Ammonium Thioglycolate
  • Ammonium Sulfate
  • Ammonium Bisulfate

These are known as “perm salts,” and instead of breaking up our disulfide bonds entirely, it seeps through our hair cuticles into the cortex and weakens the bonds’ internal structure.

No matter what kind of chemical relaxers you use, whether lye or no-lye, the basic mechanism is the same. To permanently re-shape your hair, chemicals must enter into your hair to break or modify your hair structure for reshaping. Therefore, excessive and/or unsupervised usage of these relaxers can cause the following problems to your hair and scalp:

  • Scalp irritation
  • Dry, brittle, and damaged hair
  • Burns, if chemicals come in contact with the skin and/or other body parts
  • Inhaling potentially toxic fumes from the chemicals

Click here to take a look at the FDA’s article regarding the dangers of hair dye and relaxers and how to use them with caution.

A common and serious complication, when it comes to using relaxers, is known as over-processing. This happens when you apply too much of the chemical to your hair in a single session or if you repeat the same treatment to the same part of your hair.
Usually, it’s only recommended to treat the hair once and only repeat treatment after 3-4 months only on the new grown part of your hair. Repeated treatment may further damage your hair and can lead to mass hair breakage, something you definitely don’t want as it might lead to the appearance of hair loss.

The safest way to straighten your hair is by using home straightening or curling appliances instead. Although the styles are not permanent, heating tools made of ceramic or tourmaline are much safer than treating your hair frequently with hair relaxers. In addition, you will not have to become a slave to your hair, and you will not have to settle for a permanent fix. Another point to consider is that home styling appliances are much cheaper in the long run. We spend nearly 100 dollars every two months, when we can spend between 40 -100 dollars once every couple of months to years. It is best to purchase a heating appliance that has an adjustable heating element so that only the required heat is applied to the hair. Overheating can also cause permanent damage as well. To be on the healthiest and safest side, we may just want to take the time to learn how to do our own hair, and retain our natural texture.

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5 Comments on “Relaxers. The Whole Truth.”

  1. August 12, 2011 at 8:01 pm #

    Hey, Cornbread. I read the whole article and I think you have here the only article I’ve read that really got into the meat of what relaxers do to the hair. Will I stop relaxing now? I wanna say yes, Brother, I really do but the sad reality is that I probably won’t. Has this article given me a push towards going natural? Well, yeah. You made me think and I appreciate that.

    • August 13, 2011 at 2:41 pm #

      Those are some very strong words. I appreciate you taking the time to read my articles. You already can tell that I encourage you to show your natural you from head to toe. But I also encourage you to be as happy and secure as possible. I particular don’t think my sisters need it, but i understand what sacrifices people go through to manage their lifestyle, even if that means to damage their bodies. I’m curious to know why you won’t.

      • August 14, 2011 at 4:39 pm #

        Sure. I’m actively trying to grow my hair longer and simply don’t want to set myself back 3 years. There is no way I could get to my ideal length with both textures (I’ll never get my hair pressed again, bad memories) and that’s all. I’ve cut my hair numerous times so I’m not all hard up on losing it, it always grows back. I’ll tell you something though: I saw this beautiful, older black woman with snow white dreads (she looked like a goddess) and when my hair starts turning, I’m going natural and hope to get that look. That’s if I don’t get bored with my hair before then. I don’t relax that often-I think I’ve only done it once or twice this year- and when I do, I wash it out shortly after I finish applying it and my hair still has a little kink. So, I’m good. The important thing to me is keeping the same insecurities that made me want a relaxer in the first place, away from my daughter. She wears her hair like the crown it is and that pleases me to no end.

  2. Hot Chocolate
    August 9, 2011 at 1:26 pm #

    Good job, Black Man! 🙂

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