Why Leaving Relaxers Behind and Going Natural is Smart for Black Women

09/16/2012 | By | More

Perms and relaxers have been a long-time favorite of African American women promising silky straight hair for difficult to manage locks, but this beauty regimen comes at a high price – hair breakage, scalp irritation, stunted hair growth, and even permanent hair loss. Discover the top nine reasons to avoid perms and relaxers and why you should stay away from them at all costs.

Perms, Relaxers and Black Hair Care

We all know there is an obvious difference between ‘black’ hair and other cultures. Some say kinky hair is a gift – you can wear it in so many different ways, but others call it a curse and have made the decision to permanently change the texture of their hair with the use of chemicals. I said permanently because once you add chemical relaxers or perms to your hair it is changed forever. There is no way to get back the natural wave pattern, even if you let the perm grow out. This is why the ‘older generations’ of African American women frown upon relaxing children’s hair. They say it will stunt their hair growth and ruin their hair forever. Well, the same it true for adult hair.

Jheri curlBefore we review the top nine list, let’s talk about the difference between perms and relaxers. A perm makes hair curly. This is also called a “Jheri Curl,” or “texturizer,” and used by African American men and women to create ‘waves’ on a short hair style. A relaxer, straightens the hair transforming the original curl pattern by loosening or relaxing the kinky texture. This is where the evolution of your hair takes place changing it from its original natural state to a lifelong process of having to reapply chemicals to maintain the same look each time causing more damage to your hair.

As odd as it sounds, the relaxer was actually invented by an African American man trying to create a product for a sewing machine shop back in 1910. He wiped his hand on a wool cloth and found that the chemical gave the cloth a smooth appearance. This must have been some kind of strong chemical to turn a cloth into a different texture. Did you know that this is the same chemical used to make drain cleaners to unclog sinks? It is even used to remove fur from animals in the leather making industry. And this is the same chemical that you want to apply to your precious hair? Are you really willing to risk the damage resulting from the use of chemical hair straighteners?

9. Hair Breakage







If you think using no lye relaxers are less damaging than those containing lye, think again. There are two basic types of chemical hair relaxers – Sodium Hydroxide (relaxers containing lye) and Guanidine Hydroxide (relaxers containing no lye). The manufacturers of these products want you to believe that no-lye relaxers will not damage your hair. This is simply not true.

The truth is those stunning pictures you see on the relaxer kits of black women with silky smooth hair are usually individuals who already have a good grade of hair. Don’t be fooled into thinking a mere $10 for a home relaxer kit will give you the same look; it is not that simple. There is only one full proof method to avoid hair breakage from chemical relaxers and that is to avoid them. Relaxers permanently alter the natural pH balance and chemical breakdown of your hair. This process weakens each strand of hair. Hair breakage and scalp irritation are common side effects from relaxing or perming your hair and is not a solution for hair that is damaged despite what you may have heard.

Let’s discuss a natural remedy for hair breakage using egg yolk and olive oil treatment. Applying one egg yolk and two tablespoons of olive oil to your hair while showering and rinsing with a mild shampoo is a home remedy that will help with hair breakage. You can use this remedy once a week and see a decrease in hair breakage. No chemicals, no burns; just positive results.

8. Hair Thinning







Hair thinning is inevitable with applying chemicals. What we believe to be improving our hair is actually causing irreversible damage. Many women think leaving the relaxer in a little longer, or ‘getting the edges’ a little straighter by smoothing it down with a fine toothed comb will give them the look they want. Well, the truth is, this overprocessing is causes more damage resulting in thinning hair, especially around the natural hairline. You see women all the time with thinning ‘edges,’ and while there may other logical causes for this, it is a clear sign of the damage chemical hair straightening can cause.

An easy fix is don’t use a chemical agent to try to thicken your thin hair; try oat flour. Two little tablespoons added to your regular conditioner will thicken thinning hair. Oat flour can be found at your local grocery store or health food store and costs far less expensive than over the counter beauty products.

7. Permanent Hair Loss







Permanent hair loss is not uncommon with the use of chemical hair strengtheners. What starts out as a burn and turns into a scab can ultimately end up being a permanent bald spot where your hair does not grow back. This is frustrating, not to mention embarrassing as you try to cover up the unsightly area. Permanent hair loss can also start out with an area of thinning and as time goes on the hair continues to fall out. The likelihood of permanent hair loss is increased with the use of hot combs, curling irons, and hair that is pulled tight by hair rollers.

Instead of applying harsh chemicals, try a natural method to straighten your hair. As crazy at it sounds fresh coconut can gradually straighten those kinky locks without the fear of damaging your hair. You simply blend fresh coconut with lime and refrigerate. This will create a creamy mixture. Rub this on your scalp and cover with a hot towel for about an hour and rinse with a mild shampoo. If you do this three times a week you will notice the kinks start to straighten out.

6. Frizzy hair

frizzy hair







Frizzy hair is a result of dry hair. This can be caused by a number of things – lack of moisturizer, infrequent or too frequent washing, lack of conditioning, or use of a perm or relaxer. Black hair does not take well to overconditioning. It can leave the hair flat and unable to hold a curl. Perms and relaxers do not help with frizzy hair; they only add to the problem creating dry brittle ends that lead to hair breakage. Flat irons and hair curlers only add to the problem.

Let’s go with a natural method to prevent the frizzies. Create a rinse of apple cider or vinegar and lemon (1 ounce to 1 quart of water). Since acidity helps restore the ph balance and tames the hair shaft by closing the cuticle, applying after shampooing is a natural way to get rid of frizziness without damaging your hair. The best thing about this remedy is that you probably already have it in your kitchen.

5. Scalp Irritation/Burns







Leaving perms and relaxers on too long can case scalp irritation or burns. The problem is only worsened by using additional products containing alcohol such as hair gels or sprays. Alcohol-containing hair products can aggravate the affected area causing slow healing, further irritation, or permanent scalp damage.

Treating scalp irritation should include removing dirt and oil from the affected area with a gentle shampoo and conditioning the hair. Applying antiseptic ointment to the area will help the healing process. Remember not to scratch or further irritate the area.

4. Split Ends







Your hair is made up of layers. The outer layer protects the hair shaft. When layer of protection is damaged with the use of chemical relaxers this causes the ends of your hair to split. This damage can travel up the hair shaft and cause hair breakage resulting in damaged uneven hair. Some say just trim the ends, but the truth is, perms and relaxers actually promote split ends. They dry the ends of your hair and wear down the protective layer. While trimming your hair is recommended with or without a perm, think of how much hair you are destroying each time you get a perm or even a touch-up. If you are trying to grow your hair long, you are fighting a losing battle with the use of chemicals.

3. Dry Brittle Hair

dry brittle hair







We all know that chemicals dry out your hair. This is not a secret. The makers of these hair products try to sell a dream and too many African American women buy into it to the tune of billions of dollars each year being spent. As their pockets get bigger, more and more consumers end up with damaged hair. This only means more money in their pockets as they (the companies) advertise different remedies to help restore the damage that their products have caused in the first place.

Not everyone has bought into this pipe dream though; many African Americans are going back to their natural roots with dreadlocks and natural kinky twist hair styles. Even the ‘afro’ has made a come back and it looks stunning. You need to know that chemicals do not repair dry brittle hair; they create it. If going straight is a must for you there are natural ways to get this look without applying chemical hair straighteners.

2. Scalp infection







Scalp infection as a result of perms and relaxers not so uncommon. There are several cases where consumers have filed lawsuits against the manufactures after using their products. In fact, some women are left with permanent bald spots due to scalp infection after the use of chemical hair straighteners requiring medical treatment. This is not the look that you want to achieve with the use of chemical straighteners; however, it may very well be the end result.

1. Respiratory (Breathing)/Gastrointestinal (Stomach) Problems

breathing problems from chemicals in hair relaxers







As strange as it sounds respiratory problems can occur from using perms and relaxers. Potassium hydroxide, also called ‘potassium lye’ is a very strong chemical and inhaling the chemical may cause coughing, sneezing, and breathing problems. If exposed to for long periods it is strong enough to cause damage to your lungs.

Ingesting potassium hydroxide can be equally damaging resulting in burns to the mouth and/or throat, vomiting, severe stomach pain, diarrhea, vomiting, and even death.

The effects of using perms and relaxers sound dangerous and it is; not just to your hair but to your overall health. Imagine something you apply to your hair having so many side effects – is having straight hair really worth the risk?

In Conclusion…

While the pictures of silky shiny straight hair are enticing, the health risks are overwhelming and not advertised nearly as much as they should be. Hair breakage, going bald, stunted hair growth, scalp infection, thinning hair, respiratory and GI problems – seems like a big price to pay for having straight hair. Consider natural alternatives to hair straightening or even going natural with braids, twists, or locs. Look good and feel good inside and out without the risk of permanent hair damage from the use of perms and relaxers.

by Luther Avery

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Category: Transitioning

About the Author ()

Blogger, writer, relationships/dating expert, fitness trainer and natural hair enthusiast since 1997. Sharing information from grandmomma, books and scientific journals, as well as my personal discoveries and experiences with natural hair as we journey from relaxers, flat irons and weaves together.

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  1. Weavegal says:

    Item #10 or the one above #9 puzzles me. I have to make this statement. No one person’s hair is exactly the same from when they are a child. The nature of hair is to change. Wiki hair cycle http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hair_cycle . As people age, their hair usually gets thinner. Few people are blessed to have the same head of thick luxurious hair that they had in their youth. I’ve talked to many races of people about this and they agree that their hair has changed as they got older and not one of them ever used a relaxer.

    When I was a child, my mother put relaxers in my hair and my hair was longer then than it is now. My hair seems to be in a perpetual cycle of breaking off. I’ve decided to slow down on the relaxer due to finances!! I haven’t been to a hairdresser in years and even the box relaxers stretch my budget. I’m back to using a curling iron as a flat iron. It’s funny I’ve found that only certain curling irons get “hot enough” to straighten my hair the way I like it.

    I guess my question to you is if a woman lets her hair grow and cuts the relaxed hair off why wouldn’t her hair return to it’s “natural” state? I just can’t see how having relaxed hair means that the new growth will be harmed and “changed forever.” Please help me understand that. While I’m typing this I am thinking of a friend who has a fourteen year old girl whom they have never let use a relaxer. So in this case, I suppose I can see how if she does or WHEN she does use a relaxer her hair may change and may not be the same as before. But when I say that I am referring to the hair that is relaxed not the hair that is yet to form or develop and be grown. She will most certainly have to cut out all of the relaxed hair and start from zero if she wants natural hair again.

    So please, again, explain to me how relaxing hair changes hair from the inside of your body? I just can’t understand how hair that is yet to form & be shot out of your body is going to be “changed” by a relaxer. Thank you.

    • Deborrah says:

      Her hair does return to its natural state after the impact of the relaxer chemicals is out of her system. The hair that is exposed on your head is not ALL of your hair. There are several layers of skin on the scalp that the hair has to come through. Depending upon the speed that your hair grows, it may take months for the newly forming hair to reach the surface of the skin and to be visible to the naked eye. Once that hair is outside the body, the true natural texture of that person’s hair will begin to be formed.

      Additionally, be mindful of the composition of hair. If one’s cuticle is open, the hair shaft all the way down into the follicle will absorb chemicals. Take a look at the article here http://yournaturalhair.com/curly-coily-springy-kinky-hair-structure/ for more information on hair structure.

      With all that in mind a woman may not get to see her true hair texture for 6-8 months after she stops relaxers.

      The skin is the largest organ in the human body and it absorbs a lot of chemicals and environmental toxins from water, air, clothing, etc. That is my understanding of the whole relaxer thing.

      But human bodies are very different. Just think about it… some people can be around smokers for decades and not develop any lung problems. Others can ingest second hand smoke and end up with asthma, bronchitis, emphysema, get repeated upper respiratory infections and even throat cancer just from breathing in other people’s toxins.

      There is no one answer to this question. The goal is to raise awareness so that people have knowledge of all the possibilities, and can assess the pros and cons of anything they put on or in their bodies for themselves.

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