The Truth About Hair Relaxers
What You Need to Know About: Chemical Hair Relaxers
Hair breakage, hair thinning, lack of hair growth, scalp irritation, scalp damage, hair loss. These are just some of the complaints from many who experience problems due to the misuse of chemical hair relaxers. In fact, the FDA lists hair straighteners and hair dyes among its top consumer complaint areas. Yet, in so many stores around the country, chemicals are available for everyone to use, without much instruction, a powerful process which transforms the basic chemical makeup of the hair strand. Before beginning any hair treatment, especially one that introduces chemicals to your hair, you owe it to yourself to be well informed. Armed with a better understanding of this process, you will be able to make good decisions with regard to hair and scalp care.
If you have naturally tightly curled hair you have the option of styling it using products specifically designed for your hair type as it is, or the option to straighten the hair which opens up further hair styles to be available to you. However, chemically straightening the hair should be carefully thought out and thoroughly studied. We have compiled essential information on chemical hair relaxers and urge you to read the following carefully and, if not for yourself, share it with a friend.
Hair Relaxers: Hair Discovers Lye
His name was Garrett Augustus Morgan and he was born the seventh of eleven children of former slaves. He is best known for his invention of the automatic traffic signal and gas mask. But it was around 1910 that he stumbled upon what would become his contribution to the hair care products industry and what would pave the way for several other entrepreneurs and manufacturers over the next hundred years.
While working in a sewing machine repair shop attempting to invent a new lubricating liquid for the machine needle, it is widely believed that Morgan wiped his hands on a wool cloth, returned the next day, found the woolly texture of the cloth had “smoothed out”, and set out to find how the liquid chemical had changed the texture as it had. He experimented on an Airedale dog, known for their curly textured hair, and the effect was successfully duplicated.
Morgan then tried his lubricating liquid invention on himself, called it a “hair refining cream”, and thus patented the first chemical hair straightener. He founded a personal grooming products company which included hair dying ointments, curved-tooth pressing combs, shampoo, hair pressing gloss, and the one that started it all: the “G.A. Morgan’s Hair Refiner Cream” (advertised to “Positively Straighten Hair in 15 Minutes”).
“Lye” or “No Lye”: The Truth
Sodium Hydroxide is the strongest type of principal chemical used in some chemical relaxers because it provides the most long lasting and dramatic effects. However, this same sodium hydroxide is found in drain cleaners which well demonstrates the strength of this chemical. It is what is used in products that are referred to as “lye” relaxers. The strength varies from a pH factor of 10 to 14. With higher pH, the faster the straightening solution will take hold, but the more potential the damage.
Guanidine Hydroxide is the other common option of relaxer chemical used today. This is what is referred to as “no-lye” relaxers. This label can be misleading to some consumers. It does not imply that there aren’t any strong chemicals used or that the chemicals used are somehow less potentially damaging. Some have mistakenly thought that with “no-lye” relaxers there are less steps and all the worry of chemical hair straightening is removed. Although this type of chemical hair relaxer can be less damaging than its counterpart, the hair and scalp should be in top condition before attempting treatment, and this type also requires special care when applied.
All relaxers require conditioning treatments before and after application. The decision to straighten the hair chemically requires much forethought and really a commitment to healthy hair care treatments over a long entire period of time.
Things Everyone Needs to Know: The Do’s / The Don’ts BEFOREHAND
How can chemicals “relax”, or straighten hair? Well first of all, as assumed, the chemical would need to be potent enough to do so. Both lye and “no lye” relaxers are very strong chemicals that work in the same manner by changing the basic structure of the hair shaft. The chemical penetrates the cortex or cortical layer (see illustration) and loosens the natural curl pattern. This inner layer of the hair shaft is not only what gives curly hair its shape but provides strength and elasticity. Once this process is performed it is irreversible.
This process which produces the desired effect of “straighter” hair at the same time leaves hair weak and extremely susceptible to breaking and further damage. One must keep in mind that relaxers do not help the hair, but actually strip it. So by applying chemicals to the hair, even if it is to achieve a desired effect, is never really to the benefit of your hair health. Due to this, it is first strongly recommended that it be applied only under the direction of a hair care professional with a record of success with healthy hair care and chemical straightening, and that the client regularly obtains conditioning treatments before and after the process.
Possessing a healthy scalp beforehand decreases the possibility of problems occurring. Relaxers should never be applied to already damaged hair, or on someone who has had scalp damage. Age should also be considered. Although your young children may want to have the hairstyles they see on adults or other young people, parents should seriously consider applying such strong chemicals to young hair and the potential damage that could last a lifetime if misused; most times it is not necessary to apply any chemical product to young hair.
“Over processing”, the excessive use of relaxers on the hair or applying the chemical to already processed or relaxed hair, is the most typical misuse of these chemicals. Once the initial relaxer is applied to “virgin hair” (or a “virgin relaxer” is performed), “touch-ups” (or chemical applied thereafter) should only be applied to new growth between 6-8 week periods (or more). This however, depends on the rate of hair growth and condition of the hair as advised by your hair care professional. (Some say that even six weeks is too soon to reapply relaxer to new growth). And it is standard to wait at least 2-4 weeks before applying hair color chemical (or dye) to recently relaxed hair, if applied at all. We remind readers that the more chemicals applied to hair the more possibility of damage may be experienced.
I’ve Decided to Straighten My Hair: Now What?
So after careful consideration you’ve decided to chemically straighten your hair. What would be prudent to do? What to expect? Well, when you have found a reputable hair care professional the first thing they should advise is that you come in for a consultation. A “strand test” should be performed during your consultation to determine the best type of chemical to use on your particular hair type. Remember not all hair types (even if they are naturally tightly curled) are the same. Everyone’s hair is different.
During this consultation the hair may be felt to determine its elasticity and strength. Your scalp should also be inspected. And any problems you currently are experiencing with your hair or scalp should be disclosed to the stylist at this time. The stylist may also ask you pertinent questions regarding your current hair regimen and products you typically use. Your stylist may even recommend other methods to style your hair besides chemically straightening it. Even after you’ve personally done your research the stylist may strongly recommend that relaxing your hair ought not be done or that it is not needed. Their recommendation should also be carefully considered. After you’ve come to a decision, along with your stylist, here are a few things to expect with relaxer treatments:
There are three basic steps that are performed during the process:
• A protective petroleum “base cream” should always be applied to help protect the scalp so that no chemical product comes in contact with your scalp.
• After the relaxer chemical has been applied, and let set for the appropriate amount of time, the chemical needs to be completely removed with warm water, and then a neutralizing formula is applied. This step is essential to lower the pH – If not lowered the hair will break.
• Then a conditioner is applied to the hair to restore some of the natural oils and proteins removed by the chemical.
In detail: Before coming in for your chemical relaxing treatments, avoid scratching, excessive brushing or combing all of which might leave lacerations on the scalp causing “burning” if any of the chemical comes into contact with the area. The chemical should be applied to hair that is completely dry. To begin with, the stylist may gently detangle the hair with a large tooth comb to make smoothing easier. The base cream, or petroleum cream or gel, should be applied around the hairline and behind the ears. The hair will then be sectioned and the base cream applied between sections to protect the scalp and prevent over processing, burning and irritation. This cream used as a base for relaxing is lighter than petroleum jelly and is designed to melt at body temperature providing a sufficient barrier between the straightening chemicals and your scalp.
The chemical should then be very carefully applied so that it does not come into contact with the eyes, drops onto clothing, or any other parts of exposed skin. (To aid in this, one should wear a protective smock and cover the ears and neck line with a protective covering or a long band of cotton). The chemical should be applied to unrelaxed hair only. Applying relaxer chemical to already relaxed hair will only cause breakage. The stylist may use their hands (while wearing gloves) to distribute the chemical while smoothing the hair.
The chemical will be carefully combed through the hair while the stylist avoids all previously relaxed areas. Once applied the hair is smoothed straight and the process is allowed to set for an allotted time. It is crucial that this time period not be elapsed, as it will result in over-processing. You may feel tingles of the chemical on your hair but should notify the stylist if you feel any burning or irritation at once. (Scalp burns are not “normal”, and when applied correctly the scalp should not burn).
Once the relaxer has set for prescribed time period, it will be thoroughly rinsed from the hair with warm water (not hot nor cold, but warm water). While rinsing the stylist will run their fingers throughout the hair so that all the product is removed. Sprayer rinsing works best to insure that all traces of chemical has been removed and the water pressure helps to rinse out the product more quickly. (Time is always of the essence when dealing with this chemical). Shampoo will be immediately applied and most contain “Color Action”, meaning it indicates by the color of the lather if all the product has been effectively removed.
The neutralizer, or “stabilizer”, is next added to halt the relaxing process and restore the pH balance. Again this particular step is especially crucial. If not “neutralized” the chemical will continue to work on the hair strand weakening it further. From the time the relaxing chemicals are applied to this final neutralizing step the hair’s condition is extremely fragile and should be handled very carefully. Avoid all pulling, tugging, and excessive combing of the hair during this period.
Life with Relaxer: Post Relaxing Treatment
If newly chemically straightened hair is not given special treatment it can become brittle, dry, damaged and break. Relaxed hair will tend to be drier and break easily. When combing it may be best to use a large tooth comb and start from the tips of the hair up to the roots. Regular deep conditioning is a must. Remember once you’ve made the decision to chemically straighten the hair you have also decided to commit to regular quality conditioning treatments to maintain not only the look you want, but the healthy hair we all desire.
Between visits to your hair care professional, limit the use of hot styling tools (such as blow dryers, hot combs, and curling irons). Try not to use heat on your hair at all between visits if possible. Due to the possibility of suffering hair damage, again it is strongly recommended that one consult a hair care professional when deciding on chemical straightening their hair. Some have chosen to apply these chemicals on their own using the “box kits” readily available everywhere. However, if this is your choice it would be better to make sure that someone else is on hand to help you in the preparation, timing, and complete rinse and removal of the chemical. And if you have decided not to chemically straighten your hair at all, there are still many styles and good hair care techniques available to you, helping you to enjoy your natural hair you’ve been blessed with.
Although there may be risks, and certainly much information to consider, in the hands of a professional, many have enjoyed for years good hair health while chemically straightening their hair. When done correctly this method does successfully straighten, soften the texture of the hair, and provides stunning results allowing it to be transformed into dozens of different styles.