Hair relaxers are a huge deal within the black community. Getting a relaxer is a rite of passage to many black girls, and society makes you feel less than beautiful without a relaxer.Unfortunately, chemical relaxers account for much of the hair breakage amongst black women. Not only have we experienced breakage, but many black women have suffered from severe scalp damage, excessive hair thinning, and irreversible hair loss. So, what causes relaxers to change the shape of our natural strands and how do they cause excessive hair breakage and damage?
Our Natural Strands
Hair is made up of keratin proteins. The hair we actually see is not living. The only living part of our hair strand is known as the dermal papilla, which supplies our hair with nutrients and produces the keratinized substance that makes up our hair. The hair that is beneath the scalp is covered by the hair’s follicle, and it is the follicle that determines our hair’s shape and texture.
In African Americans, the hair follicle can form an elliptical or ribbon-like shape, and sometimes an oval shape with flattened hair follicles. The follicles enable the hair strand to form tight curls or coils which make it difficult for oils, produced by the sebaceous glands, to travel up the hair shaft. The lack of oil causes our strands to become dry which is the reason our hair needs constant moisture.
Each hair strand has three layers, and each layer has its own purpose.
1) The cuticle is the outer layer of the hair. It protects the cortex and the medulla. Products with a high PH balance, like chemical relaxers, cause the cortex to swell and enable the product to penetrate to the cortex. Products with a low PH balance, such as lemon juice, cause the cuticle to get smaller and harden.
2) The cortex is the middle layer of the hair. It is made up of cells that are tightly bonded together. This layer is responsible for the overall strength, and stretch of the hair.
3) The medulla is the inner layer of the hair. It is not clear what this layer does. It is mainly found in coarse hair, but rarely found in fine hair.
As long as the cortex is protected, our hair will remain strong and free of breakage. It is only when the cortex is altered or damaged that our hair begins to suffer. In order to keep the cortex from being damaged, it is imperative to keep the cuticles closed so that moisture is kept in. When the cuticles are open the cortex is easily damaged make the hair weak and vulnerable and it will eventually break.
The Straightening Process
There are two main types of ingredients used in chemical relaxers: sodium hydroxide and guanidine hydroxide. Sodium hydroxide is the strongest chemical of the two. Sodium hydroxide has no odor and is white in color. It can be found in drain cleaners and one of the main ingredients in chemical relaxers. Sodium hydroxide can be found in mainly Lye relaxers.
Guanidine hydroxide is not as harsh as sodium hydroxide. It is most common in No Lye relaxers. Many consumers believe that No Lye relaxers cause less damage than Lye relaxer. However, both relaxers have the potential to cause severe damage to the hair and scalp.
In order to permanently straighten the hair, both ingredients must be potent enough to relax the hair’s inner layer. When the chemicals are applied to the hair, it causes the cuticle to swell and expand. As the cuticles expand, the chemical is able to penetrate through the protein structure to the cortex. The bonds, that give the hair its original shape, are broken down and cause the curl to loosen and reshape. The chemical forms a permanent cap around the bonds which keeps the hair from reverting back to its original shape. Once the bonds are capped, the process is irreversible, thus resulting in straight hair.
Earlier, I spoke about the cortex and PH balance. PH stands for the potential for hydrogen and describes the balance in our body and hair. A healthy PH balance of hair is 4.5-5.5. Chemical relaxers have a PH balance of 8.5-14. With such a high PH balance, the cuticles open leaving the cortex vulnerable for damage. Your hair loses moisture and becomes excessively dry and brittle. Overly brittle hair results in hair breakage. Continuous hair breakage leads to extensive hair loss that many times can not be reversed.
In order to combat the dryness and breakage, the hair has to be shampooed with neutralizing shampoo during the relaxing process. The neutralizing shampoo along with water allows the hair to return to its normal PH of 4.5-5.5, and to keep its altered shape. A conditioner along with a leave-in conditioner or rinse is applied to get the moisture back to the hair strand. On top of the relaxer application, many black women then blow dry and flat iron or press out their hair. And they continue to use heat on a daily basis. Heat, along with the relaxer application, continues to weaken the hair further leading to more hair damage.
Continuous relaxer treatments could result in overprocessing the hair. Overprocessing the hair is when the relaxer is applied over already relaxed hair. When you add more application to already relaxed hair, the cuticle can become severely damaged and become stripped away. As the hair strips away, it may eventually reach the hair close to the root. If the hair at the root is severely damaged you are more likely to experience hair loss.
Natural Hair Arising
Natural hair is rising among the black community. Black women are seeing the risks relaxers can have on their hair and they are opting to transition to natural tresses. Deciding to become fully natural may be a huge decision. However, one thing is for sure: with natural hair you have the greatest opportunity to see your hair’s full potential and actually decrease hair breakage which in turn embraces your hair’s natural health and overall natural beauty.
Anonymous. “Hair Loss: Hair Shaft Defects.” WebMD. 1 March 2010. 5 August 2010 from http://www.webmd.com/skin-problems-and-treatments/hair-loss/hair-shaft-defects?page=4
Dorvee, Jason. “Variety of Chemicals in Hair Relaxers Untwist Strands.” Cornel Center for Medical Research. 28 June 2006. 3 August 2010 from http://www.ccmr.cornell.edu/education/ask/index.html?quid=708
McClain, Cassia. “The Truth About Hair Relaxers.” Skin Biology. 3 August 2010 from http://www.skinbiology.com/truthabouthairrelaxers.html