Do you know what’s in your relaxer?

It’s important to point out that I believe everyone has a choice to wear their hair whichever way they want. Whether you choose to wear it out natural or chemically straightened is up to you. However, if you choose to use chemicals to straighten your hair, I think it’s important to at least have an understanding of what exactly you are putting in your hair and into your body and what it’s potentially doing to your hair and body. I confess that I never knew, or was ever interested in knowing, what exactly was contained in my relaxer – until I watched the documentary “Good Hair” by Chris Rock.  I have come across so many young children lately with chemically straightened hair which makes me sad because they don’t get to make an informed choice on what’s being put on their hair and into their body.

Where did it all start?

Garrett Augustus Morgan is best known for his invention of the automatic traffic signal and the gas mask. But he was also responsible for the birth of the modern day chemical straightener/relaxer used by many women of African origin and descent. He was a sewing machine repair man and legend goes that whilst he was trying to come up with a new lubricating liquid for his sewing machine needle, he wiped his hands on a wool cloth and returned the next day to find that the woolly texture of the cloth had smoothed out. He was intrigued and to experiment further he applied the liquid chemical on an Airedale dog, known for its curly textured hair, which resulted in the dog’s hair being straightened. He made the liquid into a cream, tried it on himself, called it a hair refining cream and patented the first chemical hair straightener/relaxer.

Garrett Augustus Morgan
Garrett Augustus Morgan

Chemicals found in hair straighteners/relaxers

Popular Ingredients: sodium hydroxide, calcium hydroxide, guanidine carbonate, guanidine hydroxide, thioglycolic acid, lithium hydroxide.

Relaxers, whether with or without lye, have a very high pH (very near the top of the scale). In other words, they are caustic, i.e capable of burning, dissolving and corroding. Relaxers break down the bonds that actually give strength to the hair which cause the hair to straighten and deplete the hair of sebum (the oil your scalp secretes).

Sodium Hydroxide is the strongest type of chemical used in some chemical relaxers because it provides the most long lasting and dramatic effects. Sodium hydroxide, also known as caustic soda, is a white solid and is a highly caustic metallic 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 pH level is higher in a lye relaxer than a no-lye relaxer (approximately 12-14 for lye, 9-11 for no-lye, whereas your hair should generally have a pH of around 4-5). With higher ph, the faster the straightening solution will take hold, but the more potential the damage. This type of relaxer forces the cuticle to open so that the relaxer can penetrate into the cortex layer of the hair. Once there, the sodium hydroxide breaks the protein bonds or keratin. When this happens, the hair smoothes out to a straightened form. The effects of the chemical action of sodium hydroxide is not reversible.

Traditional relaxer...
Traditional relaxer….

Calcium (Gaunidine) Hydroxide is the main, active ingredient in a no-lye based relaxer. Although the pH level of a no-lye relaxer is typically lower than a lye-based one, no-lye relaxers are often associated with drier hair due to calcium buildup. These calcium deposits settle into your hair and prevent your hair from receiving the benefits from your hair products or natural oils. The pH for calcium hydrixide is 12.4. This no lye 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. The chemical action of calcium hydroxide is NOT reversible

A no lye relaxer brand...
A no lye relaxer brand…

Effects of Long Term Chemical Straightening

Hair relaxers change the level of cystine – a protein responsible for strengthening the hair – in our hair. The end result is that the hair becomes more fragile. Adding hairstyles like braids and extensions onto the hair then puts more pressure on the relaxed hair, which results in hair breaking or falling out. The following are some effects of long term chemical straightening compounded by poor hair care practices,

  • hair breakage
  • hair thinning
  • lack of hair growth
  • scalp irritation
  • scalp damage
  • hair loss
  • skin burns
  • permanent scarring
  • deep ulcerations
  • skin drying and cracking
  • dermatitis
  • irreversible baldness
  • weak, dry, broken and damaged hair

Personally, I have experienced a majority of the above including hair breakage, hair thinning, lack of hair growth, scalp irritation and damage, hair loss, scalp burns andweak, dry, broken and damaged hair. Previously my hairline used to recover from any damage but lately there are very small patches that have still not regrown. I am not sure yet if this means that I have permanent scarring or baldness in some places. Watch this space!

Me after my last relaxer and at the beginning of my hair journey ..sometime in November 2011.
Me after my last relaxer and at the beginning of my hair journey ..sometime in November 2012.

Final thoughts…

Its important to know that the chemicals above enter the body through the scalp, particularly when there is a burn or cut on the skin. They upset the internal chemical balance which can lead to complications. They have also been linked to ailments such as reproductive problems, fibroids, heart disease, cognitive disorders, cancers, early puberty, altered immune systems and other health risks.

Making an informed decision about the things you put on your hair and in your body is important.  After reading this and you still choose to chemically straighten your hair regularly – then more power to you! However you may want to think twice about it if you are considering using a relaxer on your daughter…

2 thoughts on “Do you know what’s in your relaxer?

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