By Gail Newbold
“I need a deep conditioner” is something that most African American women say whenever they go to the beauty salon. Hair stylists, without asking why, utilize this hair tool because they know while putting in a chemical relaxer the hair needs to stay moisturized. Common knowledge and practices dictates to the hair product user/consumer that chemical relaxers/perms damage the hair due to its tendency to deplete the natural oil and fatty acid of the hair. The hair on many CR/P users become dry, brittle, thinner, and often time breaks off due to “over processing”. However, these hair conditions are only indicative of a deeper, perhaps irreparable damage being done to the actual structure of African American women’s hair.
But In order to comprehend what it is a relaxer/perm does that makes processed hair so susceptible to damage/breakage the consumer must know the structure of hair: Already African American hair is susceptible to breakage due to its structural makeup. Hair fibers that are tightly coiled are typically shorter, and elliptically take up more space, thus making it easier for hair to become knotted, tangled and breakable. African Americans typically have this kind of hair, and due to the “space” the fibers take up, AA hair looks “thick and nappy”. Even with constant moisturizer and other oils to keep “natural” hair manageable, it is easier to “control” hair that is sleek and straight. But in order to get this sleek appearance, the molecular makeup of the hair must be altered, and in order to do that, one must manipulate what the hair is made of- Protein.
The protein in hair makes it strong, durable, and resistant to stressors that can be found in the air we breathe. Protein also acts as a bonding agent, holding hair together thus staving off the dreaded “breakage” most women try to avoid when chemically altering their hair. Because of its strength, there are but so many chemicals that can break down the molecular make up of protein, one of those chemicals is alkali, and it’s this ingredient that can be found in many relaxers/perms. Consumers usually turn to alkali relaxers formulated with sodium hydroxide, guanidine hydroxide (also known as no-lye relaxers- this is due to its low PH balance of 9) or thioglycote , and it’s the PH balance of the substances used in these products along with other ingredients in the hair treatment that make it so dangerous to the health of your hair.
The purpose of relaxers is to destroy the peptide bond so that the hair strand can “relax” and become straight. And relaxers are some of the most potent alkali chemicals one can use on their hair. In fact, some relaxers have the same PH balance as a bottle of Draino (a product used to clean out sink drains). These high PH balances make the alkali chemicals potent enough to alter the peptide bonds in the hair, thus destroying the protein and destroying the ability for the hair to hold its self together. This leaves hair dry, brittle, and easily broken off from the root to the tip of each strand. At this point, relaxers seem like the most horrible thing a person could do to their hair. This opinion holds a kernel of truth, but for those of you who refuse to give up the chemically processed look there are some things one should do in order to circumvent immediate damage to your glorious mane.
The first step to ensuring the health of your hair is simple: consult a professional. It is never a good idea to apply a chemical relaxer yourself unless you are a hair care professional. Those who do this as their livelihood are familiar with the chemical process and have a thorough professional knowledge of how long the chemical should stay in, what hair products to use after the chemical application, and how to care for the hair after the process is complete. HCPs also perform a “strand test”, which gives your beautician an indication of what strength the relaxer should be depending on the current state/health of your hair. It’s also a good way to see if your hair is too damaged to survive any chemical treatment. But just going to any hair salon is not the wisest decision. It is a better idea to do some reconnaissance by seeking out other customers/clients of your chosen hairdresser, just to make sure they have a good track record of successful hair straightening.
The next few steps include making sure that your hair stays properly moisturized, avoiding over processing and general maintenance. Since Relaxers/Perms deplete natural oils it is imperative that a conditioner be applied to the hair after, and sometimes before (depending on the health of your hair) the chemical process. Cream conditioners, Protein Conditioners and liquid conditioners should be used by your HCP as well as at home. A deep conditioning treatment once or twice a week will help to stave off excessive drying of already sensitive hair. Hot Oil treatments are also a good way to keep hair moisturized. It is also important to be vigilant of your chemical process schedule- keeping a calendar with marked off days is a good way to make sure that you do not go in for more chemical treatments than necessary. It is customary and less stressful for your hair if the chemical straightening only happens every 6-8 weeks. If your style can be maintained for an even longer period, that will be much more beneficial for the longevity and health of your hair. Also try to avoid excessive heat by not over using blow dryers, flat irons, curling irons, etc. These tools can dry out hair, and in conjunction with a chemical, can accelerate the deterioration of hair health. And just in case you are unsure of how to care for your hair while it’s being chemically treated, it is always a safer bet to ask your HCP any questions you may have.