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Getting to the root of chemical hair relaxing

Is a Solution for:
Dry or Brittle Hair, Limp Hair, Dull Hair
October 12, 2009 Reviewed by Copley 15 Comments
Chris Rock has been making the rounds to promote his new documentary "Good Hair," about the seriously complicated hair care customs of the African-American community. His film delves into the $9-billion industry that has evolved around this culture's attainment of the "European" look, since the natural nappy look just isn't cutting it. According to some reviews, the most entertaining aspect of "Good Hair" is its investigation of the history and practice of hair relaxers, which commonly use sodium hydroxide. After wowing us with its power to coax tight, kinky hair into long, luxuriant tresses, the film shows sodium hydroxide burning a hole through a raw chicken carcass and completely disintegrating an aluminum can that had soaked in a sodium hydroxide solution for several hours.

The chemical process of hair relaxing is no laughing matter. Hair breakage, hair thinning, hair loss, scalp irritation, and scalp damage are just some of the lovely side effects that accompany years of relaxing hair. Unlike products that promise to temporarily tame curls, the process of chemically straightening hair transforms the basic structure of each strand. The chemicals used in relaxers penetrate into the cortical layer, which is what gives curly hair its shape, and break the cross-bonds. In loosening the natural curl pattern, relaxing chemicals thus splinter hair's strength and elasticity. The process is irreversible.

Sodium hydroxide, a caustic chemical with a high alkaline content is the very same ingredient found in drain cleaners. While sodium hydroxide is the most popular and most potent type of chemical relaxer, guanidine hydroxide and ammonium thioglycolate are other options. Commonly referred to as the "no-lye" relaxer, guanidine hydroxide tends to be less damaging, relatively speaking. Ammonium thioglycolate, nicknamed "thio relaxer," reacts differently by softening and relaxing curly hair through changes to the hair's cystine linkage. No matter which version is used, all types of chemical processing can erode the hair and damage the cuticle.

It is recommended to find a reputable professional trained in hair relaxing and to arrange a consultation. After performing a strand test to ensure that hair can withstand chemical processing without adverse reactions, the hair professional typically applies a protective petroleum cream followed by a chemical hair relaxing solution, which must not come into contact with the eyes or exposed skin. Once the hair has fully "cooked," the chemicals are rinsed from the hair with warm water. The final steps are a neutralizing product to restore the hair's natural pH and a deep conditioner (either cream or protein/liquid) to repair damage. Depending on how long the relaxing solution is left on, the hair can stretch out to over twice its normal length when combed out. Needless to say, this long, straight hair is also extremely fragile.

Once hair has been relaxed, it requires specialized ongoing treatment to maintain the effects of straightening. Because relaxed hair is more porous and tends to retain dulling residue, hair products must be rinsed out thoroughly. It is also necessary to use leave-in conditioners and/or hot oil treatments (using almond, olive, or sesame oil) twice weekly since relaxed hair becomes much more brittle and breakable. Conditioners smooth the damaged outer surfaces of the hair and replenish the oils and proteins that chemical processing strips off. If not treated with attentive care, newly relaxed hair can become stiff and "see-through."

A touch-up either in the salon or with an at-home relaxer kit is necessary every 6-8 weeks to straighten ingrowing roots. Warning when DIY: overlapping the chemicals on already straightened hair can result in instant breakage. A strong salon relaxing treatment typically lasts up to 6 months depending on the hair's texture and growth. At this point, the costly cycle begins anew, over and over again. If it seems like an unhealthy addition, it is telling that regular hair relaxer customers in "Good Hair" refer to their chemical of choice as "creamy crack."

With "Good Hair," Chris Rock, who seems like an unlikely champion of women's beauty interests, untangles the knotty issues surrounding hair relaxing, among other hair treatments. Relaxers strip away the hair's outer layer and sap it of elasticity, causing strands to snap off when styling. Breaking and other damage is not uncommon. Nearly three-quarters of African-American women who have undergone chemical relaxers complain of hair breakage, split ends, and dryness. Misuse of chemical hair relaxers at home is particularly dangerous. In fact, the FDA lists hair straightening products among its top consumer complaint areas.

All of the time, energy, and expense necessitated by hair relaxing is devoted to the pursuit of one particular hair style, which once upon a time was out of fashion. At the root of Chris Rock's documentary are a number of hairy questions relating to racial identity in America. Nobody seems satisfied with the ethnic look, and everybody seems willing to suffer dangerous, irreversible salon procedures in the pursuit of some "European" ideal. But another take-away is the pure devotion of women in the African-American community to achieving their own notions of "good hair."
  • November 13, 2009

    by PrettyLady

    Thank You for the info.Yes the African American women chooses the (Creamy Crack)hands down.I no longer poison my brain with that stuff and I think women of all races do different things that,they may or may not know could be toxic to their bodies. Some woman get upset and feel embarrassed or attacked when Caucasian women speak on our flaws but thats just what women do lol..sure we can talk about wanting tan skin fuller lips and a nice Apple Bottom all day (Things some Caucasian women want.)some women in India shave their unibrow lol Some Hispanic women love the Creamy Crack too and would never be seen with their natural curl pattern that looks a lot like mine the list goes on.No man Woman or Child can judge me..I'm glad someone is talking about it cause its toxic and it needs to stop.
    The facts are right here.Can you handle the truth?

  • October 16, 2009

    by marta

    Well said Jaye

  • October 16, 2009

    by Jaye

    I think it's rather futile, and maybe a little counterproductive, for women to get insulted by society's beauty standards. It doesn't matter what color you are, how tall you are, what kind of hair you have, how much you weigh, what your nails look like, what your complexion problems might be (acne, brown spots, etc.), how many wrinkles you have, how large & perky your breasts are, how white and straight your teeth are, etc., etc. - we are ALL in the same boat!! We are ALL trying to live up to the current beauty standards by improving whatever is perceived as not ideal, so we all have some issue that we're contending with. These ideals change from one era to another. Look at old artwork when rather plump women posed nude and were considered Rubenesque beauties. As recently as the early 20th century (and before) it was considered highly unattractive to have a tan as a tan was associated with the peons who worked outside all day, in other words, the common laborers who worked for the wealthy.

    Maybe some day frizzy hair will be considered a fabulous asset. Meanwhile, one of the things that makes things worse for us is that most of our "beauty" role models refuse to tell how much they spend on looking good, what services they get regularly, what products they use, and how much cosmetic surgery they've had. We're supposed to believe it's all natural. The current issue of New Beauty magazine has Christie Brinkley on the cover with the blurb "This is what 55 looks like!" Yeah, but only if you have all the time and money in the world to spend on yourself, exercising umpteen hours a day, having a cook to prepare only healthy meals, going to the hairdresser every week, having nips & tucks whenever necessary, getting dental veneers, and then having a photo airbrushed. There is simply no way you get to age 55 without one wrinkle in your forehead or around your eyes or mouth, especially Brinkley who has been perpetually tan since her early 20's. But the current beauty trends are what they are...and we all have to deal with it in whatever way it's relevant to each of us.

  • October 15, 2009

    by aerwin

    My hair is very dry also. I Will have to look for Organic Root Stimulator. Yes they are good products but I am still not completely satisfied. Yes all the serums Have cones in them . I know some people are against using them but goodness it is about the only thing that smooths my hair.

  • October 14, 2009

    by Louise

    Hi Aerwin, sorry for the late response...are those products good? I have hair tending to be dry, so I love anything by Organic Root Stimulator..All the line has olive oil in it. I use the Deep penetrating Conditioner, it comes in a bottle (which is hard to find for about $8), and a "Conditioning Pak" I get them at the supermarket for about $1.60, they last for about 2 treatments, unless you have extremely long hair.
    I have heard that the Ouidad line is extremely good for naturally curly hair..also I like the Frederick fekkai Glossing Cream, and their "Curly" line, (It is pink/pink bottles)...other than than, when I wear it curly I use any mousse with no alcohol, and any type of hair serum while its wet. (The expensive ones don't differ much to the cheap ones to me, they all have dimethicone in them).

  • October 14, 2009

    by aerwin

    the products i use now are Mill Creek Keratin Shampoo and Conditioner. Giovanni Leave in and Giovanni Magnetic Gel. What about you? Any suggestions?

  • October 13, 2009

    by Louise

    PS, you're right, Cher's hair was great!

  • October 13, 2009

    by Louise

    Hello Aerwin, that is a cool name..I bet your hair looks beautiful curly! I understand what you mean though about EVERYONE on Tv straightening their hair...I tend to wear mine straight in the Winter, but naturally curly in the Summer, as it is much, much easier!
    It is so much better than killing it with heat too. What hair products do you use?

  • October 13, 2009

    by aerwin

    PS Now that I am thinking hard about this . Is there anyone in movies or tv that you can think of with very curly hair? Shakira maybe . But I noticed now she has straight hair.
    See I do not feel comfortable wearing my hair in it's naturally curly state . Never have. I wish I did.

  • October 13, 2009

    by aerwin

    Well okay I meant no offense about Oprah and Michelle's hair being beautiful. Here's the thing I have very curly frizzy hair so naturally I want the opposite of that. When I was growing up I wanted Cher's hair. So much so that I would even clothespin a towel around my head. I idolized Cher for her hair. I do wish curlier hair was more acceptable but as Louise said it is seen as a negative. And often when you say "makeovers" what do they do? Straighten curly hair.

  • October 13, 2009

    by Louise

    Ps) why are Michelle and Oprah considered to have "beautiful hair"..and that it is something to be "wondered" at?? This is just the type of negative stereo type that chips away at women of color. I am sure the woman above in no way, shape or form intended to offend any readers. But it still is careless.
    It just proves by the above comment that straight hair is considered beautiful but truly afro or coarse textured hair is considered otherwise.
    Woman of color do not want to be wondered at, or have their hair stroked or petted amazement like some kind of strange animal. There are soooo many people of color in this country people!!! Educate yourselves on our many differences!!!

  • October 13, 2009

    by Louise

    I am bi-racial and relax my hair...many Hair stylists that use relaxers, have been doing so for many, many years. In fact there are only a few brands of hair relaxer that stylists use and recommend. Even the box hair relaxer has evolved to contain a good deal of conditioning agents etc. to minimize any hair damage.

    Applying a hair relaxer is an art, which is really supposed to be done by "professional" hands. As with ANY hair chemical, or box coloring mix, there is a danger of overprocessing.

    If this process was so dangerous, many black women would be walking away with 3rd degree burns from their hair salons!! No woman would leave the relaxer on long enough to disintergrate her head, just as no caucasian woman would leave a box of hair dye on her head for 3 hours!!!!I have heard of the so-called Japanese relaxers which caucasian women use, which sound more dangerous to me.

    I love the flexibility using a relaxer brings me, I am able to wear my hair BOTH curly and straight, AND it is more manageable. Caucasian women have the choice of either curly-perming their hair or wearing it straight, so why shouldn't women of color have options??

    If there was not so much negative attention on having "frizzy" hair by both the media (featuring mainly white women!), and some people of color themselves, then maybe it would be more acceptable for EVERY woman of color to have natural hair. There also appears to me the recent phenomenom(excuse my spelling!) of white women using flat irons when they already have straight hair!!!! So-called "frizzy" hair is viewed as negative on many hair commercials mainly targeted at white women.

    My friend has completely natural hair, and recieves a lot of compliments, but then also a lot of negative comments sadly from other women of color.

    The issues of race and hair run DEEP in this country. I think the movie is great, but also as Chris Rock is not a woman, he probably wouldn't completely feel the pressure to have straight hair, so of course it is absurd to him!!

    Women of color should feel comfortable wearing their hair either natural or relaxed, but more importantly understand that their skin color is beautiful, unique and something to be proud of.

  • October 13, 2009

    by aerwin

    I am very interested to see this movie. I must say I have never really thought about it much. Although I have often wondered how Michelle and Oprah have such beautiful hair. Yes and trust me white women bleach their hair and worse go to tanning beds!

    After struggling with very curly even frizzy hair my whole life this subject very much interests me.

  • October 12, 2009

    by copley

    Hi Darrell-
    I'm sorry that the post came off as condescending. It was merely meant to give some background on the film's exploration of a common African-American custom. If the documentary had focused on the similarly damaging process of bleaching, I would have treated it in the same way. Look no further than our Dept of Daft section to find some of the crazy things white women will do for beauty.

  • October 12, 2009

    by Darrell

    Isn't the constant bleaching that some Caucasian woman go through damaging also? "Devotion" to acheiving a certain look isn't something that is found in the African American community only. I resent the condescending tone of this post. I will no longer be following this website.

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