All About Afro: straightening up the truth about chemical hair relaxers

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Stylist Team
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London-based hair and beauty journalist Sue Omar is hell-bent on celebrating the black woman's crowning glory: her hair.

She is exploring the mystique of Afro hair in a special six-part series for, with her third edition uncovering the truth and technique behind chemical hair straightening - plus the potential hair-breaking damage incorrect application can cause.

I can recall the day I got my first hair relaxer like it was yesterday. At the tender age of 13, it was also the first time I’d ever stepped foot into an Afro Hair salon to get my tresses tamed by someone other than my mother.  At the time, the only thing that I knew about hair relaxers was that it was a chemical straightening process that promises to ‘relax’ the natural curl pattern of Afro hair.

I had seen silky-soft relaxed hairstyles on a few female members of my extended family, so I had an inkling of what the end result could potentially look like. But what I didn’t know was that my mane was about to morph into a texture that, quite literally, defied nature.

Relaxing your hair is like being in a prison. You’re caged in. Your hair rules you... You’re always battling to make your hair do what it wasn’t meant to do.

 - Chimamanda Nzgozi Adichie, Americanah

As the hair stylist invited me over to take a seat in her salon chair, I felt a sudden rush of anxiety. The thought of being just a few hours away from attaining the free-flowing, straight hair that I had dreamt of gave me butterflies, while venturing into the unknown had me on the edge of my seat.

The stylist flung a salon cape around my neck and then reached for an enormous tub filled with a creamy-white chemical substance otherwise known as hair relaxer. As the tub was popped open, I caught a strong whiff of the chemical substances and instantly realised that this pampering process may not be as ‘relaxing’ as I thought.

The stylist unravelled my braids and then gently brushed through my natural curls that sprung upwards and sat on my shoulders. My scalp was then lined with a cream base to protect it from any irritation - or at least that was what I was told. As the first section of my hair was smothered in the relaxer, I suddenly felt a tingle in my scalp area. A few minutes later, my scalp started heating up. I felt like my hair had been set on fire. What did I just sign myself up for?

When I got my first relaxer it burned and my second relaxer burned, they all burned.

- Regina King, Emmy Award winning actress, Hair Tales

With no way out at this point, my scalp was going through one of the most traumatic experiences of my short life. Evidently, this was the price I had to pay to be initiated into the elite club of idealised beauty.

Once the relaxer was rinsed off and my hair had been blow-dried, I a shed a tear out of sheer amazement at the finished look. My shoulder-length bouncy curls had magically stretched all the way down to the middle of my back, and boasted a newfound softness. As I ran my fingers through my luxurious locks, I just couldn’t believe what my tresses had transformed into.

“Come back in eight weeks for me to touch up your roots,” my stylist advised. I was in such a strong state of euphoria that I completely erased the pain I felt earlier and, just like that, my addiction to the ‘creamy-crack’ was in full-effect.

I revelled in the wonders of my gorgeous new hair texture for about two months, which was around the same time that it took for my natural curl pattern to reveal itself from my roots. Nonetheless, I was still loving my new look which invited plenty of compliments from my secondary school peers. I just couldn’t believe that for the first time in my life, my hair was seen by both myself and onlookers as beautiful.

In hindsight, I wish I had savoured this moment, because like most things that are artificially beautiful, they have to be maintained and nurtured to remain that way. As planned, I went back to my local Afro hair salon to relax my re-growth and endured the same agonising pain. Just a week after my second dose of hair relaxer, I started to notice that my hair was shedding drastically in the shower and my newly straight strands had snapped severely from the back. What used to be strong, healthy and durable Afro hair, had now become an extremely weak and fragile hot mess.

Relaxer done right has no risks so it should not be an issue if the client has chosen the right salon.

- Leillah Sekalala, Founder of

When it comes to understanding the chemicals involved in hair relaxing, it’s important to know there are different types designed to best suit different scalp and hair types. The two main types are Lye Relaxer and No-Lye relaxer.

Lye Relaxers contain stronger concentrations of a chemical ingredient called sodium hydroxide, which breaks down the curl pattern in individual hair bonds to permanently straighten strands. They can cause damage to the hair if not applied safely by a qualified hair stylist and tend to be for salon-use only.

On the other hand, No-Lye Relaxers are often made with slightly milder chemicals, such as potassium hydroxide and lithium hydroxide, and are affordably sold in Afro hair shops for at-home use.

Relaxing your hair at home using a store-bought kit may sound quite outrageous, but for many black women, including myself, throwing on our kitchen beautician gloves from time-to-time works out to be a convenient option. From my personal experience with at-home hair relaxers, it just sometimes seemed like the quick way to get those roots in check and maintain my marvellous mane. However, the permanent damage caused by my amateur application, still haunts my hair to this day.

In search of expert advice on the topic of hair relaxers, I arranged a chat with qualified Trichologist Joyce John of the Hair Health & Vitality Clinic, London, who had plenty of wisdom to share.

“In my personal opinion the reason people relax their hair is to smooth out any kinks and make the hair more manageable day-to-day. If the hair stylist is a qualified technician that knows how to apply relaxer properly, there's no reason why breakage should occur.

“If I were to perform a hair relaxer on virgin natural hair, then I would first invite my client to the salon for a consultation to understand the hair type, its density and any areas that may have been damaged. I would advise my client to have a deep conditioning treatment in my salon to exfoliate the scalp, and then book them in for a second consultation ten days later. During the second consultation, I would ensure that my client hasn’t been taking any new medication or experienced any hormonal changes during this ten day period.

“I would then choose the appropriate hair relaxer. On virgin hair, I would always apply the relaxer from mid-length to ends and then roots, because the scalp produces the most heat. I would then allow the relaxer to process as per the recommended time on the instructions. Next, I would rinse out the relaxer and condition the hair immediately while the pores on the scalp are still open and follow up with a neutralising shampoo and customised conditioner.

“Finally, I would finish up with a PH balancer to bring the hair back up to a healthy PH balance, which sits anywhere between 3.5 and 5. A lot of people blame the relaxer for damaging hair but it’s not the relaxer, it’s the application process and maintenance.”

Taking Joyce’s professional advice on-board, I do agree that the there is absolutely nothing wrong with wanting to relax your hair, whether you are a black woman or any other race for that matter. As women living in a world that often dictates the way we should look, so that we can be considered ‘conventionally beautiful’, I think it’s important that we celebrate the fact that we're all entitled to freedom of choice.

However, if you do choose to style or wear you hair in particular way that may jeopardise its health, it’s equally important to understand the facts and act accordingly. Relaxing my natural curls without following the appropriate steps caused havoc on my hair that took over three years to reverse.

Next up - my journey back to natural Afro hair. Stay tuned!

Join the Afro Hair debate via on social media @StylistMagazine using the hashtag #AllAboutAfro

Main illustration: Maddy Fresh Upton