HOW CHEMICAL HAIR RELAXERS AFFECT YOUR HAIR
– ALL YOU NEED TO KNOW
WHAT ARE THE ACTIVE INGREDIENTS IN CHEMICAL RELAXERS
There are two major types of Chemical Relaxers – Lye and No Lye Relaxers.
LYE RELAXERS – has its main ingredient as Sodium Hydroxide also known as Lye or Caustic Soda which is a corrosive substance. This type of relaxer is also known as a BASE relaxer as it requires the coating of the scalp with petroleum jelly to protect the scalp from being irritated or burned during its application. Lye Relaxers are made with Sodium Hydroxide mixed with water, petroleum jelly and emulsifiers to create a creamy consistency.
The ingredient Sodium Hydroxide is at the extreme end of alkalinity on the pH level of 13 and 14.
To discuss pH level, we need to understand how important it is and how it impacts on our actions. It technically stands for “potential for hydrogen ion concentration.”
The system allows us to compare our body chemistry to the chemical makeup of our environment. pH is a medical term that describes the balance of your system and it refers to the condition of metabolic changes. pH level means how acidic or alkaline something is. The lower the pH level the more acidic it is. The higher the pH level the more alkaline it is. pH is based on a scale of 0-14 where the level of 7 represents neutrality and pure water is at this level.
Understanding the varying ends of the scale and how they affect us helps us to better understand what the chemical relaxer contains and how it affects our hair. Healthy hair and skin has a pH factor of around 4.5 to 5.5. If it is exposed to something more acidic or on a lower pH than itself, it hardens, becomes brittle and burns off when at the extreme end of the acidic scale – hydrochloric acid. When it is exposed to something more alkaline, it tends to swell, soften, and melt off when at the extreme end of the alkaline scale – Caustic Soda. Here is an example of the pH levels on some basic products and substances. Note where Sodium Hydroxide (caustic soda) is placed on the scale – highest level on the pH level.
pH level indicator
Source: Dr. Don Colbert’s book “The Seven Pillars of Health”,
Manufacturers of lye chemical relaxers vary the sodium hydroxide content of their solution from 5% to 10% and the pH level between 10 and 14.
Also note that Sodium Hydroxide is the same active ingredient in the household liquid drain cleaners or sink un-blockers which led the United States Government – Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to ban the use of more than 10% of this ingredient in household liquid drain cleaners because it corrodes and damages the drain pipes. This same ingredient in generally the same dosage is what is used in chemical relaxers applied on Black women’s hair.
In general, the more the percentage of sodium hydroxide used, the higher the pH level and the quicker the chemical reaction will take place on the hair, and this leads to the greater the danger of hair damage.
“NO LYE” relaxers
The increasing concerns concerning the potential damage and dangers associated to the use of Sodium Hydroxide led to the discovery the “No Lye” relaxers. There are three main types of the No lye relaxers.
Type 1 – operates on the same general principle as lye relaxers but uses a slightly weaker alkaline agent – a). Potassium Hydroxide, b) Lithium Hydroxide or c)Guanidine Hydroxide.
Type 2 – uses ammonium thioglycolate which is also known as Perm Salt for its use in permanent waves.
Type 3 – is the relaxers sold for home use with the active ingredient as ammonium sulphite and ammonium bisulphite. These ingredients selectively reduce the bonds in the hair and is much weaker and slower to act.
All these chemicals are designed to soften and swell the hair’s fibers and alter its natural setting.
HOW CHEMICAL RELAXERS WORK ON YOUR HAIR
When the chemical solution is applied on your hair either by a professional in a salon, or at home with your home relaxer kits, the caustic “lye cream” swells open the hair’s fibers, penetrates the protein structure of the hair and weakens its internal bonds, causing the natural curls to loosen out. This then alters the entire hair structure causing it to change by this action. The chemical melts down the protective layer of the hair shaft. Leave it for too long or apply too much and the hair will turn to a mushy paste and melt off which is the corrosive nature of the chemicals.
To understand the way the chemical relaxer works with hair, we need to have a basic glimpse of the hair strand.
Damaged hair strand
The Human hair is the subject of a remarkably wide range of scientific investigations. Its chemical and physical properties are of importance to the cosmetics industry, forensic scientists, and to biomedical researchers.
Hair is made of keratin – a protein found in also in nails and skin. It is keratin that gives hair its strength and elasticity.
Each strand of hair is made of 3 parts. Cuticle, Cortex and Medulla.
Cuticle is the outer layer of the hair strand and looks like scales on a fish or tiles on a roof. They are colourless, transparent and easily damaged. The Cuticle layer protects the hair strand. The Cortex makes up the main bulk of the hair strand. This is the place where all the chemical and physical bonds of the hair are found. The bonds determine the elasticity, texture and curl of the hair. The Medulla is the central part of the hair strand consisting of cells filled with air spaces. A medulla is present in most hairs with the exception of thin hair.
Our main concern in chemical relaxing process is the Cortex as this is what gives the hair its curl, strength and elasticity. It contains the bonds which affect our chemical relaxing process. The bonds are 3 types – Disulphide bonds, Salt bonds and Hydrogen bonds. The Disulphide /Sulphur bonds are the strongest and can only be broken when chemical relaxers are applied to the hair.
When the chemical relaxer is applied to the hair shaft, it causes the cuticle to swell allowing the product to penetrate into the cortex of the hair. This then breaks the Sulphur bonds releasing one atom of the sulphur bond and replacing it with a new bond lanthionine. The hair now has one sulphur and one lanthionine bond. Once this bond has been broken, the hair has now lost its natural shape and resistance and is now straight. This is what has altered the natural curl of the hair strand. Thus, when you use chemicals to make curly hair straight, you have not only changed the natural pattern of the hair but you have also lost its strength and elasticity. The action of using chemical relaxers on the hair has been likened to burning wood into ash where it cannot become wood again. This is one of the problems about using relaxers as once you’ve applied them to your hair, there’s no turning back. There’s no way to reverse the process except to work with new growth. The degree to which the hair is successfully straightened depends on the type and strength of chemical used, the time it’s left in the hair, and the underlying health or weakness of the hair being treated. The treated portion of the hair moves away from the scalp as the new growth of untreated hair sprouts up from the roots, requiring periodic retreatment (about every 6–8 weeks) to maintain a consistent appearance.
HOW DOES CHEMICAL RELAXERS AFFECT YOU?
Although the general argument for relaxing hair is to increase manageability and flexibility in styling the Black hair, its damaging consequences are numerous to mention. Most Black women have been brainwashed to think that Black hair does not grow long, is dry, will break off, is unmanageable, is too hard to comb and needs straightening in order to manage it. The reasons for these excuses are due to ignorance and lack of sensible information on how to manage the uniqueness of the Black hair. Most Black women will wait for hours on a busy Saturday morning at the hairdressing salon waiting for their turn, when they finally get seen, the hairdresser slaps the chemical relaxer on their hair, and ask them to wait in another chair for the relaxer to take effect. It starts irritating and burning your scalp but because the hairdresser is very busy she tells you to hold on and in the end you have your scalp burnt with large crumps of skin scaling from your head and in some instances the hair is completely melted away. We do not give the burning sensation any thought as we imagine it to be normal.
Chemical relaxers generally is dangerous but in an untrained hands is worse and is a recipe for untold disaster. Caustic soda on hair is like putting bleach on clothes. These dangerous ingredients are corrosive and if left on the hair longer than required will melt the hair which explains why your hair does not get any straighter but thinner as it continues to melt away the protective layers of the hair strand.
chemical hair damage
Chemicals in your hair is more than just changing the texture of your hair. The instruction for applying chemicals involves wearing gloves on your hands because it is corrosive but there is no instruction on what to use to protect the scalp. For the reason that the scalp is exposed to these chemicals, they absorb into your skin tissues, through your cells and into your blood stream thereby exposing your health to chemical toxins. The dosage of this exposure is constantly increased depending on the number of times you apply your relaxer e.g 6 to 12 times a year and for an average of the number of years you apply them. This is why it is a taboo to apply these chemicals on children as has been seen to have been practices by some mothers of children as young as 2 years. Imagine the amount of toxin in their body by the time they turn 30 years?
As these chemicals can enter the body through the skin and the lungs, it is also a known fact that this is one of the occupational hazards of beauticians and hairdressers as they are constantly inhaling and working with these chemicals which has been linked to tumors and cancers.
Considering the fact that we are constantly exposed to a barrage of external and environmental pollutants, the least we can do is help ourselves to reduce the amount of chemicals we put in our body. You are therefore personally responsible for putting toxic cosmetic chemicals into your body through chemical relaxers. With the world now developing a greener conscience – cutting down on carbon emissions, the climate change issues, the genetically modified food issues etc, you therefore need to make a conscious effort to protect yourself from exposure to these chemicals by either completely cutting away from them or by decreasing your usage of them. Chemical relaxers should therefore not at any cost be applied on children.
The general consensus is that the chemical relaxers have failed the Black woman. It does not help the Black woman’s hair to grow rather it causes it to break. It leads to brittleness, dryness, baldness and widespread alopecia where the Black woman is statistically known to have the highest rate of traction alopecia exceeding all other races combined. This has caused Black women to accept short hair as normal where genetically this is not true. Chemically straightening the Black woman’s hair is not an option to healthy hair. Natural hair care options provide a healthier solution of non-hazardous styling processes.
The lack of information on the route of natural hair styles is what has sent the Black woman on a search which has led her on a road to misguided information – the beauty supply shop and the Hairdressing/cosmetology colleges.
Beauty supply and hair shops are usually owned and operated by non-specialist in Black hair and are therefore not a solution to Black hair needs. The hairdressing and cosmetology colleges are not a solution to save the natural Black hair as they claim to be authorities on Black hair yet uphold a practice of one standard of beauty – to test the proficiency of the straight hair styling – which does not care for the health of the natural Black hair types. Due to the wrong information offered by these hairdressing colleges, most trained Black hairdressers are also at a loss in helping the natural hair client. They lack knowledge and skill to work with natural Black hair based on their training and their role is to offer their natural Black hair clients the quick solutions of chemical relaxers.
SOLUTIONS TO WORKING WITH NATURAL BLACK HAIR
Start by taking the necessary steps to understand your hair while becoming an informed consumer. Remember that beauty starts from within you and thank God we are no longer in the slavery era where your beauty was dictated by others but yourself. Work with what is healthy, makes you comfortable, and is not risky and damaging to your hair follicles. Take time to select your hair beautician as there are very few that understand the structure and chemistry of the Black hair. There are countless untrained and unthinking hair beauticians practicing and a dose of the poisonous chemical – Sodium Hydroxide – can prove lethal in the hands of this person. Always remember the Black woman’s natural hair responds to good treatment, right tools and right products.
The natural hair alternatives to chemical processing of the hair which create beauty are: Hair weaving, hair braiding, hair locking, wig beauty etc. Apart from hair locking, these styles are temporary and give you the various choice of styling options. When they are done by a trained hair beautician on a base of natural black hair, these styles give you versatility without damage. Whatever you choose to do, being in a position to decide puts you in the driving seat of your beauty and gives you the power to be pro-active instead of re-active.
World of Braiding & Extensions is a pioneer in this issue and is in a position to guide you in your journey to working on a healthier hair choice. Let us know how we can help you by sending us your comments, questions, experiences, advise etc.
Joy Phido is the Chief Executive & Natural Hair Consultant at World of Braiding & Extensions
Contact: Tel: +44 208 983 9815, email: firstname.lastname@example.org
African Caribbean Hairdressing – Sandra Gittens
Lets Talk Hair – Pamela Ferrell
The Hair Bible – Philip Kingsley
And various internet websites.
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