I remember begging my “hair styling impaired” mother for a relaxer when I was about 9 or 10 years old. The thought of being able to just brush my hair back and not worry about my edges or ponytails frizzing up because I went in the fire hydrant or because I ran around playing until I was drenched with sweat from my head to my feet. The thought of never again having to sit still for hours while her loving unskilled hands made a painful mockery of my “confused” hair texture by combing it after shampooing it and sometimes not using conditioner; I think that would be considered abuse today =). After weeks of begging I was told, “You must wait until you turn 11.” My 11th birthday seemed to come the next day. As I prepared to go to the salon for the first time to receive my prized relaxer I asked my mother, “Does getting a relaxer hurt?” Her answer was, “Pooberry, beauty is pain.” And that’s when it all began…. Today black women who used to believe as I did; that smooth edges and frizz-less ponytails was the evidence of “good hair”, now seemed to have changed their minds about what they believe is “good hair”. Many women now believe “good hair” is healthy hair, but are not necessarily sure how to achieve it. As a stylist, I noticed a major change in the mindset of black women’s view of “good hair” after the movie of the same name was release and the conversation was had on Oprah’s show. The movie showed the extremes of many aspects of the black woman’s journey through her hair care (or lack there of) and the billion dollar business behind all the products needed for the very arduous journey black women have always taken to achieve what they believe is “good hair”. Some women were outraged by what they learned after what was exposed in the movie. Without venturing further to educate themselves outside of the $7 they paid to see the movie, many abruptly ended their love affair with relaxers and other chemical services and began cutting their hair to begin what they considered was “good hair”. During that time many “kitchen beauticians” were created, supposed all natural products were developed and advertised by celebrities and the $18 blow out was the rave. Now 5 years later, Google and YouTube are ready and willing to give every amateurs a avenue to further confuse and mislead black women who are trying to figure out what is “their” personal “good hair.” Today I am going to do my best to educate and help those who are confused and frustrated trying to make a informed decision about what should be their personal hair journey to “good hair”.
Let me address all those that have decided to forgo relaxing because it is unhealthy. I am not a fan or foe of relaxers or the natural decision. I am a advocate and a defender of the real “good hair”…Healthy Hair! Many that relax their hair do not take the time to care for it properly nor do they have the basic knowledge of relaxers or have the money to maintain it properly to allow for their hair to be and stay healthy. To all of my naturalist, you should not assume your hair is healthy just because you do not receive a relaxer service. Some naturalist just as relaxer users, do not take the time to properly take care of their hair nor do they have the desire to go the extra mile to braid, cover or trim their hair on a regular basis to maintain their natural hair in a healthy fashion. Let me alert you to several things you should consider while deciding what is the best “good hair” for you. What are you able to maintain financially? To truly maintain healthy hair you need to be able to afford your choice. How willing are you to do what is needed at home to maintain your hair until your next hair appointment? Once you arrive home after investing hours at the salon your hair can not be removed and placed on your dresser until you are ready to go to work. Which means you must do your part to maintain the style and the integrity of your hair. You have to wrap it, braid it, brush it, oil it if needed, sleep on a satin pillow case, you must protect your hair from the seasonal temperatures by covering it and you must wear a silky scarf to bed even when you want to act like Whitley Gilbert (A Different World) and have your Boo believe you wake up hair and face fabulous. What type of “good hair” will your lifestyle allow you to maintain? For example, I have what some would consider a fairly decent texture of hair. It is pretty manageable relaxed or at it’s natural state and I have a lot of it. I run a thriving business and have 3 children of which are my world (which demands almost all my time). Also, being a stylist I must be coifed at all times. In my business, image really is everything, so every hair must always be in its place. This all being said, I would not have time to try and tame my natural hair on a daily basis when I usually only have 20 minutes to get myself together to get out the door (almost) on time. Which is why a relaxer is best for my lifestyle right now. Some of my black clients do not feel comfortable wearing their natural texture because they would rather simulate their less ethnic co-workers at work to not raise eyebrows by looking ethnic and lessen their chance of being passed up to be the face/image of the company they work for because their ethnicity is so blatant. Relaxers work for them. Some women with coarse kinky hair have the time and the desire to maintain their strong texture in a way that accentuates their style and features. Natural works for their lifestyle. Some women exercise twice a day, do not have time to allow their hair to dry before heading to work which forces them to pull their hair back causing thin edges. Natural is probably best for them. Finally, health issues are another factor to consider. If you are taking medication that as a side effect makes your hair fall out, a relaxer or any chemical service is probably not the best choice. Healthy hair takes time and patience. Both your stylist and you must understand your limits monetarily, health-wise, lifestyle-wise and understand what visually is pleasing to you. Natural hair is beautiful and manageable at any texture if care is taken to understand what is needed. Relaxed hair can be kept healthy if applied by a professional and taken care of properly by a professional and treated properly at home. Just as a healthy mind and body is a lifestyle, so is you healthy hair life. Knowledge is power, so knowing at least the basics of what is being used on you is detrimental to a healthy hair life. Below I have offered a crash course on hair and relaxers to help you be more informed.
What is hair?
Your natural hair is made up of many layers and parts. Hair is not a living organism and is made of a protein called keratin. Keratin is a combination of fibrous protein of which the outer parts of your hair, skin and nails. The hair cuticle is the outermost layer which is made up of scale like cells that resemble shingles. These shingles create a armor like shield to protect the delicate innermost parts of the hair. The cortex is the middle layer which is made up of fibrous protein core that contains the melanin pigment (melanin is the pigmentation of your hair). The medulla is the innermost layer of hair that is composited of round cells. The medulla is usually totally absent in naturally blonde and fine hair, but is usually present in thick, coarse hair and all male beards. The hair follicle is the skin like portion of the hair directly under the skin where the hair is produce. Finally, the bulb (the root) of the hair. The bulb is found in the follicle and consist of fibrous tissue made up of the cuticle, cortex and medulla of the hair.
Now let’s get a brief synopsis of what are relaxers and what are they doing to our hair? How did that can melt in the same chemical used in relaxers, but my hair and skin stays in tack?
Here is a brief synopsis of the most popular relaxers used by women with coarse ethnic hair. Cream relaxers have hydroxide as their base. The hydroxide ion is the active ingredient in all hydroxide relaxers (cream relaxers). Hair has a pH balance of 5 and hydroxide have a very high alkalis of 13. The purpose and result of hydroxide relaxers is to swell the hair up to twice the normal diameter to permanently straighten the hair by removing a sulfur atom from a disulfide bond and converting it to a lanthionine bond. A disulfide bond consist of two sulfur atoms. Once the disulfide bonds are permanently broken by the hydroxide used in relaxers the bonds can never be re-formed. In layman's terms; relaxers break down the hair by weakening the structure to allow the hair to relax and stay relaxed. The most popular relaxers used are Lye-Based relaxers and No Lye-Based relaxers. The oldest used relaxers are Lye relaxers. Lye relaxers have a sodium hydroxide base. Sodium hydroxide is the same ingredient used in hair depilatories (Nair), drain cleaner and in something else used by many on a daily basis many did not know until this blog…soap, liquid hand wash and shampoo. Many hear about the ingredients in products and become hysterical because they do not know in what capacity the products are used. Sodium hydroxide (Lye) relaxers are best used on those clients that do not use any other chemical service; such as permanent, demi permanent color or bleach. It is also longer lasting and less drying than No-Lye (Potassium hydroxide or Lithium hydroxide) relaxers. No-Lye relaxers have either a base of guanidine hydroxide, potassium hydroxide and lithium hydroxide. While no-lye relaxers do not have lye (sodium hydroxide), their chemistry is identical in their behavior as lye relaxers. Guanidine hydroxide relaxers have to be mixed with an activator before being used. No-Lye relaxers are less likely to irritate your scalp. These relaxers are best if you plan on using permanent or demi permanent color, but still should not be used with any bleaching chemical.