The invention of hair relaxers, like many other major discoveries occurred as an accident in the early nineteenth century when inventor Garret A. Morgan rubbed his hands, covered with his latest experimental lubricating liquid for his sewing machine onto a fur cloth. The next day, the fur was straight. Morgan went on to develop a commercially successful product sold to African-Americans. And while we applaud Morgan’s entrepreneurial spirit, so began a long history of creating toxic products in pursuit of beauty. Going forward, sodium hydroxide would continue to be the primary ingredient found in hair relaxers. This is the same solution found in commercial drain cleaners.
Hair relaxers created with sodium hydroxide are made of a strong alkaline solution, particularly potassium hydroxide, which is normally used in cleaning products. The intensity differs from a pH of ten to fourteen and the higher it is, the more powerful the relaxer. There are relaxers made with potassium hydroxide, lithium hydroxide and guanidine hydroxide known as ‘no-lye’, which gives the appearance of a gentler and kinder relaxer, however these are just as toxic. Hair relaxers perform by means of penetrating the cortex and breaking the disulfide bonds, therefore making the hair straight. Immediately these bonds are broken, the procedure is irrevocable and the hair remains stretched until it grows.
Frequent usage of hair relaxers may result in Alopecia Areata or alopecia, as it is colloquially known. Alopecia describes a condition that causes round patches of hair loss. It can lead to total hair loss. Sodium hydroxide is extremely corrosive and may burn on contact. Breathing in low amounts of this chemical as dust, vapor or spray may cause irritation in the respiratory passage. Health risks go beyond losing your hair, irritation of the scalp and inflammation of the lungs.
Other chemical elements existing in chemical hair relaxers cause fundamental health dangers. Formerly perceived to be just hereditary, a Boston University study originally published in 2011 cited links between African-American women’s use of chemical-based hair relaxers and fibroid tumors. The study, as you may imagine, was very controversial, especially since hard and fast connections could not be made to link fibroid tumors to the use of hair relaxers, causing many women to speculate that it was not true.
However, placing toxic chemicals on your skin and in your hair to be absorbed into your blood stream and circulated throughout your body can never be good. And just because a definitive link between chemical hair relaxers and fibroid tumors, breast cancer and other serious health issues have not been currently made, does not mean that they will not be made in the future. Nor does it mean that you should not proceed with caution when it comes to using chemicals on your hair.
Take for example, the breast cancer study. The abstract states: “There were no increases in breast cancer risk associated with any categories of duration of hair relaxer use, frequency of use, age at first use, number of burns experienced during use, or type of relaxer used.” They did not compare rates of cancer among women who never used chemical relaxers vs. women who have used it at least once. I am not a doctor or scientist, but what if it only takes one application of toxic chemicals to your scalp to initiate cancer in a body? Then categories like duration, frequency of use (meaning the number over one), age at first use, number of burns experienced and type of relaxer wouldn’t matter.
Lets say hair relaxers in general do not cause cancer, but some of the individual ingredients found in relaxers are labeled as carcinogens (meaning, cause cancer). Wouldn’t that make the relaxer a potential cause of cancer? And then, wouldn’t it be irresponsible to give Black women a false sense of security about the chemicals they are placing on the scalp, just because the one and only study completed on the topic failed to find a connection? At the least, a warning beyond possible skin irritation is warranted. But then again, those types of warnings tend to decrease profits. And companies are in the business of making money, not necessarily being ethical. It is up to the consumer to do her due diligence about the products she uses.
There are thousands of potential dangerous chemical components in hair relaxer products, but because there is no regulation of hair relaxers, as there are for food, beauty companies can make any claims they like without repercussion. It is always good practice to read the labels of the products you use, whether it be for you face, hair or even cleaning your house. You should be able to read and understand the ingredients, without stumbling over multi-syllabic words better suited for chemistry experiments. Fortunately for us, there are tons of resources online that can educate you on the good and bad found in your beauty products.
Ready to go natural? Thinking about it? Not sure? Afraid? Get an abundance of tips on how to transition online. The Internet is a wonderful place to find out details on transitioning and or making the big chop. With so many to choose from, it’s hard to pick just one however right now, I’m really loving: Black Naps and Black Girl Long Hair.