Are Hair Relaxers Making a Comeback?

The answer is yes — and experts explain why.

ALL NATURAL: Are Relaxers Making a Comeback?

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If you're a Black girl who grew up anytime between the late '80s and early aughts, chances are you know all about relaxing your hair.

Otherwise known as "the creamy crack," relaxers are a chemical straightening compound that when applied to hair, penetrates both the cuticle and cortex of the hair shaft to permanently loosen the strand's natural texture.

"Many black women believe that having relaxed hair makes their hair more manageable, less time-consuming to style, and more representative of celebrities, who tend to wear more relaxed styles rather than natural hair," says Dr. Gaby Longsworth, a Ph.D scientist, certified hair practitioner, biotech and pharmaceutical patent attorney, and owner of Absolutely Everything Curly and Curl Planet. "Some women simply do not enjoy their natural hair texture. Others complain about the pressure to have their coily hair 'behave a certain way' with twist-outs and other more defined styles, as well as the cost of taking care of natural hair with lots of different products, tools, and techniques."

On top of of those facts, many Black women also face scrutiny in the workplace over their natural hair being deemed as "unprofessional" or "distracting."

Movements like The CROWN Act — which has now been passed in 18 states as of July 2022 — has made hair discrimination illegal where it's officially recognized. And increased visibility of natural textures has helped more Black women than ever embrace their curls and coils. But over the past year, there's been a noticeable resurgence of relaxers and straight styles.

Experts explain why.

Why are Black women going back to using relaxers?

The answer is complicated — simply because it's mostly a personal choice. But hairstylist Pekela Riley, owner of the Jacksonville, FL-based Salon PK, thinks quarantine may have something to do with it.

"Surprisingly, the pandemic actually helped create the resurgence of relaxers," she explains. "Many women really had time to sit and assess what they really value; and it was ease in life and reclaiming some of their time — [this] meant relaxing their hair."

Celebrity stylist and creator of the Texture Style Awards Monae Everett, says she's also seen an uptick in clients requesting the chemical treatment. "Many women who decide to relax their hair wear short cropped styles and feel that straighter short styles are easier to maintain," she says. "Relaxed hair has the ability to lay and stay closer to the head. Women with longer hair may choose to relax their tresses simply because they enjoy a straight look."

However, Dr. Longsworth, who says many of the professional women in her own circles never stopped straightening their hair throughout the natural hair movement, thinks the reason behind the resurgence of relaxer is a bit more deep-seeded.

"Ultimately, the issue often goes back to childhood when natural hair is referred to as 'difficult,' which instills in a child a negative view," the scientist shares. "It suggests that relaxing is the only option available to make hair manageable, and many Black women are conditioned to believe that their hair in its natural state is unmanageable."

What are the pros of relaxing your hair?

In a society that uses Eurocentric standards as the benchmark for beauty, there are many — at least from a physical standpoint.

"Some of the women [who've gone back to relaxers have] attempted to wear their hair in it's natural state and didn't care for the look," says Everett. "Others are simply ready for a different style."

On the other hand, Riley suggests having relaxed hair can make wash days — which are notoriously known to be a prolonged experience — a lot easier to manage. "Relaxers provide hair elongation and smoothness without the risk of reversion with water, activity, or exercise," she says. "Detangling and drying can be easier without tension or friction for many women with who might naturally have had tighter curls."

Then, there's the fact that despite natural hair becoming more normalized over the years, when it comes to fitting into professional settings having straight hair can be a reprieve for many Black women — regardless of their level of expertise or education. "The last thing black women want is to stand out like a sore thumb, and so they relax their hair to not draw attention to themselves, which would inevitably happen if they wore their hair natural," Dr. Longsworth explains. "It takes a lot of courage to wear hair natural for very curly and coily textures."

What are the cons of relaxing your hair?

Natural hair on its own tends to be more prone to dryness and breakage in comparison to straighter textures. So when a chemical treatment is added to the regimen, the risk of damage is multiplied tenfold if the hair is over-processed, or the right maintenance products are not used. "Then there are all the harmful chemicals in straighteners that can burn the scalp, cause lesions, [as well as] itching and irritation," Dr. Longsworth adds.

Aesthetic setbacks aside, a recent study from the U.S. National Institutes of Health, published in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute, found that women who use relaxers may be at a higher risk of developing uterine cancer.

"The authors of the study examined associations between hair product use and incident uterine cancer among 33,947 U.S.-based participants aged 35 to 74 years old who had a uterus at enrollment. The results showed that after an average of 10.9 years of follow-up, 378 uterine cancer cases were identified," Dr. Longsworth explains. "The use of straightening products in the previous 12 months was associated with higher incident uterine cancer rates, and [the rate] was even higher when comparing frequent use — four times in the past 12 months — versus no use."

The expert also mentions the study notes exposure to chemical straighteners was also associated with lower sex steroid hormone levels, elevated risk of uterine leiomyomata, and incident breast and ovarian cancer. "This supports a potential role of straighteners in the etiology of hormone-sensitive health outcomes,” she adds.

However, Riley does make the point that outside of relaxers, many chemical treatments used in the beauty industry (for example, anything that requires formaldehyde) can also carry its own set of health risks as well.

The Bottom Line

Both hairstylists agree that choosing to relax your hair or remain natural is a personal choice. But like with many beauty treatments, there are risks involved.

And despite the popularity of the natural hair movement over the past decade and beyond, some women simply just prefer straighter hair — and Riley says they shouldn't be judged for that decision.

"The natural hair movement is about liberation and choice," she shares. "It's about not being shun or discriminated against because of our hair. Now that the freedom to style [our hair how we want] has been established, a lot of people are choosing smoother hair as their choice. The natural hair movement was about ending the vilification of textured  hair — not the uniformity of wearing it."

This is All Natural. From the kinkiest coils to loose waves, we're celebrating natural hair in its many forms by sharing expert tips for styling, maintenance, and haircare.

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