Walk into any black hair salon on a Saturday morning and you will find creative chaos. Blow driers blasting, sinks with water flowing, hot irons smoking through millions of hair strands in smooth waves. It’s a workshop for sure.
And work is the name of the game. There is a great amount of subliminal pressure from the multi-billion-dollar beauty industry that tells women of color that their natural hair and skin aren’t suitable for conventional beauty standards. So, while stylists work from the outside to tame black hair, chemicals work on the inside to keep it tamed beyond the shop.
What are the long-term health effects of applying harsh chemicals to scalp and hair follicles? How can black women make the switch when going natural, without going into shock?
The Biological Effect of Relaxers
Many published studies show a correlation between hair relaxers and problems with the female reproductive system. A study published in the American Journal of Epidemiology in 2012 revealed that black women who use relaxers were two to three times more likely to develop uterine fibroids.
Dr. Melanye Maclin, an African-American female-development dermatologist based in Bowie, Md., explains that scalp is skin and it absorbs what is applied to it. “We don’t realize that the chemicals can absorb through our scalp. The scalp has a very rich blood supply. When you feel that burning sensation, you sit there and take it because you want your hair to be as straight as possible. You don’t realize that once you feel that tingle or burn, your body is letting you know that the nerves are being activated in that area. If the nerves are being activated, the blood vessels are being affected. Those blood vessels have to be getting some kind of negative effect.”
Some women may feel that they play it safe by using a “no-lye” relaxer. These relaxers contain chemicals such as calcium hydroxide and guanidine carbonate. Although these straighteners are advertised as causing fewer lesions and burns, there is very little evidence to support the claims.
No matter how you label it, chemical relaxers are designed to permanently change the structure of hair. Think kiddie perms are safer? Not really. Dr. Maclin suggests you avoid putting any relaxers into children’s hair. Let the follicles mature and let their internal hormone system mature. “Is it straight hair today or grandchildren tomorrow?”
It’s My Blood Pressure Medication
There are hundreds of medications that could potentially cause hair loss including pills for blood pressure, thyroid issues, and even select vitamins. Yo-yo dieting (constant weight gain and loss) has also been linked to hair loss because of the deficiency in protein.
Even with all of the variables affecting general health, none has a greater effect on hair health than basic care. “There are a lot of folks who will try to blame the medications, but really it’s the last thing on the list that causes the problem,” says Dr. Maclin. “If they started a new medication and are having widespread hair shedding, then, yes, it’s probably the medication. But most medications are not causing the problems. It’s our hair-care practices that are doing the most damage.” Hair loss caused by medications is typically reversible once you stop taking the prescription.
Mistakes and Healthy Fixes
Where do black women go wrong in this hair game? Excessive processing is one problem. Dawn Mazyck, licensed cosmetologist, natural hairstylist, and owner of Dawn Michelle Salon on the edge of Ward 7 in District Heights, Md., explains how women do the most damage to their mane. “I think getting relaxers too close together will damage your hair. It’s supposed to be every six weeks. But women will get spot relaxers and put it on the back and the sides. You’re not supposed to do that because it’s a corrosive chemical. Some people can go six months without a touchup.”
Getting hair color in close timing with relaxers can cause breakage too, especially light color. “You’re guaranteeing over-processing. If you’re going for a darker color or rinse, it’s not as big of a deal. But if you want a bleach, you should wait about four weeks before you put a relaxer in.”
Should black women throw out the relaxers with the bath water? Not so fast. Dr. Maclin says that if a woman is not experiencing any issues with the current relaxing routine, such as hair thinning or reproductive problems, it should be fine. She suggests that the scalp be heavily based with petroleum jelly before applying relaxers and hair dye. There are also natural hair relaxers on the market that will soften the hair but won’t produce the same results as their chemical correlatives.
For those who are ready to make a healthy transition, Mazyck offers two suggestions. “You can do locs. I have locs. Locs are easy to maintain. You can also do braids with the added hair. Nothing too heavy like big box braids. That’s easy too because you can wait until [the relaxer] grows all the way out before you cut it off.”
Switching to natural doesn’t mean less maintenance though. Dr. Maclin and Mazyck both agree that natural hair needs moisture. “Your hair will break off if you don’t keep it moisturized, just like it would with a relaxer,” adds Mazyck. Natural hair can also be straightened with a blow drier or flatiron with the proper amount of heat-protection product. It is up to the individual woman to decide which style she can maintain.
Candace Y.A. Montague is the health reporter for Capital Community News.