Hair relaxers: the history, the controversy and recent innovations

Stephanie LaFlora
January 21, 2023

Relaxers in the news for harmful effects

While clean beauty is widely accepted as the standard, L'oreal has come under fire for continuing to sell hair relaxers which contain chemicals that have recently been found in a study to be linked to cancer. This has caused many discussions around the practice of women chemically straightening their curls and turbocharged an already growing movement of women, primarily Black women, embracing their natural textures.

But what has also come up in conversations on social media is what this has communicated to Black women – something we’ve known all along – that we are not considered or cared for by the hair industry. At least, not until recently. And a huge part of this issue is due to the fact that Black women have been left out of an industry – in terms of ownership – where we command a whopping 9x more than any other demographic.

A brief history of chemical straighteners

Hair relaxers, also known as hair straighteners or texturizers, have a long and complex history that is deeply intertwined with issues of race, identity, and beauty standards. The use of hair relaxers can be traced back to ancient civilizations, where people used various methods to straighten their hair, such as using hot combs or chemical treatments. However, the development of the modern hair relaxer can be traced back to the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

The first hair relaxer was invented by Garrett A. Morgan in the early 20th century. Morgan, who was an African American man, invented the relaxer as a way to straighten his own hair, which was naturally kinky and curly. He called his invention the "G.A. Morgan Hair Refiner" and it was made with a mixture of sodium hydroxide and guanidine carbonate. This chemical mixture was applied to the hair to break down the bonds that give hair its natural texture, resulting in straighter hair.

However, it wasn't until the 1950s and 1960s that hair relaxers began to gain widespread popularity among African American communities. This was due in large part to the Civil Rights Movement and the desire among African Americans to assimilate into mainstream society. Straightening one's hair was seen as a way to "look more presentable" and to conform to the Eurocentric beauty standards that were prevalent at the time.

During this time, hair relaxers were primarily available in salons and were applied by licensed hairstylists. The process was often painful and time-consuming, and the chemicals used in the relaxers were harsh and could cause significant damage to the hair and scalp if not applied correctly.

In the 1970s and 1980s, the use of hair relaxers began to decline as more African American women began to embrace their natural hair and reject the notion that straight hair was the only acceptable hair texture. The natural hair movement, which encouraged people to wear their hair in its natural state, free from chemical treatments and heat styling, began to gain momentum.

Do safe relaxers exist?

Yes and no. Straightening curly locks requires breaking down the chemical bonds in the hair shaft, and this can only be permanently achieved with chemicals. There is no product completely free of chemicals that will permanently straighten highly textured hair, especially if the hair gets wet. It really comes down to the texture of the hair before any product is applied. Products that advertise themselves as natural relaxers are often just highly moisturizing conditioners. When applied to the hair, they may make the curls appear more relaxed because dry hair responds positively to added moisture.

No-lye relaxers, also known as "thio-free" relaxers, are a type of hair straightener that does not use lye as the active ingredient. Lye, also known as sodium hydroxide, is a strong alkali that is commonly used in traditional relaxers to break down the hair's natural curl pattern. While effective, lye can be harsh and cause damage to the hair and scalp, leading to dryness, breakage, and even hair loss.

No-lye relaxers, on the other hand, use a different type of active ingredient, such as guanidine hydroxide or calcium hydroxide, which are less harsh and less likely to cause damage to the hair. These ingredients are still effective at straightening the hair, but they are gentler on the hair and scalp. This makes no-lye relaxers a great option for people who have sensitive scalps or who are looking to minimize damage to their hair.

Another innovation in hair straightening is the use of heat-activated straightening agents. These products work by applying a straightening agent to the hair, which is then activated by heat. The heat causes the agent to penetrate the hair shaft, breaking down the hair's natural curl pattern and leaving it straight. These products are a great option for people who want to straighten their hair at home, as they do not require the use of chemicals.

Additionally, there are hair straighteners that use infrared technology, which is said to penetrate deeper into the hair shaft, potentially causing less damage. Infrared technology is said to reduce frizz and increase shine, making hair look healthier and more manageable. There are also hair straighteners with ceramic plates that use negative ion technology. This technology is said to reduce frizz, static, and damage by neutralizing the positive charge in the hair, leaving it smooth and shiny.

Overall, innovations in hair straightening have led to the development of gentler alternatives to traditional chemical relaxers. No-lye relaxers, heat-activated straightening agents, infrared technology, and ceramic plates with negative ion technology are just a few examples of these innovations. They offer a more natural and damage-free way to straighten hair without harsh chemicals, making them a great option for people who want to achieve straight hair without compromising the health of their hair and scalp.

It's worth noting that hair straighteners, even the most innovative, can still damage hair if not used properly or if used excessively. It's important to have realistic expectations and follow the instructions of the product you choose. Also, it's important to be mindful of your hair's health and to have regular trims and treatments to keep it in good condition.

The good news is that this is rapidly changing and there is plenty of room for new players in an industry that has failed to evolve with time, or care for one of its most valuable customers.

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