With the recent move to chemical-free hair straightening techniques, many women question if transitioning to the frizz and kinks associated with natural hair is really warranted – especially while living in hot and humid South Florida.
“Whether your hair is relaxed or natural, all that matters at the end of the day is that you maintain healthy hair,” said Jacqui York, a hair stylist of 20 years who currently styles out of Déjà Vu Hair Salon in Lauderhill, FL, and who rocks her own natural locks.
Although it is possible to maintain relatively healthy chemically-straightened hair, such a process is likely to cause at least some damage over time.
“After getting my hair relaxed every six to 12 weeks for 17 years, I found that the relaxer was thinning my hair. My hair had no volume and my scalp was so dry and damaged to the point where I had to put oil on my scalp every single night,” said Tiessence Brown, one of York’s newer clients who began growing out her relaxer six months ago.
The straightening agent found in most relaxers is sodium hydroxide, also known as lye, which is used in many industrial solvents and cleaners as well as in certain household products.
Misuse of this very caustic chemical can result in lung inflammation, vision loss, internal burns, heart collapse, and burns and holes in the skin or underlying tissues, according to the U.S. National Library of Medicine.
Because many have experienced breakage and damage to hair and scalp due to the lye in relaxer treatments, “no-lye” relaxers have gained popularity. These treatments contain calcium hydroxide and guanidine carbonate, which work in the same manner as lye, though being weaker alkaline agents.
The active ingredients in both lye and no-lye relaxers hold a very high pH, usually anywhere from 10 to 14, which allows the relaxer to filter through the protein makeup of the hair to weaken or break its internal bonds, causing the curls to relax and reform into their newly straight configuration.
Due to increasing awareness of the potential dangers of chemical relaxers, many women have begun turning to keratin treatments. However, many keratin treatments contain formaldehyde, a chemical also used as an embalming fluid and sterilizer.
A woman interested in avoiding formaldehyde in keratin must do her homework, as studies have found high concentrations of formaldehyde even in keratin products that claim to be "formaldehyde-free."
According to the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), formaldehyde "is highly irritating to the upper airways.”
OSHA also reports that eye and skin contact with formaldehyde result in irritation and allergic reactions, and that accidental ingestion may result in death.
So what is the safest method for straightening out those curly tresses?
Most stylists still seem to prefer the traditional use of a very good flat iron, but care should be taken when using heat on the hair as well.
“You always want to put a protective coating so that the heat does not damage the hair,” said York.
When self-straightening at home, York recommends using a flat iron at 350 to 375 degrees so that heat does not need to be applied too often. Higher temperatures may be used in a salon.
“I didn’t think going natural was for me at first because I love straight hair and that’s all I’ve known, but my natural hair is so much softer than the parts of my hair that is still relaxed and my scalp isn’t nearly as dry, nor is it damaged anymore,” Brown said.
While maintaining natural hair presents its own set of challenges, many women say the benefits are worth it.
“If you are going to wear your hair natural, you have to own that look,” York said. “Own your hair.”