The dangers of chemical relaxers

By simply typing  the title of this post in google images, you will see for yourself what the dangers of relaxers are. Despite the risks associated with them, they are still the norm for hair care with black women. The main reason given for relaxing our hair is “convenience”.  However, when we know the health risks associated with relaxers, we can make an informed decision about whether they are as “convenient” as we think.  For many, the health risks and the damage done to our hair mean relaxers are simply not worth it. Others are happy continuing implementing a hair care practice that has worked for them for years and see no need to avoid them. So what are the risks and dangers associated with relaxers?

Damaged hair strand

Damaged hair strand

What chemicals are in relaxers

Sodium Hydroxide is a powerful alkaline with a pH between 10 and 14, used in chemical relaxers.  It is also used in drain cleaning products as it can melt clogged hairs and dirt. It is powerful enough to burn through an aluminum can. Initially lye relaxers on the market contained 2 to 3 percent sodium hydroxide or potassium hydroxide. Most hair care professionals switched to non lye relaxers because of the damage they caused, such as severe burns, scalp irritation and breakage. Non lye relaxers contain calcium hydroxide which achieves the same results and is simply an alternative chemical.   No-lye relaxers are advertised as causing fewer scalp lesions and burns than lye relaxers, but there is little evidence to support this claim.

Relaxers also contain other chemicals and synthetic ingredients that dry the hair and act as skin allergens. They contain parabens, phthalates, petroleum, mineral oil, sulfates, synthetic fragrances and silicone, all of which strip the hair of moisture and weigh it down.  So don’t be deceived by marketing buzz words such as organic, conditioning or the inclusion of a few good ingredients  (Olive oil, Shea butter) accompanied by many chemicals, most of which people are unable to pronounce. A few organic or natural ingredients isn’t going to compensate for the numerous damaging chemicals. It is impossible for relaxers to be anything but chemically based, otherwise they simply wouldn’t work.

How do chemical relaxers affect your hair?

When the term chemical relaxer is used in this post it includes: children’s relaxers, texturizers and adult relaxers of all strengths. This is because although the strength of different brands may vary, all use similar chemicals that achieve the same outcome. Most are simply differentiated by marketing and advertising.  Both texturizers and relaxers work by breaking down the disulfide bonds in the hair shaft and rearranging them.  These are the natural protein bonds that connect every kink and curl. New bonds are created in the process which are weaker than the original ones.  Some “natural relaxers” use terminology such as weaken, loosen and soften to describe the bond-breaking action of  their products.  Do not be fooled. These products are not natural, and the process of “softening” bonds is the same as breaking bonds, says author Audrey Davis-Sivasothy. This process  strips the hair of its elasticity, making it prone to breakage.

Marketing gimmicks

Texturizers are left on for a shorter period of time to deliberately under process the hair, so that it keeps some of its elasticity. The hair may still curl slightly when wet.  Texturizers also permanently alter your natural curl pattern and many women find that their hair becomes permanently straight in the process, especially those with kinky textures. As with coloring, relaxing the hair causes a form of damage, in order to permanently alter it. The hair cuticles also lift and no longer lay as flat. Relaxed hair struggles to retain moisture and is weakened due to the chemical processing, also making it difficult for it to retain length. Those who you see with healthy looking, long relaxed hair, are the exception, not the norm. Relaxers are the reason why the stereotype of black women not being able to grow long hair was created.  There are steps you can take to minimize the appearance of damage and reduce the risk of breakage when using relaxers.

The link between relaxers and uterine fibroids

Uterine fibroids are non cancerous growths that develop in or just outside the womb. They develop when normal uterine muscular cells begin to grow abnormally and as they grow they form a benign tumor.  They are quite common and usually very small, they may not even be noticeable. Their growth is believed to depend on the hormone estrogen as they begin to shrink or disappear after menopause.

Although common, uterine fibroids are two to three times more likely to occur with African-American women than white women, and they tend to have more symptoms.  Uterine fibroids usually develop after the age of 30 and are less likely to occur in women who have had children and women taking birth control pills. Risk factors include a family history and early menstruation (girls who begin their period before the age of 10). Fibroids can cause weight gain, bloating, heavy and painful periods, pain during intercourse and in rare cases affect pregnancy, potentially interfering with the healthy growth of a fetus.

The different types of fibroids

The different types of fibroids

A study from Boston University, published in the American Journal of Epidemiology found an increased rate of fibroid growth among black women, linked to chemical exposure through lesions and burns on the scalp resulting from relaxers.

“Hair relaxers (straighteners) have been used by millions of US black women, often for long periods of time . Hair relaxers can cause burns and lesions in the scalp, facilitating entry of hair relaxer constituents into the body.”  (Wise et al 2012)

The majority of the 23 000 women in the study who were diagnosed with fibroids admitted to having chemical relaxer treatments.  Interestingly, they found the frequency of hair relaxer use increased with a decreasing percentage of European ancestry. The cases of those diagnosed with uterine fibroids also correlated with the duration of use and number of burns experienced. Most black women who use relaxers start using them from early childhood and can be exposed to the chemicals in them for decades.

The study highlighted that the exposure to chemicals in relaxers, such as parabens and phthalates, can affect hormone production.   Phthalates from cosmetic products can be absorbed by the skin or inhaled, and they have been shown to have estrogenic effects in cell models and experiments with animals.  Phthalates are not required to be listed separately and are normally listed as “fragrance” or “perfume”. Cosmetic products are not regulated by the Food and Drug Administration, and a complete list of ingredients isn’t mandatory. Therefore it is not always clear what types of chemicals cosmetic products contain.

Most hair relaxers list “fragrance” as an ingredient, 100% of popular fragrances were found to contain phthalates from research done in 2002.  The link between relaxers and fibroids is an association rather than a  direct cause and effect link.  Considering black women are two to three times more likely to develop fibroids, environmental factors such as exposure to chemicals should be considered. However the study did not rule out that greater African ancestry, thought to increase genetic predisposition to uterine fibroids, could be a factor in the association.

The link between relaxers and early puberty

Another study found that early menstruation was a possible result  of exposure to chemical relaxers and other hair products containing endocrine disrupting chemicals. African-American women who were more likely to use these products, experienced menstruation earlier than other racial/ethnic groups in the New York City area, where the study was based. The age of starting menstruation ranged from 8-19 years. Chemical relaxers and the usage of  hair oils containing chemicals led to an increased risk for early menstruation.  Other types of hair products assessed in this study were not associated with early puberty.  Women who have their first period before the age of ten are  more likely to develop fibroids.

Relaxers are marketed towards mothers and their young daughters, with black girls as young as three being given perms. So evidence of an association creates a logical and compelling argument against the use of relaxers.  Many women go natural for a number of reasons and embrace an overall health journey as a result, as it’s not just exposure to chemicals in relaxers that can affect our health.

Relaxers and pregnancy

The Royal College of obstetricians and Gynecologists (RCOG) warns women against the dangers of chemicals in food packaging, household products, over-the-counter medicines and cosmetics.  Most experts advise against the use of chemical relaxers during pregnancy and  many women prefer to avoid the use of any chemical treatments (including color treatments) while they are pregnant.


Arguments against using relaxers during pregnancy include the following:

  • side effects such as: hair thinning, breakage, scalp damage, lesions and burns.
  • noxious fumes create strong chemical smells that can cause nausea, headaches, and dizziness especially in the first trimester.
  • scalp sensitivity: increased blood flow occurs during pregnancy to nourish the baby.  This can cause an increased sensitivity to chemicals, leading to skin irritation, scabs and rashes on the scalp.
  • hormonal changes during pregnancy can cause hair texture to change. Relaxers may be less effective as a result.

Chemicals from relaxers can be absorbed through fumes, burns, lesions and cuts on the scalp. It should be noted that no scientific studies prove that such limited absorption causes direct harm to unborn babies.  However, during the first trimester organ development and rapid cell division occurs. Mild exposure of any kind of chemicals may lead to complications in fetal development. For this reason experts advise that relaxers are avoided for the first three months of pregnancy and chemical treatments should take place in a well ventilated environment. If you have managed to avoid relaxers three months, you may as well continue throughout the whole pregnancy. Pregnant women usually experience healthier and vibrant hair. Why rob yourself of that benefit by weakening your hair with chemicals? More importantly you will have more peace of mind knowing that you are reducing your exposure to chemicals during such a crucial time.

Once all the facts and evidence surrounding  relaxers have been studied. We can make our own informed decisions about our health and that of our children.


American Journal of Epidemiology; Hair Relaxer Use and Risk of Uterine Leiomyomata in African-American Women; Lauren Wise et al

www. ; Yeong-Ming et al;  Potential estrogenic effect(s) of parabens at the prepubertal stage of a postnatal female rat model; Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology; ‘Relaxers’ damage hair: Evidence from amino acid analysis

Davis-Sivasothy; The science of black hair

Houlihan J et al; Not Too Pretty; Phthalates, Beauty Products & the FDA 2002

R Hauser, A M Calafat; Occupation and Environmental Medicine; Phthalates and Human Health 2005


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