Black women, beware: Your pursuit of straight, silky locks may be detrimental to your health.
This week, learners at Pretoria High School for Girls protested against the school’s code of conduct, which allegedly instructs them to use chemicals to straighten their hair. Picketing pupils showed their discontent by protesting on school grounds while sporting their natural hair. Social media exploded with support for them under the hashtag #StopRacismAtPretoriaGirlsHigh. Hair continues to be a contentious and politicised subject for black women. Poet and writer Natalia Molebatsi notes that the Population Registration Act of 1950 gave social and economic benefits to black people with straighter hair in her research, published in Scrutiny 2. This, in turn, created a hierarchy of beauty.
Globally, black people — particularly black women — have been left with precious few places to find images of beauty that celebrate their naturally coily hair, argue Ayana Byrd and Lori Tharps in their book Hair Story: Untangling the Roots of Black Hair in America.
Here are five reasons why you should ditch the chemicals and take good care of your natural hair.
1. Hair today, gone tomorrow: Relaxers could lead to hair loss
Relaxers have been marketed to straighten black hair by chemically altering its composition. But your lovely locks — and scalp — may only be able to take so much.
When hair follicles become damaged by, for instance, harsh chemicals from relaxing your hair over time, scar tissue can develop. This can prevent new hair from growing in a condition called scarring alopecia, says the American Skin Association. A 2011 article published in the International Journal of Dermatology notes that multiple studies have linked hair care practices such as the use of hot combs or relaxers with this medical condition in black women.
2. Would you put drain cleaner on your hair?
A 2015 study in the International Journal of Trichology shows that up to 10% of a relaxer may consist of chemicals such as sodium hydroxide, calcium hydroxide and lithium hydroxide.
Having a hard time recalling these from chemistry? You might be more familiar with these chemicals than you think. Let’s start under your kitchen sink. The main ingredient of “lye” relaxers is sodium hydroxide. You might know the chemical by its other name, caustic soda. Caustic soda is a key ingredient in oven, kitchen and drain cleaners.
And opting for “no lye” relaxers may not spare you the harsh chemicals. No-lye products replace caustic soda with calcium hydroxide. Calcium hydroxide is used in industrial processes to separate solids from liquids, particularly in sewage treatment systems.
And lithium hydroxide? Well, it’s found in certain types of batteries.
3. What’s on your hair can get under your skin
Hair relaxers can cause chemical burns and small cuts in the scalp. These cuts can form an entry way for the stuff that’s on your hair to get into your body, says a 2014 study published in the journal Breast Cancer Research and Treatment. The study notes that many relaxers contain phthalates, a group of chemicals that the United States National Library of Medicine notes are used to soften not just hair but also plastic and vinyl, and can also be found in some insecticides. In many countries, these chemicals are often only listed as “fragrance” on cosmetic labels.
Research into the health impacts of phthalates is ongoing but a 2014 report by the US department of health and human services says that at least one type of this class of chemical, diethylhexyl phthalate, is “reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen”.
A large, multiyear study published in Cancer Epidemiology, Biomarkers and Prevention in 2007 found no association between the use of hair relaxers and breast cancer. But the US and Japan have banned the use of phthalates in products such as toys and baby rattles following safety concerns.
4. Relaxers do not grow your hair
Women trying to grow their hair may think relaxing helps their cause, but it doesn’t. A 2010 study published in the International Journal of Dermatology suggests that the more you use relaxers, the more fragile your hair may become. The study, which evaluated the composition of hair samples from 30 women, explains that use of relaxers was associated with reduced amounts of amino acids in hair. These acids are crucial for strong hair.
Although many black women relaxed their hair and avoided haircuts for years in an attempt to grow their hair, users of relaxers were rarely able to grow their hair to shoulder length, says the study.
Stylists may also want to take a page from the study. The research warns that hairdressers often “smooth” hair during treatments by combing relaxers through the hair from roots to tips. This may essentially overprocess already relaxed hair and contribute to fragile hair that’s prone to breakage.
If you can’t live without your relaxer, the study advises you to use ointment such as petroleum jelly to protect your scalp during treatments. Relaxer should only be applied to new hair growth closest to the scalp.
5. Be wary of braids
Okay, you’re ready to ditch the chemicals for something more natural — but braids aren’t always the best choice. Certain hairstyles such as tight ponytails, cornrows and braids forcefully pull the hairline. Over time, tugging on the hairline in this way can damage hair follicles, causing hair loss or traction alopecia.
A 2014 study found that almost a quarter of about 1 200 women and girls in Cape Town’s Langa township suffered from traction alopecia. Published in Dermatologic Clinics, the research notes this type of hair loss has been documented among children younger than six. Almost 80% of the schoolgirls and half of the women surveyed had relaxed hair.
Severe forms of the condition were also found among women in the study when extensions or weaves were added to relaxed hair. The study cautions that traction alopecia was associated with tight braids and weaves left in for longer than two weeks among adults. It’s not just tight braids and weaves that are likely to cost you your mane — back-combing and tight ponytails are also culprits.
The research could not determine how hairstyles had affected schoolgirls’ hair growth because school rules restricted the type of hairstyles they could wear.
But there’s hope. Awareness among stylists and clients about hair care could prevent this kind of hair damage. Authors suggest this simple message: if you’re bearing the pain of a new ’do, you could be risking that mane.
Pontsho Pilane is the communications manager at Soul City Institute for Social Justice. Pilane was a health journalist at Bhekisisa from 2017 until 2019.