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Stabroek News

The dangers of hair relaxing
published: Wednesday | September 14, 2005

Clive Anderson

THE PROCESS of transforming hair from naturally curly to straight requires the application of powerful chemicals and the unleashing of a powerful chemical reaction. This chemical reaction has to be strong enough to result in the rupturing of strong chemical bonds that hold the hair in its natural tight curls.

This process is not one that should be done without the guidance of trained hairdressers, skilled and experienced in the use of these chemicals and who understand the nuances of different types of hair. Unfortunately, these chemicals are available to anyone and are often used with little regard to even the scant instructions printed on the containers. The result is a constant stream of persons to the dermatologist offices complaining of lack of hair growth, hair loss, hair thinning and scalp irritation.

In 1910, Garrett Agustus Morgan patented a hair refining cream - the first chemical hair straightener advertised to "positively straighten hair in 15 minutes". The principal chemical in the hair straighteners is sodium hydroxide. This is the same chemical used in drain cleaners with a pH of 10-14. The higher the pH the faster the effect both in straightening the hair and in clearing drains. The higher the pH the more potential for damage to the hair and scalp.

Guanidine hydroxide is a common ingredient in the no-lye relaxers. The label 'no lye' does not mean there are no strong chemicals in the relaxer. Although these relaxers are less damaging to the hair and scalp, special precautions need to be followed as well.

Both lye and no-lye relaxers work by allowing these strong chemicals to enter the cortex of the hair and change the natural hair structure of the hair shaft. This inner area of the hair shaft is what gives the hair not only its shape but also its strength. The process of relaxing the hair therefore inevitably results in weakening of the hair shaft and an increased susceptibility to breakage.

If you still wish to relax your hair observe the following rules:

Ensure that your scalp is healthy before relaxing. Itchy, scaly patches will be more prone to irritation and skin damage. Scratching will leave abrasions in the scalp that will be burnt by the strong chemicals.

Avoid relaxing the hair of young children. Although children will want to have adult hairstyles, the potential for damage, that could last a lifetime, is great.

Do not over-process. After the initial relaxing, apply chemical afterwards to new growth only; do not reapply chemicals to already processed hair. This double whammy will result in hair breakage.

Relax the new growth only every six to eight weeks. This depends on the rate of hair growth but touch-ups are not recommended in under six weeks.

Wait at least two to four weeks after relaxing to apply hair colours or dyes. The more chemicals applied to the hair the greater the likelihood for damage.

Between treatments avoid or limit the use of blow dryers, hot combs or curling irons.

Comb gently with a large tooth comb

Regular deep conditioning is important.

Although there are risks in relaxing the hair, in the hands of a trained professional the result can be straight, healthy hair which is beautiful to behold.

Dr. Clive Anderson is a dermatologist and venereologist; email

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