Are There Healthier Ways to Relax Curly Hair Stylists Weigh In

Pictured: Cosmetologist Brianna Rashay

When we think about healthy hair, the word “relaxer” will almost certainly be the farthest thing from the minds of most people with textured hair. It may even sound paradoxical to think that relaxed hair can be healthy at all.

What is a Relaxer?

To be absolutely clear–by definition, a relaxer is a chemical treatment that is designed to break down the bonds of curly hair in order to loosen curl patterns. So if you get a relaxer, know that damage is taking place, no doubt. But what you can do, is take steps to get and maintain a relaxer in a way that allows your hair and scalp to look and feel its best. 

What a Proper Relaxer Application Looks Like

Hair educator and stylist Linwood Darkis confirms that while relaxers are damaging by nature, the most unexpected damage follows when the treatment isn’t applied correctly. In his educational video titled “The TRUTH About Relaxers” he breaks down some harmful practices around the relaxer application process. In addition to confirming that “kiddie perms” and “sensitive scalp” relaxers may not burn as easily but may leave a harsh calcium buildup on the hair due to the calcium-hydroxide in the formulation, he mentions that it is imperative to put a petroleum base on–no, not just the edges– but the entire scalp. 

“This is the only instance where you will really hear me say that ‘you should be using a petroleum-based product,’ because it creates a barrier there that’s difficult for the relaxer to eat through,” Darkis mentions in the video. “So you want to make sure that you’re using something that’s protective like that on the scalp prior to doing something like that.” 

And speaking of protecting your scalp–the demonic burning feeling that “signals” that it’s finally time to rinse? That’s not really how relaxers were meant to be used. “The relaxer was never made for your scalp,” Darkis states in his video. “A relaxer’s job is to relax the curl, not to remove the curl…which means your hair should not be bone-straight, it should still have some degree of wave to it. That’s how you know your hair still has tensile strength. If you have removed all of the curl, you have essentially removed all of the hair’s strength.” For those that don’t know, tensile strength is your hair’s ability to resist breaking under tension.

How to Maintain Relaxed Hair

Blogger, wigmaker, and licensed cosmetologist Brianna Rashay’s brand is dedicated to all things beauty and lifestyle, and she’s had relaxed hair for most of her life. As someone who creates healthy relaxed hair content, she filled NaturallyCurly in on what healthy hair means to her as well as tips and product recommendations for newcomers who want to start relaxing. Above anything, Brianna wants Black women to know that they have many options when it comes to their hair, and she wants to be an example of what healthy relaxed hair looks like.

“Being a black woman the goal was always to have healthy hair no matter its natural state,” she says. “Being relaxed since I was a child I went through the normal journey with my hair where you don’t really care much about the health you just want the latest styles everyone else is wearing at the time. Once I graduated from high school is when I decided to take the health of my hair [into] my own hands. This gave me a goal to reach and it showed others that it’s possible to have long healthy hair. I love being a positive example of black hair because representation matters. Being relaxed is only one element of my hair journey which shows black women that we have a choice. Not only do we have a choice but we can do things [differently] in a healthy way. So being a light and representation of that makes me feel awesome because it means that we have more education, more knowledge, therefore giving us more options to a healthy hair journey.”

When it comes to choosing a relaxer to use, Brianna suggests paying close attention to the strength level and to being wary of no-lye relaxers–but, as always, consult a professional first. 

“I have been using MOTIONS regular/mild relaxer for years,” she tells NaturallyCurly. “The most important ingredient of a relaxer is the strength level. I would never recommend anyone use super strength. Never underestimate the power of a relaxer because once it’s applied, it can’t be undone. I personally prefer to use lye relaxers, which are also called jar relaxers, because they come premixed. I tend to be a skeptic of no-lye relaxers over time, which are also called box relaxers, because if you’re not mixing the relaxer well enough every time, in human error, there can be some part of the contents that are stronger than others and this can alter the relaxer process

I would never recommend anyone use super strength. Never underestimate the power of a relaxer because once it’s applied, it can’t be undone.

Although, when choosing if you want to use a lye or no lye relaxer, you should consult with a professional to make sure that your personal needs are being met and you’re able to use a relaxer that agrees with your hair and scalp. Lye relaxers are known to be harsher on the scalp where no-lye relaxers are known to be harsher on the hair. But there are ways around both methods by basing the scalp or using a chelating shampoo to clarify the hair of calcium build up. There is a science behind using relaxers and going to a professional who understands this will help tremendously if this is something you’re considering for your hair.” 

How to Avoid Thin, Lifeless Relaxed Hair

So how do we avoid the tragic, lifeless relaxed hair of our childhoods? The truth is, fine and thin curly hair will always look thinner when it’s very straight. Products can make a difference, but it’s all about understanding your hair’s natural way of existence, and working from there. 

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Brianna explains that “…healthy hair is obtainable for EVERYBODY but you must first know the natural properties of your hair first. My hair is naturally full, thick, and coarse so for someone with naturally fine hair and fewer strands to think their hair is going to look like mine would be unrealistic. So, knowing what your hair’s full potential is for you is really important when looking for products. Olaplex no.3 has been a game changer for my hair journey as it repairs broken bonds and this product is great no matter your hair texture or density. When you chemically alter your hair, you have to make sure you’re putting back the things that you’ve taken out and rebuilding broken bonds is one of the most important.” 

A Tip Before You Relax Your Natural Hair

A tip for naturals that are thinking about relaxing: it helps to know what you want out of a relaxer before making the decision, as it’s a permanent switch. It’s possible that the look you want could be achievable without chemicals.

A tip for naturals that are thinking about relaxing: it helps to know what you want out of a relaxer before making the decision, as it’s a permanent switch. It’s possible that the look you want could be achievable without chemicals.

“Even though I’m relaxed I always encourage people who are natural to really think about what they are trying to achieve with their hair before making the decision to relax,” Brianna suggests. “Do they want to loosen their curl pattern, do they not want a curl pattern at all, and furthermore is there a way to achieve this without chemicals? No matter what chemical you choose to use, i.e. color, relaxer, perm, etc., there will be upkeep and this can be very difficult for someone who just doesn’t know how to upkeep and maintain. Heat training, keratin treatments, and more can be great alternatives to making the permanent switch.

But if you’ve done all those things and have decided that being relaxed is what you want to do, please seek professional help! If you feel confident to go on this journey yourself, watch lots of YouTube videos on self relaxing, relaxed hair upkeep, and really learn all you need to know because being relaxed is a lifestyle. 

The relaxed hair community is very helpful and we’ve done a lot of the hard work for you, you just have to binge watch and educate yourself to make sure you’re relaxing the best way you can! Don’t let anyone discourage you from doing what’s best for YOU. And if sleek hair is what fits your lifestyle, do THAT.” 

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