In the world of Black haircare, the likelihood of finding a hair product more controversial or polarizing than chemical hair relaxers is about slim to none. As far as I know, no other product on the market has been able to create as much of a divide in the Black community between those who choose to embrace their natural hair texture and those who wish to transform it. And yet, at some point, the use of this cream-based product to straighten curly or coily hair has managed to become so ingrained in our culture that the hair process has turned into somewhat of a rite of passage for many Black girls—myself included.
Whether you’ve got it done in the salon or applied it a home via a kit, relaxers—or “creamy crack” as it’s sometimes know in the Black community—have long been a staple for those wanting to alter their hair texture into what’s seen as a more “manageable” texture, as least by Eurocentric beauty standards. But, as much as some of us welcome having the ability to straighten out our kinks, curls, and coils, the sad and bitter truth is that the use of relaxers can be extremely detrimental to our health. A recent study by the National Institutes of Health found that the use of chemical hair straighteners, such as relaxers, has been linked to an increased risk for uterine cancer, particularly amongst Black women. And, while this information was news to some, much has already been said about relaxers being linked to an increased risk of fibroids, which Black women are two to three times more likely to suffer from than white women.
To fully grasp how this news impacts Black women and their hair choices, it’s important to understand that there is an impossible beauty standard placed on Black women that is heavily influenced by Eurocentrentic ideals. To meet this standard, Black women take it upon themselves to use products, like relaxers, that are often not ever designed with us in mind and more importantly, could be putting our health at risk, as we have now come to find out. This, of course, leaves many Black women in a hard place and forces them to make a very difficult decision: go natural and potentially face racial discrimination or straighten your hair and risk your health, and possibly, even your life. It’s a damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t situation.
As conversations surrounding relaxers continue to evolve and as we continue to see chemical hair straighteners have a renaissance in the Black community, The Tease felt it was necessary to hear from Black hairstylists about how they feel about the use of relaxers in the salon and the health risks associated with them. Ahead, four Black hair pros talk about their reaction to the news that relaxers have been linked to uterine cancer, why they do or do not offer relaxers as a service, and where they see the need for change when it comes to the use of relaxers in the Black community.
Taylor Augustus, (@healthyslaysbytay)
Founder of Healthy Slays by Tay, LLC
On Her Reaction to Relaxers Being Linked To a Higher Risk of Uterine Cancer in Black Women: “When it comes to the beauty industry, there are so many risks many of us take to achieve a certain look, or for convenience. There are harmful chemicals in a MAJORITY of the services women partake in—gel, acrylic nails, hair bleach, UV lights, lash extensions. The list goes on. Therefore, my initial reaction was… why the focus on relaxers? Aside from acrylics, gel nails, lash extensions, microblading, and things of that sort, relaxers in particular have been a pivotal part of the Black women experience and how they conform to Eurocentric standards—most times for essential reasons (jobs, promotions, etc.). With that said, in my opinion, take your health seriously. We’re all being exposed to cancerous and toxic chemicals on the daily from house cleaners to the chemicals we use on our heads. So, maybe we should focus on living a healthy life, eating healthy foods, and eliminating stress and then we can tackle the rest.”
On Whether Relaxers Are Still a Frequent Request Amongst Her Clientele: “Relaxers are still a frequent request amongst my clients—on average, 10 relaxers a month.”
On How She’s Seen the Demand for Relaxers Change Working in the Salon Industry: “I noticed a big shift away from relaxers after Chris Rock’s documentary on Black hair [called Good Hair]. However, within the last 2-3 years, especially since the pandemic, I’ve noticed the need increasing more.”
On Why She Thinks Black Women Keep Returning to Relaxers: “The same reason fast food is still in business: convenience. Relaxers provide convenience despite obvious health concerns that may be associated with them. Black women are busy and don’t have the time or patience to do 5 hour wash days and twist-outs or braid-outs and such. They don’t have time to keep trying to lay their edges on vacation. They want to relax or tex-lax their edges to relieve the hassle. It’s just like we know getting a Big Mac, fries, and a Diet Coke is wrong, but we’re tired and don’t feel like cooking. That same feeling applies.”
On Her Biggest Concern As a Stylist Who Offers Relaxers as a Service: “My concern is my clients’ overall lifestyle choices. When my clients come in with a problem associated with their hair (dryness, brittleness, shedding, etc.), we troubleshoot and try to find the root of the issue. Some clients have a Vitamin D deficiency, which is very common amongst Black women. My biggest concern is the overall health of their hair, not a specific concentration on relaxers. As I mentioned, if I focus on relaxers being linked to uterine cancer then I would also have to have that same due diligence for any chemical that’s in my salon—from bleach to hair color, everything.”
On Whether She Believes Relaxers Will Continue to Be an Option for Black Women: “I certainly do. I did have one client that opted out of getting a relaxer following the news and 100 percent respected her decision and we just did a silk press. I’ve been doing hair for nine years. My mother owned a salon and did hair for 31 years. I’ve seen A LOT. Usually different articles, documentaries, and news reports come out with “new” studies and people adhere or jump to it for a period, but some of them come back once the hype calms down and settle for a more convenient lifestyle, after realizing that natural hair wasn’t something they could deal with.”
On What It Will Take for the Black Hair Community to Stop Using Relaxers: “Relaxers have their place and I believe there is always going to be a consumer for them. I advocate for healthy hair and truly believe with proper haircare and a healthy lifestyle, you can achieve healthy hair, natural or relaxed.”
On The Changes She Would Like to See Happen With Relaxers in the Black Hair Community: “Personally, I like the idea of texturizers more. With a texturizer, you get the best of both worlds (natural and relaxed) and I’ve noticed more length retention and fullness with texturizers. Maybe that can be a happy medium until creators can create chemical hair straighteners without the risks.”
Tonya Thompson and Sharie Wilson, (@hairbytonya and @iamshariewilson)
Co-Founders of DreamGirls Hair and Salon Brand
On Their Reaction to Relaxers Being Linked To a Higher Risk of Uterine Cancer in Black Women: “It doesn’t surprise us because information about this topic came out in the past. The chemicals they use in relaxers are very harsh and can potentially seep into our pores. What we put on our bodies can affect us just as much as what we put in.”
On Whether Relaxers Are Still a Frequent Request Amongst Their Clientele: “We get a few requests here and there, but we do not offer that service because we feel it’s not beneficial for overall hair health.”
On How They’ve Seen the Demand for Relaxers Change Working in the Salon Industry: “A lot of people are becoming more educated and mindful of what they are putting in and on their bodies. Because of that, we have actually seen a huge decrease in this service over the years. Some people come into our salon with bald spots from thinning or damaged hair over time. Even their scalps are damaged. Through our Healthy Hair Program, we have helped a lot of people grow out their hair that was previously damaged by relaxers.”
On Why They Think Black Women Keep Returning to Relaxers: “There currently is a movement of Black women going back to relaxers. We’re not sure why but we have seen women on social media explaining that relaxers have grown back their hair. We’ve learned that if people train their hair they can achieve the same results without the use of a relaxer. There is no judgment on our end and we understand women choose options that they feel are best for them.”
On How They Approach Working With Clients Who Request Relaxers: “We no longer offer this service because we did not feel right. We chose to remove relaxers from our services and focus on healthy alternatives to help our clients achieve their hair goals. So, first, we inform them we don’t offer this service, and then we share with them the risks before denying services so that we can inform them of what can potentially take place with the consistent use of relaxers. We then present the option of them joining our Healthy Hair Care Program to help restore the overall health of their hair without use of harsh chemicals.”
On Whether They Believe Relaxers Will Continue to Be an Option for Black Women: “Yes, because some people believe the results they receive from relaxers outweigh the risks, or they just flat-out believe that something like that can’t happen to them.”
On What It Will Take for the Black Hair Community to Stop Using Relaxers: “More education and women coming forward who have been directly affected by using relaxers.”
On The Changes She Would Like to See Happen With Relaxers in the Black Hair Community: “We think we need to share more education about the risks on social media platforms from actual professionals. People that push things out on social media more often than not are just regular people that are not truly informed of the health risks of relaxers and therefore can spread false information. It’s important for people to make an educated decision about anything that can lead to potential health risks.”
Mark Anthony, (@markanthonystyles )
Owner of Mark Anthony’s Hair Studio and Suites Atlanta
On His Reaction to Relaxers Being Linked To a Higher Risk of Uterine Cancer in Black Women: “I found that quite odd, because our older generations used relaxers and they were fine. I feel like the use of relaxers without the proper education is the problem.”
On Whether Relaxers Are Still a Frequent Request Amongst His Clientele: “Relaxers are still a frequent request. Actually, I have experienced more women going back to relaxers, for many personal reasons such as manageability and convenience. On a regular basis, I do about 15 relaxers per month.”
On How He’s Seen the Demand for Relaxers Change Working in the Salon Industry: “I saw a decline in relaxers between 2013-2020. Since then, they have been slowly increasing.”
On Why He Thinks Black Women Keep Returning to Relaxers: “There are a lot of things going on in the world, like inflation and the change in families. I feel that women just want their time and money back. There is also much more education about relaxers and when done right, like with anything else, you can cut down on the side effects. Being natural can be very costly when finding the correct products for your hair texture.”
On His Biggest Concern As a Stylist Who Offers Relaxers as a Service: “Educating my clients on the correct technique to apply relaxers and also continuing my education and being in the know of different studies.”
On How He Approaches Working With Clients Who Request Relaxers: “My approach on social [media] about relaxers speaks for itself. So, I feel like when clients do request relaxers, I have already gained their trust.”
On Whether He Believes Relaxers Will Continue to Be an Option for Black Women: “Yes, because natural hair is not for everybody. We can’t dodge what’s destined to happen.”
On What It Will Take for the Black Hair Community to Stop Using Relaxers: “Doing your own research and making your own decisions.”
On The Changes He Would Like to See Happen With Relaxers in the Black Hair Community: “Remove relaxers from retail shelves for at home use.”
Regardless of how you feel about relaxers, there’s no denying that there is an increasing body of research confirming that Black women are being put at risk by chemical hair straightening products. Yes, frequent use of relaxers have been linked to a higher risk of uterine cancer in women, particularly Black women, but even researchers have said that more work is needed to verify this association. And there’s still so much that we don’t know—namely which ingredients are safe, which are most relevant to the risk of uterine cancer, and what specific relaxer brands are most harmful.
Let’s face it, relaxers will continue to be a part of the Black experience as long as Black women continue to express a demand for it—that will never change. However, what does need to change is the amount of attention paid to Black women’s health with regards to these types of hair products. Relaxers have been aggressively marketed to Black women for years and yet, little has actually been said from the government or the companies that formulate these products about the safety of these formulations and the potential dangers they pose for a person’s health. This lack of information and education makes it difficult for Black women to make safe decisions about the products they use and how often they use them, leaving many of them at a risk.
It should be noted that one in 12 beauty and personal care products marketed to Black women in the U.S. are found to contain highly hazardous ingredients such as lye, parabens, and formaldehyde-releasing preservatives, according to research by the Environmental Working Group. In the case of relaxers, which we already know contain harmful chemicals such as lye, they are not required to be tested or approved by the Food and Drug Administration before they are sold.
Concerns about the safety of chemical relaxers will not be going away anytime soon, so it’s time for the beauty giants who make and market many of the popular relaxer brands, such as Revlon and L’Oreal, to step up and play a more active role in keeping Black female consumers safe. Toxic ingredients that are detrimental to our health need to be removed from hair relaxers that they manufacture and or supply. And, there needs to be more funding into textured hair research and more of a focus on making safer and better formulated products for Black women. Failure to do so might just lead Black women to take matters into their own hands and create the healthy hair relaxers that deserve, but for so long have been denied.