Since 2008 relaxer sales have consistently fallen in the United States. Around the same time, I was told that a salon focused entirely on natural hair could never be successful in East Texas because I’d wouldn’t be able to convince enough women in the area to forego chemical services. After all, we must be presentable. We’ve got to be able to hold a job.
Inside, I felt the need to create a space where we could be free to accept our hair as it is designed and open the way to learn how to properly care for it. So I kept pushing forward. I wanted to support women stepping out of society’s box by providing services that focused on maintaining healthy hair.
Over time I began to hear unexpected and shocking stories while behind the chair and speaking with new clients over the phone. These were horror stories of drastic hair loss and trauma coming from women who never thought they would be “forced” to go natural. They wondered how they would handle it, how they would cover it, what their boyfriends, husbands and mothers would think. They wondered if they would be accepted or abandoned by those who love them.
I’m still hearing stories like these today, though outside acceptance isn’t as much of a concern anymore since natural hair is more commonly seen in public places. What hasn’t changed is the shock, anger and sadness these women feel at first when, after having no plans to ditch their trusted relaxer in their foreseeable future, they find themselves staring at their reflection with a teeny weeny afro (TWA) or boy cut.
It has become unfortunately common to hear people say “natural hair isn’t for everybody.” I used to agree, but after counseling so many women through an unexpected, but necessary transition, my opinions had to change. Natural hair is what we have. It should be normal. There are countless styling options, recipes, products and regimens to fit different lifestyles, skill levels and budgets. I’ve heard from women who used chemicals for years without incident, then one day, it’s over. I’ve cried with women who feel they have no option but to hide under wigs and pray.
I have learned that refusing chemical services should be considered more a matter of health than fashion or politics. We owe it to ourselves to take a closer look at relaxers and other chemical services, especially since there have been recent studies suggesting links to some serious health problems and hair loss.
Medication interactions, hormonal changes, restricted hair growth from chemical scars and the possible connections between chemical services and female health problems are four of the most common unexpected reasons behind going natural. These experiences change a person’s lifestyle, making natural hair a necessary and concrete decision for a growing portion of our demographic. For so many of us, natural hair is about more than being trendy, and awareness is the only way to prevent the trauma of fighting through something you feel isn’t “for you” when you were born with it. So, let’s break it down.
Some women are returning to natural hair because of medication interactions. It’s important to read the inserts and information that come with prescriptions. Ask your doctor or pharmacist for the info, if it is not provided. Tell your physician and dermatologist if you use any type of chemical straighteners, and how often you use them. If your medications affect hair dryness, growth or could cause shedding, be aware that chemical services on the hair could raise your chances of those risks affecting you.
Hormonal changes around menopause can cause hair loss and thinning at the crown of the head. This may still happen if you wear your hair natural, but wearing relaxers, jheri curls and even using jet black permanent color regularly and for an extended period of time raises the risk of follicle damage causing hair to appear thinner than if it’s worn in its natural state. From my experience, I’ve noticed a relationship between how long and how often harsh chemicals are applied and how drastic the hair loss can be. Follicle damage is usually irreversible.
Chemical Burns/Scar Tissue
Chemical burns are common in our community. Unfortunately this means that they are often brushed off as not being a serious issue. In reality, chemical burns can have detrimental effects on the follicles, causing permanent scar tissue, folliculitis, trichorrhexis nodosa (extremely dry, brittle hair), infection and alopecia. This is by far the most common reason people stop using relaxers and texturizers, and while going natural means that those tender places won’t be inflamed repeatedly anymore, many people have lasting scars and discomfort for years. In the early 2000s, the term “scab hair” was coined to describe the first new hair growth after the last relaxer, which sometimes means doing the big chop two to three times. This hair is affected by the relaxer chemicals that absorb into the scalp during touch-ups. It can be dry, wiry, split easily and refuse to hold the hair’s natural curl pattern.
Women’s Health Problems
Black Women for Wellness released a 60-page report in 2016 that was based on a five-year study of the effects of chemical services on the health of consumers and beauty industry workers. The results found possible links between chemical services and early puberty, heavier, longer and more painful menstrual cycles, and uterine fibroids. When applied to the scalp, chemicals are absorbed into the blood stream. Because a woman’s womb is responsible for detoxification of the heaviest chemicals through its monthly flow, this area can become the most affected by their repeated use. This is the reason physicians recommend we not use relaxers while pregnant.
When I flash back to 2008 and 2009 when I was sharing my dream in that unforgettable conversation, I never considered that health awareness would become the number one contributing factor in the decision to return to natural hair. But today, it is close to becoming just that. We are learning more and doing better. Our concerns and observations are being confirmed by scientific data. Natural hair has become recognized as a part of the bigger decision to live a healthier, holistic life and this recognition means natural hair is here to stay.