top of page


Chemical hair relaxers straighten out afro curly hair, no matter how coiled, curly, or tight it is. Most of us grew up chemically straightening our hair from the time we were children. At that point, straight hair was the acceptable type of hair to wear to school and the workplace. We were taught to ”wear our natural afro hair to stand out”, and not in a good way.

We did this without understanding what chemical relaxers actually do to afro curly hair.

But what does it really mean to relax afro curly hair? What effect do chemical relaxers have afro curly hair?

The origin of relaxers

Hair relaxers have been used to straighten afro curly hair since the 1900s. Like many modern products, the chemical relaxer was created by mistake.

It is documented that a man called Garrett Augustus Morgan mistakenly created the relaxer in 1909. He was a tailor who was frustrated by the constant friction of the sewing machines in his shop, so he was trying to concoct a mixture to help ease this friction. He tested his cream on a neighbouring dog's fur, and the fur straightened out. He would go on to establish G.A. Morgan Hair Refining Company and began selling his product to people of colour.

The relaxer became and still remains one of the most popular styling products among people of colour because it is an efficient and effective way to straighten hair and offers quick results that last for weeks and months in some cases.

How chemical relaxers work

Chemical relaxers break down the disulfide bonds found within the hair's cortex layer. They penetrate the cuticle and cortex layers of the hair shaft and, in doing so, loosen the natural curl pattern. Instead of the natural curl pattern, what emerges is a straighter pattern. The natural curls are gotten rid of until the next hair growth cycle.

The types of chemical relaxers

The most common types of hair relaxers are Hydroxide and Thio. Hydroxide relaxer types are the most common type and include guanidine hydroxide, sodium hydroxide, potassium hydroxide, and lithium hydroxide relaxers.

During the relaxing procedure, the hydroxide relaxer triggers a process called ianthionisation, which alters the hair's curl pattern by breaking its disulfide bonds. The cortex is elongated, and the original curl pattern is stretched.

Thio relaxers are also hair straighteners but differ from hydroxide relaxers in a few ways. The pH of thio relaxers is usually around 10, while the pH of hydroxide relaxers is approximately 13. Also, during the relaxing process for Thio relaxers, the disulfide bonds broken by the relaxing process are eventually reformed. On the other hand, when you use hydroxide relaxers, the broken disulfide bonds are permanently broken and cannot be formed again.

What chemical relaxers do to afro hair

As explained above, chemical relaxers penetrate the cuticle and the cortex layers of the hair shaft and loosen the natural curl pattern, giving the hair a straighter pattern instead.

However, most people are not satisfied with the chemical relaxing process until the hair is bone straight, which causes the problem with a lot of relaxed hair.

Relaxing hair until it is bone straight means that the hair is over-relaxed. Over-relaxing hair strips the hair of its elasticity and thus weakens it. Over time, as over-relaxing happens again and again, the hair becomes damaged and tends to break more easily.

If not handled with care or if applied for longer than the prescribed time, chemical relaxers can also burn the skin, causing permanent damage to the scalp and leading to hair loss.

Tips for minimising the potential damage done by chemical relaxers

Professional only

It is important to ensure that the chemical relaxer is applied only by a professional. It is important to never DIY.

Protect the scalp

Before the relaxing process begins, coating the scalp with a base of petroleum jelly helps to protect the scalp from possible burns.

No over relaxing

Over-relaxing is never a good thing. We advise that hair should be straightened until it is between 65% and 75% straight, not all the way straight. And chemical relaxers should never be on for more than the amount of time recommended by the manufacturer.

Never on unhealthy hair

Chemical relaxers should never be used on a damaged scalp or unhealthy hair. In this case, the first course of action should be to treat the damaged scalp or unhealthy hair.

Not on the skin

During the application process, it is best to keep the chemical from the human body and ensure that it does not come into contact with the skin.

No double processing

Hair should not be relaxed and coloured simultaneously. This is double processing, and it is not good for hair.

Caring for relaxed hair

People with chemically relaxed hair should take extra care to ensure the continued health of their hair. Here are some of the tips for caring for relaxed hair:

Relaxed hair should be handled with care and should always be properly hydrated and moisturised.

Ponytails and tight braids that pull at the hairline are not advisable for relaxed hair because they create more tension on the hair.

Use heat styling tools like flat irons and blow dryers sparingly, as the application of heat can further weaken chemically-treated hair.

In conclusion

Thankfully, we all have the liberty of choice. We now get to choose how we want to wear our hair. For those of us who chose to chemically straighten our hair, the purpose of this article is to arm us with proper information to help mitigate whatever inherent damage is in this styling choice.

At the end of the day, the goal — and our hope — is that you have the healthiest head of hair possible.

Stay beautiful, stay healthy.


bottom of page