Femininity, Hair Relaxers, and the Impact of Beauty Standards on Black Women’s Health

by Amanda Wilcox

The idea of “[insert name] with the good hair” goes far beyond a cheeky line in Beyoncé’s “Sorry.” Rather, it’s a pervasive and systematic idea that has been forced on and marketed to black women for centuries, telling us that our kinks and curls are not “good,” professional, manageable, or desirable enough. The results of this constant message are countless stories of black women being exposed to toxic chemicals in hair relaxers used to permanently change their hair texture, some as young as the age of five (and in extreme cases, younger). And for too many black women, this exposure continues regularly for decades. The relationship between black women and hair relaxers provides a large-scale case study for the intersections of femininity, beauty standards, and health.

In a society that insists on the existence of a sort of ideal femininity and globalized standard of beauty, women are constantly pushed towards the use of various products and services in an attempt to reach set standards, be it through buying cosmetics, undergoing surgery, or any other means. But the often-ignored reality is that regardless of the number of products and services used, “ideal” femininity and beauty can never truly be reached, at least not for very long. For some women, this may manifest through continuous cosmetic surgeries. For others, through bimonthly relaxer sessions. For many black women, our unattainable marker of femininity is related to the long, flowing hair that we see everywhere but in the mirror; the sassy hair flip that doesn’t come in your feminine package when your hair grows upwards and out. However, unlike a 24-inch waist or longer legs, science has made this feminine ideal easily attainable for us, packaged in colourful boxes lining the shelves of countless stores and hair salons. As a result, chemical burns on our scalps have almost become a ubiquitous part of the black female experience, something we can all bond over. And while community bonding is important, a quick dive into the science of hair straightening will show why this particular shared experience is so dangerous to our health.

Human hair is largely composed of tough, fibrous proteins known as keratin, and the proteins in our hair are held together by strong bonds known as disulphide bonds and relatively weaker bonds known as hydrogen bonds. The straightness or curliness of our hair is determined by the shape of our hair follicles, which cannot themselves be changed, but hydrogen and disulphide bonds play a large role in changing the curl pattern of our hair once it grows out of said hair follicles. Because hydrogen bonds are weak, applying heat to hair using hot combs, blowdryers, or flat irons disrupts the hydrogen bonds in our hair and makes the hair straight. However, these bonds can easily revert to their original positions once exposed to water through humidity or washing, for example. Because of the temporary nature of heat straightening, other methods are necessary for women who desire permanently straight hair, and this is where hair relaxers come in. Hair relaxers, which are usually strongly alkaline, work by breaking the much stronger disulphide bonds in our hair, resulting in a permanent straightening of the hair that is not reversed by contact with water. However, as mentioned before, hair straighteners and relaxers do not change the shape of the hair follicle itself, so new hair will still grow out in its natural texture. As a result, people with relaxed hair often return to the salon regularly to chemically straighten their new hair growth.

It is well known that hair relaxers can have undesired effects on the hair itself, such as making hair lighter over time, making hair more prone to breakage, and causing hair thinning or even hair loss. Furthermore, the strong chemicals found in hair relaxers can also cause scalp irritation or even chemical burns if left on for too long, and this problem can be aggravated by using alcoholic hair products, causing long-term scalp damage or bald spots. However, some of the scariest health risks associated with hair relaxers have little to do with hair at all. Lye-based relaxers, which contain the caustic alkaline agent sodium hydroxide, can cause severe burns to the skin as well as irritation to the nose, throat, and respiratory tract. Because of the dangers of lye-based relaxers, many women have switched to “no-lye” relaxers which contain weaker alkaline agents that are less likely to cause burns and irritation. However, these relaxers are not without their risks. For users of both lye and no-lye relaxers, there is a high risk of dermal absorption of the toxic chemicals in these relaxers because of the scalp lesions and burns that often form during treatment. And while the aforementioned issues largely affect the women who have their hair relaxed, there are a number of health issues that also affect the overwhelmingly black female salon workers who repeatedly treat their customers’ hair. In fact, many of these salon workers have complained about developing work-related health complications of their own, ranging from respiratory difficulties to dermatitis and other forms of skin irritation. Clearly, the health risks associated with hair relaxers are not contained to just the person having their hair relaxed.

The problem of hair relaxers is a complicated and multi-faceted one that cannot simply be fixed by telling black women about the health risks they face in their search for straight hair. While it is easy to read off a list of health problems caused by relaxers, this does little to address the deep-seated issue at hand. Chemical burns may have convinced a handful of women to go natural, but they seem like a small price to pay for the reward of fitting in with the images of femininity that black women have been bombarded with for centuries. And thinner hair may not be ideal, but at least it gets us jobs. The natural hair movement, and the large-scale shift toward embracing our natural textures has been hugely important in getting black women to reject hair relaxers, but this is only one side of the issue. Although the importance of accepting oneself cannot be overstated, women will always be pushed towards unhealthy solutions like hair relaxers if we feel like the rest of the world does not accept us. In May 2017, a 16-year-old high school student in Florida was told that her natural hair violated the school’s dress code, which requires that hair is “neat” and clean.” Her story and the countless other stories of work and school policies that disproportionately target and police black hair show just one of the many reasons why hair relaxers remain such a tempting option for many black women and girls. And where social parameters of beauty or “professionalism” are not the issue, lack of options for haircare may force black women to choose the seemingly easier route of relaxed hair anyway, as the hair industry hardly caters to hair that is not already deemed desirable. Unrealistic standards of beauty and femininity have always forced women to put themselves through potentially harmful processes, and the prevalence of hair relaxer amongst black women is just another manifestation of this norm. While awareness of the health risks associated with hair relaxers will help women make informed decisions about using them, these decisions will almost always be affected by societal pressures until there is a radical change in the way our society thinks about beauty and femininity.

Amanda Wilcox is an undergraduate student studying Gender Studies and Society and Genetics. She was part of the Chemical Entanglements Undergraduate Group in Spring 2017.

Works Cited

Lab, V. G. (2015, November 13). The Fight to Rid Black Women’s Hair Salons of Toxic Chemicals. Retrieved from https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2015/11/the-fight-to-rid-black-womens-hair-salons-of-toxic-chemicals/433386/

Miranda-Vilela, A. L., Botelho, A. J., & Muehlmann, L. A. (2013). An overview of chemical straightening of human hair: technical aspects, potential risks to hair fibre and health and legal issues. International Journal of Cosmetic Science,36 (1), 2-11. doi:10.1111/ics.12093

Shetty, V. H., Shetty, N. J., & Nair, D. G. (2013). Chemical Hair Relaxers Have Adverse Effects a Myth or Reality.International Journal of Trichology5(1), 26–28. http://doi.org/10.4103/0974-7753.114710

Toxic Substances Portal – Sodium Hydroxide. (2014, October 21). Retrieved from https://www.atsdr.cdc.gov/mmg/mmg.asp?id=246&tid=45