The Truth About Relaxers
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The Truth About Relaxers

There are as many different textures of curly hair as there are shades of gray. From gentle waves to corkscrew kinks, every texture deserves its own style solution. Many women with curly hair dream of stick-straight locks, but while relaxers may seem like a genie in a bottle, they're not always right for every hair type. Here's a breakdown of what relaxers are, how they work, and which types are available today.
Lye Relaxers

Although the first commercial brand of "lye" relaxer was not patented in the United States until 1971, legend has it that women had been applying soap with a heavy concentration of lye to their hair since the beginning of the 20th century for smoother and more manageable hair. Lye's active ingredient, sodium hydroxide, straightens the hair by loosening the curl as the hair fiber swells. Unfortunately, in order to achieve this, the caustic chemicals are actually breaking the bonds within the hair shaft, which will seriously weaken hair at best -- and can even break it off when used incorrectly.

No-Lye Relaxers

In 1973 no-lye relaxers were introduced to the market. No-lye relaxers rely on ammonium thioglycolate instead of sodium hydroxide to loosen the hair's natural curl. Unlike sodium hydroxide, ammonium thioglycolate is more selective in changing the sodium bonds within the hair shaft. It will loosen the bonds within the hair shaft, rather than breaking them. But it's not damage-free; both lye and no-lye relaxers create a permanent change in hair, and all of the chemicals can potentially cause great damage. Both types of relaxers should only be applied by a professional with experience who takes the time to thoroughly assess the condition of your hair and scalp.

Thermal Reconditioning

The mid 1990's brought a new straightening solution to the scene. Thermal reconditioning, more commonly known as Japanese straightening, also uses ammonium thioglycolate as an active ingredient. The solution is applied like a perm, but backwards -- hair is ironed straight rather than set on curlers. Although the chemicals used are slightly less aggressive than traditional relaxers, the same cautions apply: Only proceed if an experienced professional tells you that your hair can handle the process. If your hair is weak, damaged, or bleached, or if your salon doesn't have extensive experience with thermal reconditioning, just say no.

Brazilian Hair Straightening

Most recently, the controversial Brazilian hair straightening method was introduced in the United States. Brazilian hair straightening uses formaldehyde and keratin to relax the texture of the hair. Although the solution will not eliminate all of the curl, it is the least damaging of all commercial relaxers. However, the long-term effects of exposure to formaldehyde, a known carcinogen, should be considered and the procedure should be performed in a highly ventilated environment. Also, make sure any protective masks provided by the salon are specially designed to filter formaldehyde.

Going Natural

If relaxers are not an option for you, consider why you dislike your curls in the first place. If the gels you've used in the past produced crunchy curls that turned you off to wearing your hair curly, the solution could be as simple as changing your styling product. One easy trick is to mix gel with a leave-in conditioner for a softer, smoother look that still provides control. Also, don't forgot to make sure your haircut is maximizing your curl's potential. Find a stylist who specializes in curls and knows how to layer. The perfect combination of layering and texturizing is what curls need to look their best.

Originally published on, January 2009.