Why Some Black Women Are Going Back to Relaxers

Last June, Ashley White uploaded a video to her YouTube channel, All about Ash, titled "Why I Relaxed My Natural Hair + Signs That You May Want To Relax Your Natural Hair." In the 25 minute video, she teases her rationale in the first few seconds: "Overall, being natural was just too time-consuming for me and I just didn't care to put that much time into doing my hair."

The 24-year-old Austin native is hardly alone. In the last couple of years, there has been an increase in media coverage and YouTube videos with women who previously wore their natural hair returning to relaxers. Although recent data has shown relaxer purchases are still on a steep decline, there is a cohort of women who are bucking the natural hair trend. There are a multitude of reasons for their departure: the dearth in representation and celebration of women with kinkier textures and tighter coils, the pressures and criticism some experienced within the movement, the additional time spent and products needed to upkeep curls (another natural-to-relaxed video's title declares "Sis I'm Tired!"). That latter is what caused White to finally make her exit.

Before her 2020 return to relaxers, the last time White chemically straightened her hair was 2016, a year after she started college. Through college, she heavily relied on protective styles, including using wigs, to transition. But when White began to wear her natural hair out more, she soon found it was more laborious than she had anticipated. For example, White says she would spend 30 minutes trying to get her hair into a sleek bun. And her wash days, which often took over two and half hours, were also beset by constantly having to detangle her curls during the process.

"It was just a struggle for me to figure out my hair and determine what it likes, what it needs, what products that work with it," she says. "It was taking a lot of time and a lot of effort, or just more time and effort than I want to put into my hair to just achieve a simple style." In addition to reclaiming her time, White believes that she's able to take better care of her hair now that it’s relaxed.

Natural, Not Radical

Before the United States' social media-centric natural community, during the Black Power movement in the ‘60s, Black women who wore their natural Afro-textured hair were definitively seen as making political statements. While the same isn't necessarily true today in terms of intention — which is difficult to assess on a collective basis — because of the history of how Black hair has been denigrated, its appearance in its natural form is still generally considered expressed dissent. Black women's hair remains a site of prejudice due to white/European beauty constructs that position straight hair as good hair.

Beginning in the early aughts, a generation of women, like White, entered young adulthood under the natural hair community's digital umbrella. Now, there are myriad bloggers, vloggers, and other online spaces dedicated to helping people along their natural journey. A Google search of "best products for natural hair" will currently produce over 900 million results, and last year, a report from global research firm Mintel noted that the Black hair-care market's growth is driven by regimen-focused products.

It's often assumed that women who have natural hair are conscientiously part of a bigger — politicized — natural hair movement, but that isn't necessarily the case.

Daisha Hooper, 28, also based in Austin, makes hair tutorial videos on her YouTube channel, DaishaView, and had been natural for a decade prior to attempting to relax her hair last December. But while White felt an affiliation with the digital community, Hooper did not.

"It wasn't like a conscious decision of, 'Oh, I want to be a part of this movement,'" she says of her initial decision to go natural. "It was just more, I'm tired of my hair breaking off. I'm tired of getting this chemical that burns on my head. I just don't want to do it anymore, so I'm not."

But Hooper's hesitancy about straightening treatments changed suddenly, and she decided to attempt an at-home relaxer. "I was being a little bit impulsive with it and I just kind of got frustrated with dealing with my hair and I was like, let me just like straighten this out," she says. Hooper's experiment ultimately failed because she didn’t apply the product correctly and consequently, her hair didn't take to it. Her curls remained intact, which she says was relieving because she had made the decision in a moment of exasperation.

Hooper ended up opting for locs instead, with the goal of keeping her hair natural while reducing the time she spends on it. "Locs are the style that works for me the best. It's easy to care for," she explains.

Unlike Hooper, White has maintained her relaxed hair, despite some backlash from the natural hair community she experienced after her video went live. "I would get some comments like, 'If I relaxed my hair I'm trying to fit into certain beauty standards,' or 'If I relaxed my hair, I don’t love my Black skin,'" White says. "Coming from other Black women, it wasn't really encouraging or helpful."

But she also acknowledges that in the last year, she has noticed a shift in how the natural hair community responds to others doing the same, at least online. She believes people within the community are becoming less disapproving.

"It's kind of been more acceptable in a way to relax your hair," she says. "I feel like people understand now that just because you relax your hair doesn't mean you hate your natural hair."

Ain't Nobody Got Time (or Money) For That

For all the women Allure spoke to, time consumption was the most prevalent reason for returning to relaxers. Judith Jarrett, 58, who went natural in late 2018 at the encouragement of her hairstylist, returned to relaxers last year. Between the time it took to style her hair and her inability to achieve a style she felt comfortable wearing, she says it just wasn’t working for her.

"Because I perspire a lot in my head, my hair gets tangled. And it's hard to manage, it gets puffy, it's all over the place. And I hate that look," she says. "I decided to go back to perms which is much easier to handle."

Jarett also found maintaining natural hair more costly than keeping up with relaxers, even as she used the same salon and stylist to keep up with both. Based in New York City, she would visit her stylist, Carmencita Sinclair, owner of Creation in Brooklyn, every two weeks when natural at a cost of $75 plus tax, as opposed to every five and a half weeks when relaxed, at $115 plus tax. Relaxers also took less time than natural hairstyling at the salon according to Jarett, as did the at-home care in-between visits.

"You have to buy all these products to use on your [natural] hair. And they're not cheap. And when I went to the salon, I spent more money to have it blown out," she says. "It's weird. I thought [going natural] would be cheaper, but it's not, and it's more time-consuming."

According to a Mintel report Black shoppers spent an estimated $473 million a year on shampoo and $491 million on conditioner in 2017. And it seems as if every day there is a new product line for textured hair launching, which leads to an overwhelming experience when looking for the right combination to care for your hair type.

As with essentially every aspect of daily life, COVID-19 may have had an effect as well: With the shut down of non-essential businesses including salons last year, many Black women documented coming to terms with their natural hair on their own without the help of stylists — as well as a return to "the creamy crack" aka relaxers, as in Jarrett and White’s cases.

Putting Hair Health First

Atlanta-based hairstylist Jasmine Collins, well-known for working with women who suffer from severe hair loss, proposes that women are leaving natural hair behind not only because of manageability, but due to wanting to achieve a particular, "more polished" look that's trendy right now. And to get that smoother finish, "you're gonna have to texturize or relax it," she says.

For others, going back to relaxers can be about scalp health, which may seem contradictory to anyone familiar with the negative effects certain harsh chemicals can have on the hair, especially when applied incorrectly. But in Collins's observations, the people who have recently transitioned from natural hair to relaxed hair are most often people who have been wearing locs for a long time.

"After wearing the locs for so many years and they get to be so long and so heavy, it starts to pull on the hair follicle and they start to lose their hair from the weight of the locs being on their head," she says, noting that any type of hair can be healthy or unhealthy.

"Natural does not equal healthy. Just because your hair is natural, does not mean that it’s healthy. There are some people with natural hair that's unhealthy, and there are some people with relaxed hair that’s healthy," she says. "It really boils down to having a primary stylist that knows what they're doing to take care of your hair and [can] guide you down the right path."

Massachusetts-based dermatologist Yolanda Lenzy, who specializes in hair loss and is also a certified cosmetologist, believes education and information is key when it comes to all hair choices. An advocate for Black women wearing their natural hair, she posits that part of the problem of the natural hair community today is that there has been a lot of miseducation.

"Bloggers have contributed a lot of information about these different regimens that is not scientifically based," she says. "It may look good on their hair but when you try to go execute it on your particular hair texture, you don't get that same result."

Lenzy believes that people are going back to relaxers primarily because they're not able to replicate a lot of the popular natural hairstyles they see others wearing, especially online.

Another category of misinformation is the science surrounding chemicals used in relaxers, and whether or not they can be harmful beyond causing hair damage. Although Lenzy was part of the research team that contributed to a 25-year-long study that showed that moderate use of relaxers does not increase breast cancer among Black women — the motivation by some women not to use relaxers — she still does not recommend them. (It's worth noting the study did find that "heavy" users of lye-based relaxers — at least seven times a year for 15 years — increased their risk of developing estrogen receptor-positive breast cancer by 30 percent compared to less frequent users.)

Lenzy emphasizes that with Black women disproportionately suffering from an array of medical conditions, she is apprehensive to rule out the relationship between relaxers and other negative health outcomes, even if there's not a conclusive connection to cancer specifically.

"I think the story is yet untold on the health effects that they can cause," she says. "We're talking about a caustic chemical that has a super high pH." In a statement to Allure, Linda Loretz, chief toxicologist for the Personal Care Products Council (PCPC) notes that hair straighteners and relaxers are regulated by the FDA. "If our consumers can't believe in a product and rely on it to do what it says, then nothing else matters," Loretz writes. "Ingredient safety assessments take into account exposure from the use of multiple products and are not specific to cosmetics and personal care products marketed towards women of color."

Texas-based dermatologist Adeline Kikam also points out that the harm relaxers may cause needn't extend beyond hair for it to matter to Black women."Relaxers and chemicals in them can weaken hair over time, causing lots of breakage and scalp inflammation which can contribute to scarring alopecia or permanent hair loss," she says.

But Kikam also says Black women should be wary of self-diagnosing their hair problems without receiving an evaluation from a dermatologist. This is especially important when it comes to the dreaded loss of hair at one's edges, which some Black women cite as a reason for wanting to return to relaxers, according to Collins.

"Don't proceed to relaxers and compound the issue without medical guidance," says Kikam.

For Kikam, the underestimation some Black women may have over the upkeep of their natural hair combined with the limits of the styles and looks they are able to obtain with it contributes to the frustration over natural hair. She says there needs to be a collective and individual shift in perspective of one's hair when you go natural. And to stay natural, persistence is a must.

"If you spend most of your formative years caring for relaxed hair, you become skillful at it so it takes time and patience to adjust to the look, feel, and demands of your natural hair," she says.

No matter what type of look a person is trying to achieve — though perhaps especially when straightening naturally curly hair — Lenzy says finding the right professional is key. She points out that despite her work and her cosmetology license, not even she would be able to achieve trendy natural looks without a hairstylist. In the same statement provided to Allure, Loretz writes that the American Academy of Dermatology also recommends going to a professional stylist and that the FDA notes the importance of following the directions on the label and inside the packaging "to ensure the product performs as intended."

And as far as manageability goes, Lenzy remains firm in her position too. "That whole concept around like, a relaxer is the only way to achieve manageability, I think it's a myth," she says. "Now, you might not know how to achieve that yourself, and you might need to partner with a professional to achieve that."

But in spite of her views, if her patients still opt for relaxed hair, Lenzy offers them and anyone else who might choose to leave their natural hair behind these tips: Use mild relaxers, keep the frequency between relaxers to no more than once every 12 weeks, avoid no-lye relaxers, and, again, get it done by a professional.

"I just try to empower [my clients] with the information to help them with whichever decision they make," she says.

Ultimately, "This is your hair, you have to do it every day," Lenzy says. In the end, we all have to be comfortable with the choices we make about our hair and their consequences — whether that's the potential side effects of the use and application of a relaxer or in the time cost of maintaining natural hair with or without protective styles.

As for White, she believes she made the right decision for herself. But she could see herself changing her mind in the future — and the ability to go back and forth shows how versatile Black hair really can be.

"As of right now, I love being relaxed. I feel like it fits my lifestyle currently, and how I like to wear my hair," she says. "The one thing I kind of wanted to stress is that I didn't hate my natural hair. I like my curls, it's just that it was really time-consuming for me. But if that ever changed, I could see myself going back to natural."

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