The Reluctant Return of the Relaxer
At the end of the day, it’s simply about having the choice to use it or not.
Last summer, Ambra Brice, a New York–based tech marketer, relaxed her hair for the first time in a decade. “It was the best decision I made in 2021,” she tells Coveteur. “I don’t know what took me so long.” The moment was so significant that she decided to document it on her Instagram story—then the replies began to trickle in. “People were like, ‘No! Why did you do that!’ and ‘You gave in.’” Before she posted, Brice was happy with her decision, but some of her followers clearly didn’t share that sentiment. These exchanges in Brice’s DMs were microcosms of the unsolicited resistance women of color often feel when they opt for a relaxer. Since relaxers’ reign was eclipsed by the latest iteration of the natural hair movement, there’s been a divide between those who still embrace relaxers and those who abhor them.
Photos: Courtesy of Ambra Brice
To be clear, there are a number of reasons to avoid relaxers. “Hydroxide relaxers permanently straighten curls, coils, or waves by breaking disulfide bonds. Disulfide bonds are the bonds responsible for making your hair strong and elastic,” explains New York trichologist Sophia Emmanuel. “When relaxer is applied to your hair, these disulfide bonds break and your curls take on a straighter shape permanently. When disulfide bonds break, it causes your hair to be weaker and more prone to breakage. This is because the hydroxide relaxer penetrates into the cortex of the hair.” But for some people, like Brice, the convenience that they offer, like not having to worry about how the daily weather will affect your hairstyle, is still a major draw.
“Having natural hair is essentially a lifestyle. What women are starting to realize is that it doesn’t suit their lifestyle,” celebrity hairstylist Sade Williams says. “The reality is, we’ve been locked down for two years. Being forced to do their own hair, women realized that natural hair is a lot of work. Women are feeling like they want a change. They realize that they don’t have the time, that they have to invest in natural hair.”
Growing up, I always thought that getting a relaxer was akin to a Black woman’s rite of passage. I vividly remember pleading with my mom for “perm sauce” while I was still in elementary school. Even then, the risks weren’t kept secret. And whenever I’d forget, the tingling on my scalp mid-treatment served as a reminder. But I didn’t care. One school picture day, a bird literally pooped on my head right before photos were about to be taken and my sole concern was that my fresh relaxer wasn’t set askew. When my mom became abreast of the natural hair movement, she put our relaxer regimen to an abrupt stop—I still wore straight hair for the most part but swapped relaxers for silk presses. My household’s relaxer era didn’t last long, and within a few years we had broken up with our stylist entirely. In lieu of going to her basement salon for touch-ups, we’d visit our city’s natural hair convention (yes, that’s a thing). But while my reasons for no longer getting a relaxer were valid, so were Brice’s reasons to revisit the treatment.
“I just feel so free. I feel like I don’t have all the restrictions of which steps to follow and how many hours I need for my hair to dry or if I want this style, I can’t do that. There were just so many rules and I was just tired,” Brice says. “I don’t have to wonder if it’s going to rain or if I’m going to be walking a lot. I just want my hair to be laid, and that’s it.” Months after the first treatment, she says that her return to relaxer hasn’t compromised her hair health or her texture. She credits this to her stylist Lorraine Melendez-Guity, who has been wary of overprocessing—a common misstep that leads to significant damage.
Listening to Brice describe her experience on a morning video call, I couldn’t help but consider that many newly natural folks describe their hair the same way she described her relaxer. So, perhaps, it’s not about how you choose to wear your hair but in the choice itself. Brice isn’t the only one exploring this. There are pockets on TikTok for just about everything, so it was hardly shocking when I stumbled upon #RelaxerTikTok, a corner of the internet where the treatment is no longer taboo. It was there that I came across one of Courtney Reed’s videos. In one clip, she shares snaps from a salon visit with the caption, “Lol someone said people don’t get relaxers anymore.” Another reads, “Y’all starting world war III in the comments every time I post about being relaxed.”
creamy crack season 😌 (six month stretch)
“I think it’s a lot of projecting,” Reed tells Coveteur. “I can’t blame them because there’s a lot of historical weight to the reason why Black women felt pressure to relax their hair in the first place.” She likens Black women now opting for relaxers to women choosing to be homemakers.
“In 2022, you can be a stay-at-home wife. It doesn’t have the same weight as if you were doing it in the ‘60s because you can choose not to be a stay-at-home wife. I feel like I have the freedom to decide whether I’m natural or not, whereas women who were growing up in the ‘60s, ‘70s, and ‘80s maybe felt pressure to be relaxed so that they could be seen as professional at work or to get the kind of attention they wanted from people.”
Reed recalls getting her first relaxer in middle school. Similar to the videos she creates today, she streamed hours of relaxer-related content on YouTube before her first treatment. “I just feel like there are a lot of misconceptions about what choice actually means and how they assume I want to present myself to the world because of the choice that I’ve made, but the actual goal is to have a choice in the first place.”
It’s worthy to note that we aren’t dealing with the same relaxers from the ‘90s either. “Relaxers have evolved over the years,” Emmanuel says. “Many relaxers today have oils and conditioning agents in them that help soften hair and reduce breakage.” Still, Nina Ross, a board-certified trichologist and holistic health practitioner, explains that it’s important to remain cautious about the chemical makeup of the relaxers, which can have damaging effects over time.
To ease these possible effects down the line, Emmanuel suggests covering your scalp with a petroleum-based product to keep burning at bay and making sure you’re using the right relaxer. “The higher the strength of the relaxer, the faster the relaxer will straighten,” she says. “A mild relaxer is for fine or color-treated hair. A regular relaxer is for normal or medium hair textures. Super [relaxer], which I do not recommend, should be used on coarse virgin hair that is strong enough to handle it.”
Timing-wise, YouTuber Brianna Rashay limits using relaxers to every five months versus the typical eight weeks. Meanwhile, Williams suggests an eight- to 10-week regimen for medium-to-longer hair lengths. There isn’t a consensus on best practice—each source interviewed for this story suggested a different window between treatments, from six weeks to several months—but the common thread is that consistency is key. “As long as you stick to a schedule, your hair will flourish and be healthy,” Williams says.
So yes, the risk of hair damage will always be present with relaxers, which is why many women are reluctant to revisit them in the first place, and some find it hard to reconcile the pros that draw others to the treatment. But what’s most counterproductive is policing anyone’s choices. At the end of the day, we all make the best decisions for ourselves—especially regarding our hair.