Return of the relaxer? Why some Black women are embracing the chemical hair treatment after years of going natural. (2023)

Return of the relaxer? Why some Black women are embracing the chemical hair treatment after years of going natural. (1)

Just For Me, Creme of Nature, Dark & Lovely: For Black women, these relaxer brands likely bring up memories of chemical aromas, pressed roots and a girlhood coiffure nostalgia. And while the relationship between the Black hair community and relaxers has ebbed and flowed quite a bit over the past 20 years — vilified, for a time, by natural-hair enthusiasts — the controversial hair treatment has recently made its way back into the Black beauty zeitgeist.

First things first: What is a relaxer?

A relaxer is a chemical treatment that permanently loosens or "relaxes" the hair, leaving straighter, less curly strands in its wake. There are various chemical formulations, including lye and no-lye versions, and their origins can be traced back to the early 1900s, though they became a staple in Black salons and households in the '90s as a means of ease and assimilation.

"Having a relaxer helped to lessen the time spent on getting my hair ready for the school week," Dana Oliver, the founder of Beauty for Breakfast and a former Yahoo beauty director, tells Yahoo Life. "And then a part of that, too, goes back to those beauty standards, right? Like, you look more polished, you look more sophisticated."

In the early aughts, relaxers were used as an avenue to acceptance for Black women in social and workplace settings that typically displayed biases toward natural hair.

In fact, according to a 2021 Dove CROWN research study, 66% of Black girls in majority-white schools report experiencing hair discrimination, compared to 45% of Black girls in all schools. And 100% of Black elementary school girls in predominately white areas who report experiencing hair discrimination say the discrimination began by age 10. Spurred on by its findings, Dove, in collaboration with the CROWN Coalition, created the CROWN Act, prohibiting discrimination based on natural hairstyles and textures associated with particular races. The act was first passed in California and has since been passed in 18 other states, including Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, and is under review by the United States Senate.

Relaxers in youth

Long histories of Black women being ostracized for sporting natural hair made relaxers a staple for many young Black girls.

"My mom put a relaxer in my hair when I was in fifth grade, and I remember my first time ever having it was for our class pictures," says Asia Ware, a fashion writer at The Cut who has been on both sides of the natural and relaxed hair movements.

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Getting a relaxer at a young age was quite a common thing, but as is the case with many permanent chemical processes, relaxers can make hair more susceptible to damage and breakage, as it damages the integrity of the hair strands. Relaxers have also been linked to an increased risk for traction alopecia due to the weakening of the hair strand.

"Back in the day, we decided to relax our daughter's hair young, which is not always the best, because sometimes it'll stunt the growth or you'll see the little girl's hair fall out," says Ray Christopher, a celebrity hairstylist who has been doing hair for 15 years. Now, however, Christopher says parents seem to be holding off on making such major hair decisions for their children.

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"Now parents have more knowledge, they move a little more cautiously, and they're older when they do it. So they have it for a certain purpose," he says.

The rise of natural hair

As with many shifts in beauty, trends change as new information is presented or reignited. When rhetorics of "self-love" seemed to hit the mainstream again in the 2010s, natural hair began to rise in popularity for the first time since the Afro era in the '60s and '70s.

"In the 1970s, natural hair was essentially like a resistance to Eurocentric standards of beauty, kind of in line with the social and racial justice movements that were happening at that time," says Quani Burnett, an inclusion strategist and creator of beauty4brownskin.

This back-and-forth of relaxers and natural hair throughout the years mirrors trends in the socio-political state of society, adds Kadian Pow, a sociology and Black Studies lecturer at Birmingham City University in England.

"In the early 2000s 'natural hair' wasn't quite yet the norm. The natural hair movement was certainly brewing and it was gaining a lot of traction but it was not the norm. At that time, there was a notable shift from the way natural hair was perceived [from] the '90s, where it was definitely associated with a kind of Afro-centric, Pan Africanism neo-soul movement and a certain 'type' of Black [person]. In the 2000s, you started to get away from natural hair being associated with a certain kind of aesthetic or Black identity and it just morphed into becoming about synonymous with Black liberation," she says noting that the pendulum started to swing back a few years later.

"The early 2010s — I would say between 2012 to 2015, when you had a huge kind of a Black liberation movement with Black Lives Matter happening — that lent a lot of credence to people embracing their natural hair, because Black hair has always been a really integral part of Black identity, even if people don't consciously recognize it as such," says Pow.

Social media also played a significant role in the ascent of natural hair around this time, namely YouTube, which fostered a natural hair community highlighted by Black women embracing their natural hair. These videos also taught a lot of women how to manage their natural hair for the first time.

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"In the late '90s, early 2000s, I didn't know what I was doing with my hair," Pow tells Yahoo Life. "I used to go to bed with a ponytail; I was not wearing a silk scarf or even a bonnet[to protect her hair] or any of those things. I didn't know so many things about what to do with my hair until I went on YouTube, starting in about 2010. Being able to access information and to see people that look like you talking in an informed way about their hair and sharing tips and tricks made it feel less daunting to wear your hair natural and you had community and there's safety and camaraderie in numbers."

YouTube videos also showed Black women partaking in ceremonial "big chops," in which all the hair is cut to the root for a fresh start. Since there is no way to remove the results of a relaxer from the hair, the only options are to transition the hair and slowly trim the ends or to chop it all off, which made the decision a difficult one for many young women who had never even seen what their natural hair looked like.

"I think once the natural hair movement started, I was in college and I kind of felt a little pressure to go natural," says Ware. "I was at an HBCU, you know? I would get to see a lot of women who wore their natural curls and all the things and I wanted to, but I was like, 'college doesn't feel like a good time to transition.'" When she graduated, she says, "I was like, 'You know what? I'm gonna go natural.'"

Return of the relaxer

But as many Black women will tell you, the upkeep that comes with properly caring for hair with tighter coils can take considerable effort and time compared to those with looser curls.

Along with this, choice and an informed perspective seem to be major driving forces in the re-emergence of relaxers — as well as social media, of course, which has allowed women to find others on similar hair-care journeys. The "relaxers are back" hashtag on TikTok has over 4 million views, and there is no shortage of content featuring Black women relaxing their hair either at home or in a salon.

"The past year, I was just like, I do not like being natural. I work out every day. I also have work events every day where I have to have my hair done and all the things, and it just stopped making sense for me," says Ware, who made the decision to go back to relaxing her hair after six years of being natural.

She is not alone in her back-and-forth journey, as many other women have decided to return to relaxers for personal ease as opposed to the assimilative origins of the treatment.

"As a culture, we've evolved, and you know, we're just learning. I mean, a decade ago you look at red carpets, and it's like, 'Oh, my gosh, are we just conforming to their [Eurocentric] standards and stuff?" notes Ware.

There have also been changes in the way relaxers are formulated and handled.

"Over the years, it's gotten better. At one point, we felt like it was terrible for the hair and it puts terrible chemicals in our body. So then a lot of the brands decided to reformulate," says Christopher.

In lieu of lye, many brands began using less harsh ingredients in efforts to make relaxers safer for at-home and salon use.

"There are some brands who specialize in making sure the hair still keeps the integrity, going through the relaxing process. So I feel like it has definitely gotten to a better space now," says Christopher.

Beyond chemical reformations, many Black women are just happy to be in a space where they can do whatever they want with their hair without fear of ridicule from outside groups or even from other Black women.

"Black women are allowed to have a choice. And also, we don't all want to look alike. I think that the narrative is certainly changing into 'just give Black women grace'... what's easy for you may not be easy for somebody else. Some people say it's easy, taking care of their natural hair," says Ware.

Extending grace and allowing Black women to show up as their most authentic self is becoming an increasingly celebrated idea in both natural and chemically treated hair circles.

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"Black hair doesn't have to be some political statement. I don't think that it has to be policed. I think it's best when we can do what we want with our natural hair without being demonized for it," says Burnett, who is completely natural but believes Black women should be granted full autonomy to do whatever they wish with their hair — even if that includes relaxing it.

Thanks to the community-building properties of apps such as TikTok, women with all hair types and styles are able to gain varying perspectives on the nuances of Black hair in all its forms.

"I remember seeing a TikTok recently of a beauty editor and she got the relaxer and she was also speaking to the ease of it, right? Like, you know, 'now I can get my hair relaxed, and I can get out the door …' but it was her decision," says Oliver. "It wasn't so much, like, outside influences putting that pressure on our hair, which I really love."

The TikToker she mentioned is Blake Newby, the former editor of fashion and beauty at Essence, who tells Yahoo Life she couldn't be happier with her decision to relax her hair after 10 years being natural.

"I will scream it from the mountain tops, I'm not going to be convinced anymore," says Newby, admitting that she did get considerable pushback in the comments of her videos.

"When I first said it, women had such a visceral reaction to it. I was like, why? And you realize it's because there are bigger ramifications of it," says Newby of the comments she received after she announced she was going back to relaxers, including drawn-out "noooos" or followers questioning her decision.

Ware had similar experiences with judgment from the natural-hair community about her decision to relax her hair.

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"Let Black women do what they want to do. Everybody wants to say, 'Oh, live a soft life,' and I think a part of that is letting Black women decide what they want to do when it comes to everything, not just what you deem the soft life. If Black women want to get a perm because it makes their life easier, so be it," says Ware.

This sentiment is echoed by Newby, who says she is tired of the idea that Black women have to exist as a monolith to prove they love themselves.

"For so long, we've been policed. It was like we had to go natural and if we were natural, it's like, well, you don't wear your hair. There were so many things. So I am a huge proponent — not of the relaxer, but us doing what the hell we want for our lives," says Newby.

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Why are people going back to relaxers? ›

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 after encouragement from her hairstylist, returned to relaxers last year.

Why did Black women start relaxing their hair? ›

They felt that without their relaxed hair, they would not be able to show their true personality. Although African American women felt that their hair was an important part of their identity, there were women who felt that it was important to be able to maintain their hair and tame the natural hair they were born with.

How often do Black women relax their hair? ›

First, you need to make sure to stick to a consistent relaxing schedule—about every six to 10 weeks depending on your hair growth.

Should I stay natural or get a relaxer? ›

It all just comes down to preference. If you want to rock relaxed hair and have a more conservative, easy type of look then go for it. If you want to become more in-tuned with yourself and stand out a little, go natural.

Can relaxed hair go back to natural? ›

Yes, as long as you do not continue to process your hair with any chemical treatments. According to Medical News Today, hair grows at the equivalent of 0.2 to 0.7 inches per month. As a result, your natural hair texture will eventually come back after a relaxer. This hair is sometimes called “new growth.”

How can I relax my natural hair without chemicals? ›

The blend of coconut oil, yogurt, avocado oil and coconut milk are ideal for giving your hair a natural relaxation that will leave it straighter, shinier and smoother.

How can I make my natural hair soft without relaxer? ›

The good news is that there are a few things you can do if you feel like reducing the dryness of your hair.
  1. Get a trim. ...
  2. Take vitamins. ...
  3. Add omega-3s and antioxidants to your diet. ...
  4. Avoid washing your hair every day. ...
  5. Wrap your hair instead of air drying. ...
  6. Cut down on heat styling. ...
  7. Try colder showers. ...
  8. Use essential oils.

How many Black women wear their hair naturally? ›

New research from Mintel reveals that Black women are most likely to wear their hair natural (no chemicals) with no-heat styling (40%) and natural with heat styling (33%).

Can relaxed hair be healthy? ›

Having relaxed hair isn't synonymous with damaged hair. It's possible to have healthy, thriving hair even if it is chemically treated, however, overprocessing the hair with additional chemicals like hair color, heat styling, and skipping regular trims can lead to damage.

Do black women go back relaxer? ›

Now, as a vast majority of Black women have fully transitioned, have learned their real texture, and have acclimated the curly life into their day-to-day, some are surprisingly going back to the relaxers. But it's not because of societal pressures and not because of fear of diseases.

Do people now have more ways to relax than in the past? ›

Yes, people have far more ways to relax them in the past. Technology has given many new ways to spend free time and to feel relaxed. People play online games and chat with their friends across the globe feel relaxed.

Why do people have trouble relaxing? ›

The most common reasons for having a hard time relaxing were a hectic job, dealing with anxiety, having too many things to do, and feeling relied upon. 46 percent of those surveyed stated that they had trouble relaxing during specific times dedicated to rest, like a vacation or the weekend.

Is it important for people to relax? ›

Research shows that relaxation keeps your heart healthier, cuts stress, reduces muscle tension, improves brain function and memory, and helps you avoid depression, anxiety, and obesity. It boosts your immune system and helps alleviate the symptoms of many medical and psychological disorders. Relaxing is important!

Why is relaxing so hard? ›

Scientific research suggests that when we stress about relaxing, or when we demand that our bodies exercise too much (as in training for a race) we simply cannot actually let go enough. You may be having troubles enjoying your time off because you are working too hard at relaxing!


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