When it comes to hair relaxers – heavy-duty chemicals that permanently straighten tight curls – you tend to find that Black and mixed-raced women vividly remember their first time. The eye-watering strong smell of hydroxides, the tingling sensation on the scalp, and the anticipation for the reveal of poker-straight hair in the mirror. Whether you performed the process in a salon or with a DIY kit at home, the results can often be a mixed bag, and for every success story of shiny sleek hair, there are just as many scabby-headed horror tales. For me personally, it was the latter, which is why my first-ever relaxer experience was my very last.
Sales of hair relaxer – or “creamy crack” as it’s sometimes known – have been on the decline since the mid-noughties, mainly due to the widely popularised natural hair movement, which has seen Black women on social media champion their hair in an untampered state. It is generally understood that this came as a response to years of social conditioning that said afro-textured hair was unruly, unprofessional, and, well, not as beautiful as straight hair.
The decline may also be attributed to an increase in understanding around the dangers of hair relaxers. Back in August 2021, for example, a #NoMoreLyes petition by Level Up UK called to remove toxic relaxers from shelves after research from Oxford University revealed that Black women who repeatedly use hair relaxers containing a chemical called lye are at 30% increased risk of breast cancer.
With research like this becoming more common and the natural hair movement picking up momentum, the words “relaxer” or “perm” can at times feel like dirty words. But it’s important to remember that everyone’s relationship with these products is unique. For some, they continue to be a necessity – and a number of women have actually decided to revert back to using relaxers, posting their experiences under the hashtag #naturaltorelaxer.
At the end of 2021 popular natural hair YouTuber Candice Celeste announced via her channel that she would be quitting her natural hair journey, or in her words: “I tried y'all but I just can't do it anymore.” Her followers replied in droves thanking her for her honesty, and some even revealed their own desires to straighten or relax their own hair.
As conversations around relaxers continue to evolve, it seems all discussions lead to one thing: choice. The women I spoke to, natural or otherwise, shared their personal experiences with hair relaxers and the choices they made for themselves. Their stories prove not all hair experiences are the same, but each one carries a vital lesson about self love and owning your own narrative.
TV Presenter & Founder Of #TheMainstream
“The first time I got my hair to relax my hair I was 19. My mum always said she didn’t want me to relax my hair before I was an adult, which now I definitely understand. I did it after my first year of uni during the summer holidays because I wanted to return looking good. But it was hard managing my hair by myself at university; there’s a lot of upkeep and a lot of treatments, which I was not prepared for and I realised very quickly that maintenance for relaxed hair was a lot.
“With the job that I do, I have to look after my hair or change my hair quite frequently and I was never good at braiding or anything like that. So having relaxed hair in a short cut has been really handy for me. And, since having relaxed hair, it’s actually grown, because it doesn’t get damaged as much.
“Growing up, I didn’t have the best relationship with my hair. I was told to change it all the time, I used to not think my hair was good, I would compare my hair to other girls, I was told it was nappy, I was told it look dry, and told it wasn’t easy to manage. I was told these things.
“But overall, I love my hair now, and relaxing my hair has been a good journey for me, in learning how to look after it. I now love going to the hairdresser, I love my hairdresser, and we’re good friends. It’s become a great part of becoming an adult and becoming a woman.”
Customer Solutions Analyst
“I was about 14 years old when I had my hair relaxed for the first time. It was an exciting experience for me as I felt ‘grown-up’ although I had never even attempted to do my own hair before. The process burned like HELL though and I had to have a nap when I got home.
“Before the relaxer, I used to have my hair in braids all the time to protect my hair but I would get teased about it so I wanted a relaxer to show everyone that I had hair.
“My relationship with my hair is still a bit strange now and I doubt I would get a relaxer again mainly because of the ingredients and what I have understood following research about parabens being a potential cause of cystic fibroids. If I had a child and they wished to relax their hair, I'd probably educate them beforehand to explain why I wouldn't really want them to have it. I'm back to braids and I'm never going elsewhere.”
“I had begged my mum for a few years to let me get one and she eventually caved when I turned 12. I remember being so excited to debut my new look to my school friends, but looking back I was totally naive about the whole process. While it was mostly a positive experience, mainly because I had wanted one so badly, I do remember the burning sensation on my scalp and the smell (if you know, you know...).
“I wanted to fit in. I thought [relaxer] would make my hair straight and pretty like my friends. Looking back, I'm sad that I felt such pressure that this was the only option for hair like mine. It wasn't until I was 21 that I fully began to understand my natural hair.
“Now my favourite part about my hair is the volume. I love that it stands out (and up!) and I worry less about what people think. I'm so much more laid back about my hair now and while I probably spend more time caring for it overall, it's not out of a necessity but a want – it's part of my self-care ritual.
“I can say confidently that if I had seen people that looked like me growing up, it would have had a positive effect on my confidence and self-identity. Ultimately, it wasn't just the relaxer or heat that damaged my hair, it was as much the lack of representation, knowledge, and education around caring for afro hair.”
Public Servant & Content Creator
“I started having my hair relaxed when I was about seven. I don’t remember exactly how it went but I definitely do remember the last time I had it chemically straightened was when I was about 10 because it burnt a significant chunk of my hair off and my mum swore she’d never do it again.
“About six years ago, I started keratin treatments to relax my hair and they have been amazing. Instead of burning my hair, they’ve conditioned and controlled my curls so they’re not massively kinky and uncontrollable anymore, but a relaxed softer curl. I love it but yesterday I actually met a woman who might have inspired me to stop treating my curls and go full-on curly again.”
The Hair Sanctuary Salon Owner & Business Success Coach
“I had my first relaxer in high school, when I was around 13 years old. My uncle's partner at the time was a former hairdresser and did it for me. It wasn’t a traumatic experience, though. If anything, it was a pleasant one. I remember feeling happy that I could now express my creativity and style my hair with ease as my hair was very thick and coily.
“For me, healthy hair is most important regardless of whether it is natural or chemically treated. Not everyone with natural hair has healthy hair as well, as not everyone with relaxers has breakage or scalp burns/trauma.”
“I was six years old when I received my first relaxer. The first time I did it, nothing really happened. My mum’s friend from church did it for me and we all thought it would ‘wash out.’ Little did we know... I ended up with hair so long that it ended to my knees. I felt like Pocahontas until my mom said we had to cut it into a manageable length.
“Growing up in the Bavarian countryside, I was the only POC in school ‘till I started going to uni. There weren’t many people that looked like me, had a similar background or so, and it was hard to fit in. And not only did I get bullied for being Black, but I also got bullied because my hair was so different. I thought the relaxer would stop the bullying.
“While the first relaxer experience was a good one, after getting to know myself more, it was quite a painful experience mentally, because I did it to please others instead of staying true to myself. I also started to develop an allergic reaction towards the relaxer causing each treatment to burn my scalp, whilst losing a huge amount of hair in the process. My hair also wouldn’t grow long because of my damaged scalp.”
Author & Founder Of The Curl Bar London
“I was three or four so I do not remember the very first time, but I know I always loved getting my hair relaxed because I always thought I'd look like the girls on the [hair relaxer] boxes. I grew up in a predominantly white area so I always looked up to the girls on the Dark & Lovely kits because they looked so happy and confident. I also wanted to feel that way about my hair and skin.
“My mum didn't know how to look after my hair and washing it was always an experience followed by a tantrum of some sort so she wanted to make my life and hers a lot smoother!
“I love my hair now and I love everything that I used to hate about it. Today, I promote self-love and self-expression and my natural hair has helped me become more confident over time. It is vibrant and has a mind of its own, I honour that and try to flow through life the same way.”