What’s wrong with a relaxer?
There are two basic types of chemical straighteners. One is sodium hydroxide or “lye” perm: the other is guanidine hydroxide and lithium hydroxide relaxers or “no lye” perms. Do to the instability of the guanidine hydroxide relaxer, an “activator” or calcium hydroxide is added to the base to protect new growth of texture hair. “No lye” perms as they are called commercially, dominate the retail market. They are the most popular because they claim to be mild, safe, gentile relaxers. These claims are misleading.
The sodium hydroxide relaxers (ly4e perms) have a high pH (potential hydrogen-the degree of acid mantle in the hair and scalp). The optimum neutral pH level for hair is 7. The lower the number one the pH scale the more acidic the content. A pH higher than 7 indicates the alkaline level. The highest level on the pH scale is 14. Sodium hydroxide relaxers are the most caustic and reactive because of the high pH levels, ranging about 12-14 on the pH scale, and are potentially dangerous to the hair and scalp. When this type of relaxer touches the scalp, forehead, ear or neck, burning irritation may occur. Before applying this type of relaxer, a pre-application of petrolatum is required to protect the skin and scalp.
These highly alkaline relaxers or base relaxers require that the stylist use an emollient such as petrolatum, because manufacturers anticipate chemical burns to the skin. The other type of relaxer referred to as no base relaxers, may be composed of guanidine hydroxide (no lye). They are marketed as having no need to use a protective petrolatum base. However, in some cases some burning may occur with a no base, no lye relaxer, although chemical burning is less frequent.
If these products are used, they should be applied carefully and with caution. Despite their claims, superficial chemical burns are very common, especially with the alkali relaxers. Irritation, blistering, scabbing, and permanent hair loss does happen, especially if chemical burns are experienced repeatedly over a long period of time, destroying the hair follicle.
The most frequently noted side effect from using chemical relaxers is hair breakage. Anyone who has had a relaxer applied to their hair has experienced some type of breakage. Hair breakage is most common at the suboccipital nape of the neck, where the chemical is often first applied and is exposed to the hair for the longest time. The frontal and temporal hair lines are secondary locations of damage because of long exposure to the chemical and overlapping process during touch-up services.
For most women, touch-up service is much too frequent for chemically treated hair-usually occurring every three to four weeks. This is not enough time to allow new growth of natural hair. Noted dermatologist Dr. Wesley Wilborn of Atlanta, GA, believes that frequent re-touches are harmful. He says, “The relaxer invariably will overlap onto previously treated hair, causing resultant, irreparable damage to the hair shaft and subsequent breakage” (Wilborn, 1994, 395)
A depilatory effect may occur from the improper use of a chemical relaxer, says Dr. Wilborn. The hair literally “melts away” when the cosmetologist incorrectly chooses the wrong relaxer or leaves the product on too long. What the cosmetologist must be aware of is that all chemicals cause some kind of side effect, and that it is their responsibility to minimize the occurrence when using these products.
Factors that affect the degree of breakage from relaxers:
Strength of relaxer
Effective removal (neutralizing shampoo)
Hair texture, phenotype
Desired finished look