Definition of Relaxer for Black Hair

Woman with long, relaxed hair.
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A relaxer is a chemical treatment designed to permanently alter the hair's natural texture into a straightened state. A lye-based relaxer contains the active ingredient sodium hydroxide. A no-lye relaxer contains potassium hydroxide or calcium hydroxide. Relaxers straighten curly hair by breaking down the bonds in the hair shaft. If not used correctly, relaxers can cause serious and sometimes irreversible damage to the hair and scalp.

Also Known As: A perm, due to the permanent texture-altering effects. Although some people use the terms perm and relaxer interchangeably, a perm shouldn't be confused with the permanent process sometimes applied to naturally straight hair types, with ammonium thioglycolate as the active ingredient; this perm is also known as a wave perm because it creates waves or curls, unlike a relaxer.

How Long Do Relaxers Last?

Once the chemicals are applied to the hair, the effects are permanent for the processed hair. As your tresses grow, you'll experience "new growth" or virgin hair. Any hair that grows from your scalp is relaxer-free, so to maintain the straightened look, you'll need touch-ups to change the new growth from curly/kinky to straight. Expect to receive touch-ups about every six to eight weeks for optimal results. Relaxing your tresses too often can lead to overprocessing, which will lead to thinning and breakage.

Do Relaxers Make Your Hair Grow?

This is a common misconception, especially among people who don't know a lot about natural hair. Relaxers do not make the hair grow. Some people may believe this because relaxed hair is stretched out to its true length, versus natural hair which shrinks up, sometimes considerably, not allowing a person to see how long it really is.

Hair grows from a healthy scalp and once it's out of your scalp, it's not alive and can't be made to grow based on what you put on it.

Can I Use a Relaxer and Color Together?

It depends on the type of hair color. Semi-permanent and even permanent colors are fine, as long as your hair isn't bleached. While rinses can be applied on the same day as a relaxer application, other color processes should be used a minimum of two weeks after the relaxer. Relaxed and colored hair requires even more care than simply relaxed hair. You'll need regular doses of protein treatments to keep your mane as healthy as possible.

When You Should Not Get a Relaxer

Although relaxers have been around for decades and it's easy and inexpensive to purchase home relaxer kits, there are times when you should steer clear of this chemical process. You should not apply a relaxer if your hair is:

  • Damaged
  • Thinning
  • Breaking
  • Bleached
  • In general poor health

Using a relaxer on top of tresses with compromised health will only make the problems worse. This includes having a healthy scalp as the chemicals can damage your skin as well. If you want the straight look but your hair isn't healthy, either look to wet sets to gently keep your tresses straight, or consider curly/textured styles until your mane is in good condition again and able to take a relaxer well.