How Does Hair Relaxer Work?

The tell-tale signs are there and your roots are hinting it’s time for a retouch.

But after five years of using the same brand, you’re ready for a change. You like the versatility that relaxing your hair affords you. So, you definitely want to continue. Yet, so many new brands have come into the market since you started relaxing. How do I know which one to buy? Let us help you figure things out.

So, What Exactly Is a Relaxer?

A relaxer is a lotion or cream that’s used to chemically straighten curly, coily or kinky hair, and there are three types:

Thio relaxers

– Using ammonium thioglycolate (ATG) at a high concentration, they work by breaking the disulfide bonds in hair.

Alkaline and lye relaxers

– A lye relaxer is made from sodium hydroxide (NAOH otherwise known as lye). This is mixed with petroleum jelly, mineral oil and emulsifiers to produce a relaxer that has a creamy consistency. This is the type of relaxer mentioned earlier – the one invented by Garrett Augustus Morgan.
The way it works is that when certain chemicals are applied, they penetrate the cortical layer of the hair shaft, which changes the structure of the hair.

No-lye relaxers

– Out of concern about the potential dangers of the sodium hydroxide found in traditional hair relaxers, many women have either gone natural, or have turned to No-lye” relaxers. And, within this category of relaxer, there are different types too.

Types of No-Lye Relaxers

– These relaxers work by using the same principles as lye relaxers, but they use agents such as potassium hydroxide, lithium hydroxide, or guanidine hydroxide in slightly weaker proportions.
Another type of no-lye relaxer is the one that uses ammonium thioglycolate.

The third type of relaxer is mostly used in relaxers for home use. The active ingredients here are ammonium sulfite and ammonium bisulfite. These are much weaker and work more slowly.

With so many brands to choose from, it’s important to know what you’re buying. This short video will help shed some light.

How To Choose Hair Relaxer

Why It’s Important to Know Your Hair Type

Don’t make assumptions: There are different relaxers for different types of hair and for example, just because your hair is coarse, doesn’t mean you need to use the strongest relaxer.

Relaxers For Sensitive Scalp

If you have a sensitive scalp here is what you should look for in a relaxer:

No-lye relaxer – Use if you have a sensitive scalp.

Natural plant extracts – Choose a relaxer that contains natural plant extracts, as these help soothe the scalp. Ingredients such as chamomile, sage, and aloe help minimize the irritation to your hair and scalp .

Labels – Look specifically for labels that say “made for sensitive scalps.” It’s clear from the onset that this relaxer is specifically formulated for sensitive scalps. They should contain chemicals that are less severe, which in turn reduces the harsh effect that relaxers typically have on the scalp.

Relaxers For Curly Hair

Lye relaxers – Choose a lye relaxer if you have extremely curly hair, or hair that’s very coily. It acts quickly and has a deep relaxing effect. It can be very harsh to your scalp, so use with caution and DO NOT let any type of relaxer sit on your hair for longer than instructed to do so.

The flip side is that though lye relaxers are harsher on the scalp, they’re gentler on the hair. Lye relaxers cause the hair to absorb and keep moisture more effectively. This in turn helps reduce breakage, making the hair stronger.

pH Level – This is important because a higher pH level means that the formula is stronger. It explains why lye relaxers should be used by professional stylists or someone who really understands hair and relaxers.

Relaxers For Damaged, Color-Treated Hair

These types of relaxers take into consideration the damaged state of the hair, so they’re milder. Many of them contain natural plant extracts that nourish your hair. The label will often specifically state “for damaged or color-treated hair”.

Applying Hair Relaxer – Best Practices

Maybe the first time you relaxed your hair you went to a professional stylist. But this time you want to try and do it yourself. If you are going to apply hair relaxer yourself, a good practice is to give your hair a deep conditioning treatment well in advance relaxing your hair.

We can’t emphasize enough, that to get the best results, relaxer must be applied to the hair properly. Also, don’t expect to get good results if you use the wrong relaxer for your hair type.

The Correct Way To Apply Relaxer To Natural Hair

This short video demonstrates how to do a touch-up or retouch.

The Correct Way To Do A Retouch

Styling Your Relaxed Hair

Once you’ve decided what type of relaxer you’re going to use on your hair, whether you will do it yourself or get your stylist to do it, you’ll want to think about how you want to style your hair afterwards.

Here are some short tutorials to inspire you with ideas on what you can do with your relaxed hair. New styles and techniques for relaxed hair come out everyday.

Finger Waves On A Pixie Cut – Short Relaxed Hair

Silk Wrap Roller Set – Gives Volume To Long Relaxed Hair

Curly Braidout On Relaxed Hair

Q & A On Relaxing Hair

Do hair relaxers work?

Yes they do, when applied correctly. Follow the manufacturer’s instructions, and choose a relaxer for your natural hair type.

Texturizers vs. Relaxers – What’s The Difference?

Relaxers are supposed to completely straighten the curl pattern of hair that’s curly/coily or kinky curly. Texturizers relax the curl pattern only slightly.

I relaxed my natural hair but it didn’t work. What did I do wrong?

It’s possible that you:

  • did not apply the relaxer correctly.
  • did not choose the right relaxer for your hair type.
  • did not leave the relaxer on your hair long enough.

What are some examples of hair relaxers?

For no-lye relaxers, you have many options:

  • There’s African Pride Miracle Deep Conditioning No-Lye Relaxer System (comes in regular and super)
  • Mega Growth Profectiv Relaxer Kit
  • Motions Silkening Shine Relaxer
  • Optimum Amla Legend No-Mix No-Lye Relaxer

What Is A Natural Hair Relaxer?

A word of caution: Just because a company uses the word “natural” on their Relaxer packaging, doesn’t mean it can’t damage your hair. Anything that alters the chemical structure of hair is a chemical. Relaxers that claim to be natural still contain calcium hydroxide.
The natural component is the botanicals that many contain to help condition and strengthen hair after the relaxing process. Some natural hair relaxers are:

  • PhytoSpecific PhytoRelaxer – does not contain calcium hydroxide; made with soy and egg.
  • PhytoSpecific PhytoRelaxer Index 1 – for fine and delicate hair.
  • The PhytoSpecific PhytoRelaxer Index 2 – for normal hair that’s thick and resistant. This one is good for hair that’s very kinky.
  • Soft & Beautiful Botanicals No-Lye Sensitive Scalp Relaxer, and TCB Naturals No-Lye Relaxer Kit are natural relaxers.

How long are you supposed to wait before doing a touch up?

It’s recommended that you wait at least 8 weeks before your next application. For touch ups, relaxer should only be applied to the new growth.

How to Care For Relaxed Hair

  • Relax your hair every 8 to 16 weeks
  • Wash and condition your hair once or twice a week using a gentle shampoo, and moisturizing conditioner that contains proteins.
  • Conditioner Only washing (CO-washing) is recommended if you need to wash your hair more frequently than once or twice weekly. It’s an excellent alternative to the traditional wash and condition routine.
  • Don’t use mineral oil or petrolatum on your relaxed hair as a moisturizer. They are not moisturizers. Their only function is to prevent the cuticle from being damaged and losing moisture.

Share your experiences with relaxers in our comments section below.
At BHS we care deeply about black hair. We want you to know and love your hair.