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.
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.