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VAiN Says- Hey chicas! I was doing some reading in a few scientific cosmetology journals and ran across this article on line that gives a pretty decent breakdown of how relaxers work to straighten naturally curly hair. I realized in a discussion with a family member that this knowledge is not widely know. We use relaxers but have very little idea what it actually does to our hair (*raises hand* me included...I relaxed for a years before going natural and knew none of this!). I think its important we make an educated choice about what to put on our hair and ultimately into our bodies.  

Are relaxers damaging? Yes. By their very nature they break down the disulfide bonds in our hair and make the hair weaker. Can you still grow long hair with a relaxer? Yes, its just more difficult because you are rehabilitating damaged hair. Relaxed hair is weaker and more protein to breakage. Regular protein treatments with a quality protein conditioner is essential to combat chronic breakage with relaxed hair. I recommend all my clients limit their direct heat use, but i especially need my relaxed sisters to steer clear of direct heat as much as possible. Flat irons, curling irons, etc will exacerbate your weak hair problems and cause crazy amounts of shedding and breakage. See my photo (far left) for proof :-|

 

 

 

Written by the Cornell Center for Materials Research

Q: How do relaxers on your hair work?

A:  As both someone who is a biochemist and has unmanageable curly hair, I think this question is good. First, we have to understand why hair is curly. There are two reasons:

One of the reasons hair is curly is because of hydrogen bonds between the proteins (keratin) that make up your hair; these bonds are weak and can be enhanced by water. That is why straight hair can curl when it is wet. The everyday shampoos and conditioners you buy in the store and use in the morning to straighten your hair (or at least "tame your curls") work because they keep moisture from penetrating the hair strands. These products do not do anything chemically to your hair except coat them with various types of oils that keep your hair from absorbing water. That is also why your hair feels especially soft and smooth after using these products. Another way to alter hydrogen bonds is with heat; electric straighteners work because of this principle. The platters on electric straighteners are flat so that when your hair cools it takes the shape of "flat" as the hydrogen bonds reform. The same thing occurs with curling irons, but since the heating element is circular, the hair stays curled as it cools. The effect of heat, however, is temporary, over time the hydrogen bonds eventually return to their original form and the hairs goes back to the way they were. This rearrangement happens because moisture in the air hydrates the proteins. Hydrating the proteins in hair causes your hair to swell and allows the proteins (which like to exist in water) to become more "at home," and your hair will take its original form again. This is also why (for those of us with curly hair) humidity gives our hair a life of its own and refuses to listen to us.

The main reason hair is curly is because the keratin proteins contain amino acids called cysteines. These cysteines link to each other by disulfide bonds (two sulfur atoms connected to each other). The more disulfide bonds, the curlier the hair. All hair has disulfide bonds but it is the shape of the hair strand itself which determines both how many and in what way the disulfide bonds are put together. Hair strands that are round have fewer disulfide bonds and the bonds are more aligned with one another thus the hair is straight. Hair strands that are flattened and look more oval like have a greater number of disulfide bonds, which are also connected askew, there fore the hair is more curly. The shapes of hair strands depend on the person, some people have round pores from which their hair grows, others have more flattened pores. Round pores make round hairs, flat pores make flattened hairs. As I said the shape of these hair strands are dependent on the person and are there fore difficult to permanently change but we can change whether or not hair is curly or straight by changing the disulfide bonds.

Relaxers simply break these disulfide bonds and cap them so that they cannot chemically reform. Classically, hair relaxers use a reducer or a base (the opposite of an acid) such as lye (sodium hydroxide) to break and cap these bonds. A good example of this method can be seen in the movie "Malcolm X" with Denzel Washington: Denzel nearly burned his hair off trying to straighten it. Unfortunately, sodium hydroxide can burn your skin and damage your hair. The gentler and safer commercial relaxers are still based on the same chemical reactions of breaking disulfide bonds and capping them. For instance, the "Imina P&G No Lye Conditioning Creme Relaxer Base-Relaxer Kit" by Procter & Gamble, according to their website, contains 5% calcium hydroxide a medium strength base. Where as "MPDiol Glycol Alkaline Hair Relaxer" by Lyondell, contains 5% sodium hydroxide, a very strong base.

Disulfide bonds are not affected by water so, when you break the bonds and cap them (in the case of relaxers) they will not go back to their original state. Perms which, intentionally curl hair, chemically increase the number of disulfide bonds by using an oxidizer to uncap the naturally caped sulfides in straight hair. As the name implies, these perms will stay "forever" curly. So, as you can see, one chemical (a reducer) can make your hair straight, while another chemical (an oxidizer) can make your hair curly. Using a combination of these chemicals in the right order allows you to be more creative with your hair. No matter what kind of hair you have, as long as you can break disulfide bonds with one chemical, shape your hair and then reform the disulfide bonds with another chemical you can get any hair style you want. Perms and relaxings both eventually go away, not because the bonds reform, but because your original hair simply grows in, replacing your straightened or curled hair with what you had originally. These chemicals, however, have a tendency to damage your hair, until eventually your hair starts to thin and break, so too much styling can be bad for your hair's health. [...]

Written by SoVAiN Williams — March 21, 2012

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