Are Relaxers As Dangerous As Cigarettes?

Young Girl Wig

How young is too young to straighten hair?

Recognizing the Dangers

This week the lovely ladies over at ManeMoves held an awesome twitter chat. They discussed a growing movement in the UK that’s working to ban marketing campaigns that target children with messages promoting chemical relaxers to straighten their hair.


The chat was sparked by this video sponsored by Project Embrace UK. The group’s Facebook page states that it desires to challenge the narrow perception of beautiful hair. Their goal is to “inspire girls and young women to love, embrace and celebrate everything about themselves including their own hair and reject the narrow ideals of beautiful hair.”

How awesome is that?

They have a number of plans in place to accomplish that goal including:

  1. Taking out billboards around London and other UK cities, featuring Black models with Afro textured hair on them and
  2. Organizing workshops for young girls and women on how to care for natural hair as well as developing and improving a healthy self image.

But perhaps their most controversial plan is the following:

The group plans to call on the UK Government to look into regulating the sale and use of chemical hair relaxers and extensions, by placing an age restriction on their use, with a total ban for their use on children, until the age of 16 for hair extensions and 18 for relaxers.

When I read this I was both blown away – and quite frankly impressed. It’s one thing to say that the harsh chemical mixtures in relaxers are dangerous. It’s quite another to actually take steps to have them regulated much like we regulate other hazardous substances (i.e. cigarettes). But should we?

Consider what we are learning about the potential dangers of relaxers already.


Hair Relaxers and Physical Illness?

Relaxer Burns

We’ve all heard about relaxer burns and diseases like chemical induced alopecia. But the potential harm caused by relaxers may be far more serious than most of us realize.

According to a study in the American Journal of Epidemiology, relaxers are chemical concoctions that may be linked to fibroids that grow in the uterus and may contribute to premature menstruation in Black girls among other potentially harmful issues.

According to an article in African Health Magazine:

“Women who got their first menstrual period before the age of 10 were also more likely to have uterine fibroids, and early menstruation may result from hair products black girls are using, according to a separate study published in the Annals of Epidemiology.”

The AJE study noted that:

“Scientists followed more than 23,000 pre-menopausal Black American women from 1997 to 2009 and found that the two-to-three times higher rate of fibroids among [B]lack women may be linked to chemical exposure through scalp lesions and burns resulting from relaxers.”

The African Health Mag author goes on to note that we need far more research on the topic of Black hair products and Black women’s health because:

“there is only an association rather than a cause and effect relationship between relaxers and fibroid tumors.”

Which is science-speak for the idea that while relaxers are associated with fibroid tumors that doesn’t necessarily mean they are causing the rampant fibroid rates in Black women.

So while no one has yet proved that relaxers cause various diseases that tend to flourish in our community – no one has proved that they don’t either. I think we owe it to ourselves to start demanding far more detailed answers to some serious questions regarding the overall impact of these products on our bodies.

Because the fact of the matter is – we just have no idea what the long term health impacts of chemical relaxers may be.

Remember, people started using chemicals to straighten hair – with little to no regard for how those relaxers were affecting our physical health.  In the United States, hair relaxers are not regulated by the Food and Drug Administration. Which means that Lord only knows what types of damage these products are actually doing once we apply them to the thin layer of skin that covers our brains.

Sodium Hydroxide: Chemical Culprit Number One

Sodium hydroxide is just one of many hard-to-pronounce, highly toxic chemicals used to make Black hair look like the hair that grows from our White sisters’ scalps. As noted in Chris Rock’s film Good Hair, sodium hydroxide is so powerful it can literally burn holes right through your flesh. Chemical scientist Dr. Berry demonstrates this in the film by placing just a few drops of the chemical on raw chicken meat.

The chemical literally eats through the chicken meat and leaves a gaping hole where flesh used to be. Simply breathing the fumes of just a small amount of sodium hydroxide can be so harmful that it can permanently damage your lungs. Professor Berry declared on camera that he simply would not do it – and he was apparently surprised to learn that an entire group of women actually use products that apply this chemical to their heads.

I want you to think about that and imagine what your average Black hair stylist’s lungs and respiratory system look like. I’m talking about the average Black hair stylist who inhales sodium hydroxide fumes and dips her hands in tubs of it all day every single working day of her career.

Then consider the fact that most Black hair stylists don’t have any form of health insurance…

Now imagine how this chemical may be affecting the bodies of young Black girls who subject themselves to relaxers on a regular basis, month after month, year after year.

Because not only is no one really studying what each of these individual chemicals is doing to our bodies. Hardly anyone is talking about what these chemicals can do to us once they are combined with each other.

Should Perms be Regulated Like Other Harmful Substances?

When I straightened my hair as a kid, I paid far more attention to the images on the boxes with words like “no lye” plastered on the front than I did to the chemical recipe printed on the back. I just wanted my hair to look like the hair shown in the advertisements. Since most of the Black women around me also straightened their hair, it never occurred to me to ask questions about the potential impact.

Considering the fact that Black women seem to suffer at far higher rates from a host of otherwise “preventable” diseases than do many other groups – should we consider a possible connection between the chemical stews we habitually place on our heads and our overall health?

What about the potential harm these chemical concoctions may be causing younger sistas who begin relaxing their hair during puberty?

What about those kids whose parents relax their hair as early as 3 or 4 years old?

Considering all that we don’t know about the ways these chemicals can impact our bodies – should we follow the lead of our sisters in the UK and begin demanding that our government investigate the ways that hair relaxers affect our health?

Sound off in the comments.

#DearSheriffLott: Sex With Black People Can’t Cure Racism

Dear Sheriff Leon Lott, It's amazing that I'm using the phrase “sex with Black people” in the title of an open letter. But that’s what happens when someone with your level of … [Continue Reading]

White Supremacy: What it is and How it Operates

“If you don’t understand white supremacy, what it is and how it operates, everything you think you understand will only confuse you.” Neely Fuller, Jr. I’ve heard the words “White … [Continue Reading]

4 Lessons Shea Moisture’s Fail Can Teach Black Businesses Owners

Shea Moisture is a Black owned hair care company in the middle of a racial identity branding crisis. It’s a racial identity branding crisis of such epic proportions that Rachel … [Continue Reading]

Karen’s Body Beautiful: 10 Years and Beyond

As a resident member of the 7M Hair Type Category let me assure you that not all natural hair products are created equal. Neither are the companies that create the … [Continue Reading]

About Lurie Daniel Favors, Esq.


  1. Wonderful article! I think we owe it to ourselves to demand the truth from these companies! Relaxers have been around for way too long for there not be any concrete scientific research done on whether or not they’re harmful especially to kids.

  2. Angelia Jacobs says:

    I was Apprenticed at the age of ten. During the late 60’s and early 70’s my mother would attend some of the Expo’s that were for Stylists, and when she witnessed how the relaxers (as she put it), was going down the drain! Since I was at the age of ten years old, I was trained to press and curl with a flame to heat the irons to the proper heat to straighten the hair with a hot comb,and curl the hair with marcel irons, Mom stated that I should keep her irons, because Women will come back to pressing and curling after the lye eats their hair off and damaged the scalp. How true the findings in the movie GOOD HAIR with Chris Rock, some or maybe all have had a bad prem ( the truth is that if a product is not selling in one area the stores move the kits to a heavy populated area, and the kits are stored in places that are not climate controlled, which smells just like lye, however the person may overlook this warning, really have a Stylist that knows your skin, hair, nails, and stick with her or him, you will make out better in the long run, have them to do the patch test, even medicine can determine a good relaxer. And I must stress that a prem is set on rods and is a cold wave process, the relaxer removes the natural curl to straighten the hair.

  3. Songbird says:

    This is powerful and I often made the connection with many women (mainly black women) which includes me had fibroid(s).
    I had one so large it was as big as a six (6) month pregnancy. Because of it I was unable to become pregnant and after I had it removed it caused scarring which resulted in my becoming infertile. I began to do some research and even my hair stylist ( a very good one mind you) was extremely careful when she relaxed my hair because she told me that as a child she had gone to the chemical plants or factories where they made this product and was told she needed to wear a mask to protect both her face and eyes. And according to her if it touched your skin you had to be doubly careful and wash right away.
    When she has relaxed my hair she would actually wear a mask so that she wouldn’t breath the product in and wash my scalp as quickly as possible and add product to my scalp and ask why I wanted the process done to begin with… Meh. Many women don’t realize how dangerous this product is and just continue to use it. Ay…

    We need to campaign in America for more testing to be done with relaxers and heck even hair color. ;o/
    And… Ms. Angelina Jacob you’re so right about the perm and relaxer correction-
    “And I must stress that a prem is set on rods and is a cold wave process, the relaxer removes the natural curl to straighten the hair.”

  4. Janet says:

    Wow! I stopped with the relaxing a few years ago…but my hair grew better when I had one so I was just thinking that I’d go back to relaxers until I read this…never again. That’s a very interesting correlation this could be the cause of other issues concerning the health of black women.

  5. ub says:

    I stopped relaxing almost fifteen years now, but as a kid had alopecia and relaxing made it ten times worse, by the time I stopped I had bald spots, an unintentional Mohawk, which are present until today. At least I was able to save what I have, but, wow, I never thought to have relaxers regulated! Considering the burns I use to get when applying relaxers myself, it very much needs to be. How would we begin to have it regulated in the U.S., where would we start? I will certainly continue to look into this but if someone is already further along in what to do, or is already doing, I’m all ears!!!!


  1. […] attack and forced those policies to change. Choosing to love our hair has single handedly eviscerated the sales of relaxer companies—something no one would have predicted a few years […]

  2. […] herself closely with White physical features. By doing things like bleaching her skin. Or putting unregulated, untested chemical concoctions on her (and her baby girl’s) head to make her hair do something it was never designed to do: look […]

Speak Your Mind