Healthy Relaxed Hair Week - Understanding the Basics

By . - Monday, July 07, 2014

Perhaps you've been relaxing your hair for years, or maybe you're contemplating relaxing for the first time. Where ever you are in your relaxed hair journey, I want to make sure you understand exactly what a relaxer is. let's get started.

What Is A Relaxer?

A relaxer is a type of cream typically used by people with kinky, course or tightly curly hair which makes their hair easier to straighten by chemically "relaxing" the natural curls. The active agent is usually a strong alkali.

In chemistry, an alkali is an aqueous (from water) solution with a pH value of more than seven. This makes it a base.

What Does It Mean To Relax The Hair?

NOTE: A relaxer should be performed by a registered and trained cosmetologist, but their are at home relaxer kits suited for home use. IT IS STILL A CHEMICAL PROCESS.

Virgin Relaxers

A virgin relaxer is when the cream relaxer is applied throughout the length of the hair of someone who has naturally unprocessed hair. Once you have done this process once to the hair, you will not need to repeat it to the length of the hair ever again.

As the the hair grows naturally, the relaxed/treated portion of the hair moves away from the scalp. This portion of untreated hair growing from the scalp is called new growth.

Touch Ups

New growth of untreated hair sprouts up from the roots, requiring periodic re-treatment to maintain a consistent appearance and texture. Touch ups should only be done every 8 to 10 weeks. If you can stretch the period of time for longer than 8 to 10 weeks then you will be less likely to suffer from over processing.

How To Apply A Relaxer

The relaxer is applied to the base of the hair shaft approximately 1/2 inch from the scalp. It will remain in place for a "cooking" interval, during which it alters the hair's texture by a process of controlled damage to the protein structure. It basically breaks down the protein bonds and relaxes the curl or kink pattern. 

When the relaxer has been worked to the desired degree in a particular period of time, the hair is rinsed clean. Regardless of formula, relaxers are always alkaline to some degree, and since your hair and skin are naturally acidic, the hair needs to be neutralized with a neutralizing shampoo.

Neutralizing Shampoos 

The main purpose of a neutralizing shampoo is to re-balance the pH level of your hair. Hair sprays, gels and coloring products can all affect your hair's natural pH balance. Neutralizing shampoo works by neutralizing any alkali and caustic residues in your hair. Your hair should ideally be at a pH level between 4.5 and 5.5.
You may need to shampoo with a neutralizing shampoo at least 3 times directly after your relaxer. Colour coded neutralizing shampoos that change colour once all the chemical has been removed from the hair are recommended for at home use.

Conditioning The Hair

You'll want to deep condition the hair with a moisturizing conditioner immediately after neutralizing. This will give the hair an immediate injection of moisture and softness.

Types Of Relaxers

Alkaline And Lye Relaxers

A lye relaxer consists of sodium hydroxide (also known as NaOH or lye) mixed with water, petroleum jelly, mineral oil, and emulsifiers to create a creamy consistency. On application, the caustic "lye cream" permeates the protein structure of the hair and weakens its protein bonds, causing the natural curls to loosen out as the entire fiber swells open. No special deactivation step is required after washing the lye cream out, other than a neutralizing shampoo.

Manufacturers vary the sodium hydroxide content of the solution from 5% to 10% and the pH between 10 and 14.

"Base" And "No Base" Formulas

Lye relaxers may be labelled as "base" or "no base". In this instance, the "base" refers to a preliminary coating of petroleum jelly onto the scalp to protect it from being irritated or burned by the lye cream. "No base" creams have a lower concentration of lye and may be applied directly to the hair roots without requiring the protective "base" layer, although these weaker products may still irritate the skin of some people who must therefore coat their scalps beforehand anyway.

"No Lye" Relaxers

Because of increasing awareness of the potential dangers of sodium hydroxide found in traditional relaxer formulas, many women have begun abandoning them. "No-lye" relaxers are of three main types. 

  • One type operates on the same general principle as lye relaxers but uses a slightly weaker alkaline agent, such as potassium hydroxidelithium hydroxide, or guanidine hydroxide. The last of these is not pre-formulated, but rather is generated at the time of use by combining a cream containing calcium hydroxide (slaked lime) with an "activating solution" of guanidine carbonate.
  • Another type of "no-lye" relaxer uses ammonium thioglycolate, which is also known as perm salt for its use in permanent waves. Perm salt is a chemical reducing agent which selectively weakens the hair's cystine bonds instead of disrupting the entire protein, but strips out the natural oils even more thoroughly than the alkali hydroxide products. Afterward, the thioglycolate must be oxidized with a special solution of hydrogen peroxide or sodium bromate.
  • Lastly, in most relaxers sold for home use, the active agents are ammonium sulfite and ammonium bisulfite (the two compounds are interchangeable, depending on the surrounding pH). These also selectively reduce the cystine bonds, but are much weaker and work more slowly. Nevertheless, their mild action minimizes (but does not entirely eliminate) collateral irritation to the skin.

Check in tomorrow for more of Healthy Relaxed Hair Week!

Have a Good hair Day and remember to Love Your Hair!!!

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