When I made the decision to finally give up hair relaxer, I was sitting in my bathroom, teary-eyed over a difficult breakup. I was in college and my hair had been chemically altered since I was four years old. I had never seen my natural hair as it grew from my head and felt like that was an issue. The burning desire to get back to myself (and forget about him) ignited the flame of courage to finally start the transition. For me, going natural was a way to get back in touch with myself.
I decided to transition, which is the process of letting my natural hair grow out to a length I felt comfortable with, while keeping the permed ends and cutting off when ready. After a year and a half of weekly washes, deep conditioning with TGIN, and the life-saving hydration of Juices & Botanics leave-in conditioner, my fight with two different textures came to an end and I made my big chop in July 2020. I will never forget seeing my mini afro and my hairstylist telling me that it was beautiful, and how those words would linger in my heart forever, for it was the first time I ever heard kind words about my natural hair.
The natural hair movement has evolved over the last ten years, from Lupita Nyong’o reminding everyone that hair doesn’t need to be straightened to meet beauty standards to Issa Rae proving that natural kinky, coily, curly hair is TV hair. The popularity of natural hair has increased—according to market research platform Mintel, a 2018 study found that 40 percent of Black women are likely to wear their natural hair without heat styling—and the $8.74 billion made in natural hair product sales in 2019, projected to grow to $102 billion dollars by 2024, further proves it.
When the pandemic hit, there was another significant shift in the natural hair movement. Salons shut down and many Black women were forced to confront their texture, as both sleek styles and the beautiful high puffs, bantu knots, and afros we double tap on Instagram usually require upkeep from salons. Many of us were tasked with figuring out how to style, care for, and maintain their natural hair. Some women welcomed that task, embracing it as a pandemic passion project, but for others, being forced to maintain their texture was far from easy.
The conversation around relaxers versus natural hair has always been a complex topic and it often seems that Black women are in between a rock and a hard place. When we wear our natural hair, we’re often criticized that it’s unmanageable and unprofessional. When we wear relaxers, we’re shamed that we don’t love ourselves. Damned if you do and damned if you don’t.
Hair relaxer also carries a stigma of being unhealthy or toxic for your body. A study conducted by the Bench to Community Initiative linked the frequent use of parabens in hair products to breast cancer in Black women, who are disproportionately affected by the disease. However, some experts say relaxers only pose risks when used in excess—just like every other chemical-based hair product.
Dr. Michelle Henry, MD, board-certified dermatologist and founder of Skin & Aesthetic Surgery of Manhattan, recommends limiting relaxers to no more than seven times a year. “There are studies that show that one’s risk of damage and absorption of harmful chemicals increase with use above seven times annually,” she says.
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