By Jessica Dufresne
It’s the never-ending black hair debate: which is a safer option, natural or relaxed? Too often, relaxing gets the shaft, mainly because of the age-old assumption that it’s too damaging. (The moral arguments are a whole other topic.) In reality, the only times when relaxing is bad is when it’s not applied correctly, done too often, or you’re simply not taking care of your hair. Contrary to popular belief, you can have perfectly healthy, strong hair with a perm—as long as you know what and what not to do.
Why not relax?
So is it actually possible to have healthy locks despite perming? “Absolutely,” says celebrity hair stylist Tippi Shorter. “It is a chemical that alters the natural structure of your hair, but there is most certainly such a thing as healthy relaxed hair if you’re using it properly.” Shorter, who works on the healthy manes of Beyonce, Alicia Keys and Jada Pinkett-Smith, among others, says any damage experienced is due to “over-relaxing, using products that are too harsh on the hair, and trying to get an unrealistic finish.”
Just like Shorter, hair stylist Winston Scully, a 22-year hair industry veteran and owner of Hair Vibes salon in New York, contends that when it comes to relaxers, it’s all about the process. In fact, he says what causes damage is when a relaxer is left too long on the hair. Its active ingredient, lye (which comes in the form of different types of hydroxides: sodium, calcium, etc) has—as we all know—the power to break down any substance (remember the scene in Chris Rock’s documentary, Good Hair, where the soda can melts?)—but that’s only if it’s allowed to sit for an extended period of time. So as long as your perm is washed out when it’s supposed to be, you won’t have to worry about your hair melting off your scalp.
When you do decide to perm, it doesn’t pay to shop around or to assume you know which one to use. Shorter says just like all hair types are not equal, neither are all relaxers. “There are brands that I favor because they contain way more essential oils, they’re gentler, they don’t smell, they don’t irritate the scalp, they have a no-lye version, a sensitive-scalp version, or are compatible with hair color.”
According to Scully, while all relaxers contain a type of lye (the chemical that breaks down the curls), the conditioning agent is what separates the Hawaiian Silkys of the world from the Mizanis. “[when deciding which perm to use] I’m looking for one that contains the conditioning agent that is going to be beneficial to the individual’s hair.”
And how do stylists know which is best for you? Both Shorter and Scully agree that’s determined by careful examination of the hair and by experience. That said, both also discourage women from doing home perms. “I’ve seen so many horror stories,” says Shorter. “I know times are tough financially, but it’s hard for me to recommend or suggest someone to do it.” However, she does concede that if self-perming is a woman’s only option, “ I will try and steer [her] the best way possible.”
Time heals all damage
Overprocessing occurs when a relaxer is applied onto already-straightened hair—so it’s imperative to wait before touching up, or risk damage (and in case you think going natural will solve that problem, Shorter and Scully beg to differ). When you visit a new hairdresser, make sure it’s been at least six weeks since your last touch-up. The exact time to wait will depend on your texture and cut, as some women can go as long as 12 weeks in between touch-ups, while others may need them as frequently as every two weeks. Keep in mind that a good hair stylist will not perm your hair if you don’t need it (no matter how much you think you do).
Keep it tight
Regardless of whether or not your hair is chemically treated, the same maintenance rules apply: regular deep conditioning; trims every six to eight weeks; moisturizing your scalp; and even the right kind of roller set. A good set will leave you with a bunch of rollers on your head, as opposed to a few, which occurs when there’s too much hair per curler (and that volume, says Scully, causes stress on the hair). And, of course, your nightly habits matter: wrapping or roller setting and wearing a silk scarf are highly recommended.
How you choose to wear your hair doesn’t speak to the type of person you are, but how you take care of it does. You can use a relaxer for most or all of your life and, if it’s done right, it won’t cause any damage to your health or hair. The bottom line is there’s nothing fundamentally wrong with chemically straightening your hair, and it’s not a question of being addicted to “creamy crack;” if something works for you and doesn’t jeopardize your well-being, stick with it. There’s an old saying that everything ain’t for everybody and the same applies to hair.
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