Hair relaxers are treasured by Black women around the world. They’re a cultural staple, but are the hairstyles worth the harm? Explore what we mean in the article by Aimee Meade below.
Black women have used hair relaxers – a cream that straightens our natural curls and coils – for generations.
As a child, I remember spending hours in the salon with my mum, watching countless others who looked like her enter, sit in the chair, have the relaxant cream slathered on, and leave looking like women ready to go out into the world. The first time I had my own hair relaxed, I was around 10 years old.
We knew relaxers were made of strong stuff: often they burn your scalp. But none of us knew how strong, or that these products could make us seriously, fatally, unwell. A shocking report published by Oxford University last month found that Black women who repeatedly (seven times a year) use hair relaxers containing a chemical called lye could be 30 per cent more at risk of breast cancer.
Lye, also known as sodium hydroxide, is a heavy-duty chemical used in paint stripper and drain unblocker. And it features unashamedly in hair products by big beauty brands – including some marketed at children – available in the UK.
This is not the first time concerns have been raised about chemicals in hair relaxers – L’Oreal has faced a number of unsuccessful US lawsuits in recent years with thousands of women claiming that the brand’s lye and “no lye” components have caused hair loss and scalp burns.
As long as products containing these substances remain on the shelves, Black women and girls across the world could be at risk of serious health conditions. That’s why I co-founded the #NoMoreLyes campaign demanding that brands like L’Oreal and Revlon publicly commit to removing lye and associated hydroxides from their products. If they cannot do this, we believe they must take them off the shelves.
Last year, in response to George Floyd’s death, these brands made a point of telling us that Black lives mattered; L’Oreal told us that “speaking out is worth it”. Yet they continue to profit from selling potentially harmful products to Black women, who are already more likely to die of breast cancer than our white counterparts.
Many of us saw last summer’s BLM statements as lacklustre, reactionary lip service forced upon us by brands who need to appear relevant to maintain their market share. And the Black hair market share is valuable – given that Black British women spend six times more on hair products than white women.
L’Oreal have responded defensively, with a spokesperson telling the Independent: “The L’Oréal Group is committed to upholding the highest standards of safety for all the products it makes and sells.
“All the ingredients used in L’Oréal’s products are safe for use as directed and have been subject to a rigorous scientific evaluation of their safety, by our internal experts as well as independent experts.”
Meanwhile Revlon has remained silent (i approached Revlon for comment.)
But Black women won’t stay silent on this. And we won’t keep buying from companies that brazenly sell us products that research suggests could harm us. As soon as we started the #NoMoreLyes campaign, I received an outpouring of messages from Black women who felt betrayed by beauty companies, like Nikki, who said: “I decided to go natural after years and years of using relaxers. I suffered severe scalp burns every time I applied relaxer as well as hair breakage. I also developed asthma, something I never associated with using relaxer until I read the report.”
Black women’s hair is political. Our hair is a site of open debate, conversation and opinion, free for all who think they have something to contribute. Growing up, before coming to terms with this exhausting truth and before strangers began reaching for my hair in “curiosity”, my hair’s sole function was my expression, and I would guess that would be the case for many of us. I have friends who have braided their hair, cousins who wore wigs and aunties who have had locs. One thing most Black women have in common is that, at some point in our lives, we have all relaxed our hair. But had we known the potential health risks, would we have ever used relaxers?
There are so many reasons why women might want to relax their hair – many are linked to white beauty standards. Many Black women do it in order to avoid hair discrimination at school or work, or find that their hair is easier to manage that way. But regardless of our choices, we shouldn’t be sold hair products that could harm us.