What Is A Relaxer For Hair?

Whether you’ve got naturally curly hair or are hoping to achieve that glossy straightened look even in the muggy summer months, a relaxer could be just the thing. Relaxing products can be used to give you longer-lasting straightened locks but they’re not ideal for everyone, so there’s a lot of research to be done.

What is a relaxer for hair? A hair relaxer is a chemical product that is applied to your hair, either at home or professionally, that straightens the hair. Unlike using a straightening iron that only lasts until the hair gets wet, the results are more permanent and can last for up to 10 weeks with the right care and maintenance.

Before you jump in and apply a hair relaxer for yourself, you’ll need to understand the basics about these chemicals and what it potentially means to apply them. This guide covers it all from how they work, methods of application, and what the damage might be if you take the plunge, so give it a read before reaching for the relaxer.

What Is a Relaxer?

Hair relaxers, also commonly known as chemical straighteners, and creams and treatments that are applied to the hair to straighten it. The name ‘relaxer’ is because they relax the curls and waves of the hair, and they’re popular among all hair types who struggle to keep their hair straight and sleek.

The biggest benefit of using a hair relaxer versus other methods is that they last longer and your hair can be washed without removing the straightening effect. Most relaxers are recommended for between eight to 10 weeks before needing to be reapplied so you get a lot of use out of one treatment.

There are three kinds of relaxers commonly used today: those made with calcium hydroxide, sodium hydroxide, and ammonium thioglycolate. Calcium hydroxide relaxers are best for sensitive users on their scalp but can be harsher on the hair, sodium hydroxide relaxers are suitable for all types of hair, and ammonium relaxers are less harsh but not ideal for course or coiled hair as it’s not powerful enough to work.

How Does a Relaxer Work?

With some background on the types of chemicals used for this process, you can delve further into what is actually happening when you’re getting your hair relaxed. This is a multi-stage process that takes a few hours to work which is why most people prefer having theirs done in a salon.

The first step is called the reduction stage and this is when the treatment is applied and the disulfide bonds of the hair fiber are broken. Disulfide bonds are what determine how curly or wavy someone’s hair is, so by breaking them we can start from the beginning to reset your hair pattern.

After the initial treatment, the hair is then rinsed thoroughly so that it’s clean, and then the hairdresser will apply a neutralizing agent to the hair. This stage is called neutralization and it’s where the disulfide bonds are closed together once again, but this time set into the shape that you desire.

From here, the hair is washed again and then positioned with large rollers to suit how much hair you have and the look that you’re after. After they’ve been in long enough, they’re removed, and then the stylist will finish your hair cut and styling.

Can They Damage Your Hair?

As a form of chemical processing, using a hair relaxer can damage your hair, and some people may find their hair is more sensitive than others in how it reacts. Just one treatment of a hair relaxer can do damage and when used with another chemical service shortly after, like hair dye, is even worse.

The damage from the chemicals used in relaxers is predominantly focused on the hair cuticles as it weakens them and causes them to crack. Over time, this damage can build up and potentially take years to restore your hair to a healthy state, so there are risks involved.

There are ways to minimize the damage done by hair relaxers, with the most important being that you seek help from a professional to apply it. you’ll also need to follow up with care and maintenance post-treatment and make sure you don’t overdo it, as your hair does require a break now and then.

How to Apply Relaxer at Home

If you want to take the plunge and apply a hair relaxer at home for yourself, you need to be prepared. Safety is the most important aspect as there are lots of caustic ingredients and the very real potential for damaging your hair, so make sure you have gloves, a cape, and many towels available.

Choose a relaxing product that suits your needs, whether it’s a no-lye agent for sensitive scalps or something harsher for coarse hair. Read the instructions of the relaxer product thoroughly to ensure you’re doing it right and have followed all of the safety advice the manufacturer has given.

You’ll work slowly and carefully to coat your hair with the relaxer, including the roots and ends. After waiting as long as directed, wash the product out and then apply the neutralizing shampoo. Rinse thoroughly and dry your hair with a blow dryer and then straighten, helping to achieve the desired look.

Should You See a Professional? 

If you’ve never attempted to relax your hair at home, the process can be a daunting one. Many people feel safer seeing a professional hairdresser to do relaxing because of the dangerous chemicals and potential for something to go wrong, even if it is more expensive.

The costs for permanent hair relaxing can start from a few hundred to a thousand dollars, depending on your hair type and length. If you do take the professional route, make sure you choose a stylist who has experience with the process and understands how to do it safely and effectively.

The process for chemically straightened hair will usually take a couple of hours at the salon even if the relaxer isn’t left on for that long. This gives them adequate time to prepare, treat, neutralize, style, and wash the hair, so it’s a lengthy process when done correctly.

Tips for Prepping for Hair Relaxer

Whichever method you choose, you’ll want to do everything you can to prepare your hair for the relaxing process. This will ensure the best results and minimal damage done to your hair, so read on for a few tips.

  • Don’t wash your hair

You might assume that you should give your hair a good clean before applying a relaxer but the opposite is true. Shampooing your hair first can lead to irritation of the scalp and cause burning. Aim for at least one week’s break from the shampoo before relaxing your hair.

  • Leave your scalp alone

Avoid the urge to pick at or scratch your scalp in the lead up to a relaxer treatment. Even the slightest scratch can be exacerbated when the chemicals come into contact with your scalp and it can be extremely painful.

  • Detangle your hair

Use a wide-tooth comb to go through your hair and detangle any knots. As the relaxer is being applied, you want it to be smooth and tangle-free otherwise it won’t effectively reach all of the hair’s cuticles and strands.

  • Have a friend

If you’re attempting to relax your hair yourself, get a friend on standby to help you out and keep an eye on things. This is especially helpful if it’s your first time as they can ensure it’s going okay until you build up your confidence.

Taking Care of Relaxed Hair

The aftercare portion of hair relaxing is just as important as the process itself, and it’s your responsibility to maintain and look after it. Here are some easy tips to follow that’ll ensure it’s healthy and straight as long as possible:

  • Protect your hair

The best thing you can do is wear protective hairstyles and cover your hair with a scarf or similar accessories when you don’t plan on wearing it out.

  • Wash right

Use a shampoo and conditioner specifically designed for chemically straightened hair as it will provide the right amount of moisture without impacting the treatment. 

  • Watch the roots

Be prepared to go for touch-ups on the roots of the hair as it grows out or if you plan on changing your hair color.

  • Don’t double up

Never apply a relaxer to hair that has been already relaxed and don’t attempt to touch it up at home if a hairdresser did it originally. 

Straight Hair, Don’t Care

If your goal is to have glossy, smooth, and straight hair, no matter the weather outside, looking into a hair relaxer is the smartest step. There’s a lot to consider before taking the plunge and using a relaxer though, so make sure you’ve done your research and are prepared for the upkeep and maintenance first. 

Related Questions

There are lots of methods available for straightening or curling your hair, and not all of them are a right fit for everyone. If you’re looking for ways to reinvent your hairstyle and have questions about the best methods, we’ve answered some common ones that can give you a push in the right direction.