What Is a Relaxer For Black Hair? A Complete Guide

Emilie Joseph in Paris

Edward Berthelot / Getty Images

From curly to coily, Black hair comes in so many glorious textures. But when it's time for a new look, straightening curly hair can be a chic and sleek way to change things up. Enter: the perm. To some, this term connotes getting permanent curls in your hair, but for Black people, it's the opposite; it means chemically relaxing natural hair so it becomes straight.

Below, we detail the facts, debunk myths, and give you the lowdown on perms for Black hair.

What Is Relaxed Hair?

A relaxer, also known as a perm for Black hair, is a chemical treatment that straightens curly hair by breaking down the bonds in the hair shaft.

How Do Relaxers Work?

Hair relaxers have been around for over a century and are used to chemically straighten hair by getting into the cuticle and cortex layers of the hair. During this process, the curly, wavy, or kinky pattern of hair is straightened out, resulting in that quintessential straight, sleek look.

There are two types of relaxers:

  • Lye-based relaxer: This is the stronger formulation and is generally used by professionals.The active ingredient is sodium hydroxide. 
  • No-lye relaxer: This milder formulation is what most home relaxer kits are. The active ingredient is calcium hydroxide or potassium hydroxide.

Perms for Black hair shouldn't be confused with perms applied to naturally straight hair types. The latter uses ammonium thioglycolate as the active ingredient and creates waves or curls.

Can You Relax Dyed Hair?

Semi-permanent and even permanent colors are generally fine to use with relaxers, as long as your hair isn't bleached. Rinses can be applied on the same day as a perm, but other color processes should be used a minimum of two weeks after.

Are Relaxers Damaging to Natural Hair?

Relaxers have been around for decades, and home relaxer kits are easy and inexpensive; but if not used correctly, they can cause serious, sometimes irreversible damage to the hair and scalp. There are times when you should steer clear of this chemical process altogether. Avoid perms if your hair is in any of the following conditions:

  • Damaged
  • Thinning
  • Breaking
  • Bleached

Using a relaxer on top of damaged hair will only exacerbate the problem. And again, having a healthy scalp is essential, as the chemicals may be harmful to your skin as well.

If you want straight hair but your fried tresses say no, try wet sets for a gentler approach to straightening. Otherwise, keep rocking your beautiful curls until your hair has had a chance to rehab.

A common misconception is that relaxers promote hair growth; this is false. Repeat: Relaxers do not make hair grow. It might seem like they do only because straightened hair shows the true length of your strands.

A healthy scalp is key for growing tresses long and strong. Avoid frequent hair washing, if possible. Scalp massages are great, too—level that up with a dollop of coconut oil for ultimate nourishing.

Hair that's both relaxed and colored requires a lot of TLC. To help keep your mane as healthy as possible, consider trying regular doses of protein treatments.

How Long Does Relaxed Hair Last?

As its name suggests, a perm is permanent. However, new hair growth comes back in curly. Maintaining straight hair requires getting touch-ups at the roots. These are usually needed every six to eight weeks for optimal results. Beware of doing this more frequently—relaxing hair too often can lead to overprocessing, which causes thinning and breakage.

How to Care For Relaxed Hair 

There's lots of talk in the natural hair community about how much time goes in to taking care of natural hair, so many people assume that taking care of relaxed hair is somehow easier.

Spoiler alert: it isn't. Relaxed hair needs just as much (if not more) care than natural hair to prevent damage and to keep hair strong and healthy. First, you need to make sure to stick to a consistent relaxing schedule—about every six-10 weeks depending on your hair growth.

In addition to a strict touch-up schedule, you should also make to moisturize your scalp with a lightweight oil to promote healthy hair growth and maintain a regular shampoo routine as well. You should aim to wash your hair once a week, but if you exercise or sweat regularly, you may need to increase it to multiple times a week. Use a deep conditioner, and make sure to use lightweight styling products that moisturize your hair.

How Long Do Perms Last?

Perms last anywhere from six to eight weeks. After this time, you'll need to have a touch up to avoid major damage and breakage to your hair. If you relax your hair too often, it will get damaged, but if you wait too long in between touch-ups, your hair risks major breakage between the relaxed parts and the new growth.

Article Sources
Byrdie takes every opportunity to use high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial guidelines to learn more about how we keep our content accurate, reliable and trustworthy.
  1. Shetty VH, Shetty NJ, Nair DG. Chemical hair relaxers have adverse effects a myth or realityInt J Trichology. 2013;5(1):26-28. doi:10.4103/0974-7753.114710

Related Stories