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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.
What Is a Relaxer?
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.
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.
Below, we detail the facts, debunk myths, and give you the lowdown on perms for Black hair.
How Long Do Perms 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.
The Myth That Relaxers Make Your Hair Grow
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.
Perms and Color Treatments
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.
When You Should Not Get a Relaxer
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:
Shetty VH, Shetty NJ, Nair DG. Chemical hair relaxers have adverse effects a myth or reality. Int J Trichology. 2013;5(1):26-28. doi:10.4103/0974-7753.114710