Relaxing your hair can be a tedious process, especially when you can't make it to the salon to get it professionally done. If you want a straighter hairstyle, a relaxer gives you that option without worrying that your hair will revert to its natural texture if you get caught out in the rain or want to go for a swim. Getting your relaxer done in a salon, in the hands of a professional you trust, is the best way to go about this process, but it can also be done at home. The key to keeping your hair healthy throughout the process is making sure you follow the directions on your relaxer's box, and don't be afraid to ask for help from a friend!
Hair care expert and celebrity stylist Kim Kimble weighs-in on the proper procedures to follow when relaxing your hair.
Check out our tips for making your at-home relaxing session go as smoothly as possible.
Meet the Expert
- Kim Kimble is an Emmy-nominated celebrity hair stylist and star of WeTv's hit reality series, L.A. Hair.
- Sophia Emmanuel is an IAT-Certified Trichologist and licensed cosmetologist based in New York.
Skip the Shampoo
Before opening your relaxer kit and mixing your chemicals, ask yourself when the last time you shampooed your hair was. Kimble says, "Washing your hair before getting a relaxer can cause scalp irritation. You also should not have a lot of product in your hair before getting a relaxer."
Cleansing or even wetting your hair and scalp before you relax might lead to burning once you apply the chemicals, because your scalp hasn't had enough time to "rest" since your last shampoo. No matter what your regular cleansing routine is, do not shampoo your hair for at least one week before applying relaxer.
In some circumstances, however, you might want to condition before your relaxer. "In addition to conditioning the hair after a relaxer service, a small amount of conditioner such as Olaplex No.3 can be applied to the hair prior to the relaxer application," says trichologist Sophia Emmanuel. "This works for relaxer touch-ups, not virgin relaxers. The Olaplex No.3 will help minimize any damage from overlapping while applying the relaxer. You do not have to apply this Olaplex No.3 to the new growth, only the hair that will not be relaxed to protect it."
Do not scratch or pick at your scalp before you apply your relaxer. Broken or scratched skin may make your scalp more susceptible to burning.
Don't Forget to Detangle
In order for a relaxer to work properly, it needs to reach all of your new hair growth — or all of your hair if this is a virgin application. I asked Kimble why this step is crucially important, "So that you can get the relaxer evenly spread throughout the hair and avoid any build up or irritation."
Basically, chemicals won't be able to touch all areas if there's tangling or matting. Now, this isn't the time to perform an intense detangling session with a lot of pulling and tugging — that will irritate your scalp and may lead to burning. Instead, work through your new growth with your fingers first, maybe the night before your touch-up. This will give your scalp some time to rest. After a gentle finger detangle, use a wide-tooth comb to work only through your hair. Stay away from your scalp as much as possible. Comb through all the way to the ends, but don't overwork a section. Detangle and move on.
Work in Small Sections
As with detangling, the relaxer can't cover all areas when you work in big chunks. You should work quickly, but thoroughly. Use the tail end of a fine-tooth comb, like the Diane Ionic Rat Tail Comb ($3) to gently separate sections, but don't create defined parts. Only use the comb to lift sections so you can apply the relaxer to new hair growth. If your hair is detangled, you shouldn't have a problem separating small sections into 1-inch areas.
If you've relaxed your hair before, it can be hard to only put relaxer on your new growth. Although the line of demarcation between the new growth and previously relaxed hair may be obvious, it's still difficult to be as precise as you can when placing a relaxer only onto your new growth. If you relax without help, it's especially difficult to avoid overprocessing on the back part of your head. Not only should you enlist help for touch-ups, but you should try to visit a professional for this whenever possible.
But if you absolutely must do your own relaxer at home, Kimble offered the following advice, "Make sure you do NOT drink any caffeine before applying it. Drinking caffeine dehydrates your scalp and can cause irritation." And it's crucial you use a light base cream on your scalp; this can help reduce irritation and creates a protective barrier.
Smooth, Don't Comb
When you start to relax your hair, make sure your are smoothing the chemicals on rather than combing them through your hair. Some people insist on raking a comb through their hair as they relax it, but this may lead to breakage. I asked Kimble why combing is so bad for your hair and her response? "I don't recommend combing your hair too much because it can cause damage. It stretches your hair and you don't want to ruin the elasticity of your hair. You have to be very gentle. Always use the back of the comb and your fingers to smooth hair out with relaxer." You can also use a sprush, like Burmax's Soft 'N Style Rubber Color Applicator ($4), which offers gentler application than a comb.
Be Sure to Set a Timer
We can't emphasize this enough: Do not forget to time how long the relaxer is on your hair. Each relaxer kit gives time recommendations, and you should adhere to them. Leaving your hair to process for a period of time shorter than the recommended one is preferable to leaving the relaxer on longer than suggested. Leaving relaxer on too long may lead to breakage or burning, so this isn't the time to guesstimate.
Never Skip Neutralizer
There's a reason you buy relaxers in a box: everything you need should be included. More important than the conditioner or mixing stick is the neutralizing shampoo. You cannot use your regular shampoo to stop the relaxing process. If you do, expect to see breakage and hair fall in the coming days and weeks. A neutralizer stops the relaxer from continuing to work on your hair and essentially eating through it. One of the issues some people face is that a small bottle of neutralizing shampoo isn't enough for their long and/or thick hair. If you routinely relax at home, do yourself a favor and purchase a separate bottle of this product at your local beauty supply.
Condition, Condition, Condition
Once the relaxer and neutralizing shampoo are completely rinsed away, don't skip the critical step of conditioning. Processing your tresses places stress on them, and they need some serious TLC after relaxing. You'll probably have a small bottle or packet of conditioner in your relaxer kit, but feel free to apply more of whatever you have on hand, including a deep conditioner. It never hurts to give your hair a little extra love after processing it.
Richardson V, Agidi AT, Eaddy ER, Davis LS. Ten pearls every dermatologist should know about the appropriate use of relaxers. J Cosmet Dermatol. 2017;16(1):9-11. doi:10.1111/jocd.12262