Though many people embrace their natural hair, some still love the look and ease of straight hair that stays that way. But a poorly done relaxer can cause damage that can be challenging to repair. Unfortunately, some of the warning signs a relaxer is damaging your hair are commonly accepted. The reality is: Relaxing your hair at home can be dangerous, but even professional stylists can make mistakes when applying chemicals.
The best way to prevent bad relaxer damage (and potential hair loss) is to visit a pro specializing in kinky or curly hair and prizes your hair and scalp's health above anything else. If you experience any of the following during or soon after a relaxer treatment, you're probably suffering damage to your hair or scalp. Ahead, we asked Abra McField, Tippi Shorter, and Al Campbell, all experts in natural hair, about some of the signs to look out for to avoid damage to your hair.
From quick indicators, like burning, to more concerning symptoms like burns or sores, check out some indicators that could mean your relaxer is damaging your hair and tips on preserving the health of your hair if you regularly get perms.
Some people believe that "beauty is pain," but that doesn't have to be true, and definitely shouldn't apply to any burning sensation you feel from relaxer chemicals. "Scalp irritation is a glaring sign that a relaxer may be damaging to your hair and scalp," Shorter says. Don't think that the pain only happens when a relaxer is left on too long. Your scalp can be sensitive to a certain formulation, and leaving it on for even the minimum time period has the potential to give you chemical burns.
Once you feel tingling from a relaxer application, tell your stylist or rinse it out thoroughly with lukewarm water. Before applying a perm to your hair, Campbell's advice is to avoid itching and touching your scalp.“The proper prep before a relaxer is to do absolutely nothing," he says. "Avoid scratching, rough combing, and brushing and do not shampoo or wet the hair for 72 hours prior to service”
Unbalanced Scalp pH
"A burning or tingly sensation can be normal in some cases," says Abra McField, CEO and Founder of Abra Kadabra Hair & Healing. She says this due to our scalp's pH. "[The scalp] is somewhere between 4.5 and 5.5," says McField. "The pH balance of a relaxer is around 9-14, so when applied to your scalp, your scalp has an organic reaction of swelling, which causes inflammation. Depending on the exact pH balance of the type of relaxer, how long it sits on your scalp, where your pH balance naturally falls, and whether or not a base was used to help protect the scalp will determine the severity of the reaction. Some have burning sensations, and it doesn’t affect them at all."
Sores on Scalp
Along with burning, you may experience sores on your scalp soon after a relaxer. In some cases, the sores may ooze fluids and/or crust over. This is serious and could lead to infection or permanent hair loss. According to Campbell, burns and sores shouldn't be considered a common response to relaxers. "It can be a sign that proper prep wasn't practiced or the processing was poorly done," he explains.
You might develop sores due to a reaction to the chemicals, no matter how long they're left on your head. You could be allergic, or the relaxer may be low-quality (another reason to see a stylist who has the proper products at their disposal). Any break in the skin may be cause for concern.
"Your scalp works very similarly to your skin," McField. "If you are burned or cut on your skin, you may notice a scar after it has healed. The same process occurs with your scalp. However, it's more of the follicle that can potentially become scarred. A relaxer burn will immediately cause inflammation to the scalp. As a result, you more than likely will lose hair in that area."
McField says hair loss can be temporary or permanent. "If you are lucky, the burn will just be surface level, which is directly on the first layer of the epidermis (scalp), and as it heals, the hair will immediately start to grow back because the hair strand itself was only damaged at the surface of the scalp and not underneath the scalp."
There are many potential causes of thinning hair that may not be related to your relaxer, Campbell explains. Still, relaxer damage and over-processing can contribute to hair thinning over time if maintained incorrectly. Shorter says that stylists should focus on lightly loosening the curl, versus making the hair stick straight to avoid over-processing and thinning out hair over time. "This is the best way to preserve maximum fullness," she says. This way you'll have more body and volume, and lessen the chance of damage.
Applying chemicals to already thin hair or damaged follicles can eventually lead to thinning or hair loss. If your hair is already on the thinner side, it's important that you speak to a licensed, experienced stylist who can help provide the best treatment for your strands.
If it seems like your hair isn't growing, it's possible that it's breaking at the same rate (or faster than) it grows. Campbell says that uneven lengths or fullness are key indicators of breakage. "You’ll start to notice uneven lengths or areas where the ends look thinner than the base and mid strand," he explains. "A great way to prevent this would definitely be using Mizani’s Press Agent as a regimen between relaxers and also making sure that you protect your hair while sleeping with a satin scarf or pillowcase."
Identifying breakage isn't always easy, since humans shed hair every day. But if you constantly find short hairs lying around right after styling, there's a good chance it's just breakage. Shorter also stresses that there are many potential causes of breakage, that may not be directly related to your relaxer. "Over-processing, poor maintenance, tension, adding hair color, can all contribute to breakage," she says. "You have to make the mental and physical commitment to having a relaxer and you need to find a stylist that cares about the health of your hair, versus the style."
Avoid heat styling if you relax your hair. It can increase your chance of breakage.
Relaxers are designed to break the disulfide bonds in the hair. Because the hair shaft undergoes such a change, it's weaker than healthy natural hair would be. Because of the process, hair doesn't hold onto moisture the same way, which can lead to serious dryness. "Dry, hard, or brittle hair can indicate hair that is damaged or over-processed," Campbell says.
Some oils, sprays, and lotions don't actually add moisture to the hair, instead, it gives the follicle shine. But hair needs to be moist before adding products. Otherwise, they simply sit on top of the hair shaft and help to keep moisture at bay.
McField recommends her version of a dynamic moisture duo. "Abra Kadabra's Growth Support Conditioner restores moisture to your hair and scalp by acting as a moisturizer and conditioner. For added conditioner, Design Essentials Almond Butter Express Instant Moisturizing Conditioner is a perfect hydrating product." To create what she calls "moisture magic," she suggests combining the two and deep conditioning with them for at least 15 minutes. "Sitting under a heated hooded dryer for 30 minutes really makes a humongous difference."
Shetty VH, Shetty NJ, Nair DG. Chemical hair relaxers have adverse effects a myth or reality. Int J Trichology. 2013;5(1):26-28.
Gavazzoni Dias MFR. Hair cosmetics: an overview. Int J Trichology. 2015;7(1):2-15.