Did you know that approximately 80% of African-descent women have used chemicals to relax their hair? Additionally, one study showed that around 90% of women who experience hair breakage and damage reported using chemical treatments. It’s no secret that heat and chemical styling treatments do untold damage to afro hair, but do you understand the full import of these facts?
We’re spotlighting the continuing use (and promotion) of chemical and damaging heat treatments. It’s important to understand exactly what happens to the hair and scalp when these treatments are applied. Let’s uncover this together.
(Dis)Believing Beauty Norms
Societal expectations, media representation, and workplace standards influence the need to adhere to Western beauty norms. Black women may feel the need to have straight hair in order to be seen as professional or attractive, impacting their self-esteem and overall well-being. Those models on the boxes of chemical straighteners look sleek and gorgeous and certainly what many aspire to.
However, the reality lies elsewhere. Money is being made by keeping this standard of beauty popular; in fact, the industry is booming.
- According to multiple sources, the UK black hair industry is estimated to be worth £88 million.
- Black women in the UK spend, on average, three times more than white women on hair care, making up 80% of the total UK hair product sales.
- The global black hair market was worth $2.5 billion in 2020.
The afro hair care industry is a massive cash cow that too many are eager to milk. It wouldn’t matter if it consisted of a few harmless gimmicks or some pretty colours. But it doesn’t – and it matters!
Understanding Afro Hair
Afro hair, as individual as a fingerprint, has a unique structure and composition that demands bespoke care. Known for its gorgeous curl pattern, afro hair can be likened to a fragile antique piece, beautiful yet susceptible to damage. The challenges are numerous – from retaining moisture to preventing breakage.
Additionally, many women are exposed to chemicals and damaging styling treatments from an early age, adding to the ongoing battle for healthy hair.
The Impact of Heat Tools on Afro Hair
Heat tools lure us with the promise of silky, straight hair or defined curls. However, their frequent usage can wreak havoc on afro hair. The higher the heat, the greater the damage, with hair essentially “cooked” from the inside out.
Heat styling can damage afro hair in several ways:
Loss of Moisture
Exposure to high heat can cause a loss of moisture in the hair. The heat strips away the natural oils and causes the water molecules in the hair to evaporate, leading to dry and brittle hair.
Changes in Protein Structure
Heat styling can change the structure of the proteins in the hair, specifically the keratin strands. High temperatures can convert the ⍺-keratin to β-keratin, which weakens the hair and reduces its elasticity, leaving it limp in appearance, even after washing. This makes the hair more prone to damage and breakage.
Damage to Cuticles
The high temperatures from heat styling can cause the cuticles, the hair’s protective outer layer, to crack. This can make the hair more susceptible to breakage and moisture loss.
Heat damage to afro hair is often permanent. The heat can break the S-S or disulfide bonds within the hair strands, which give the hair strength. Once these bonds are broken, they cannot be repaired, and the hair remains damaged.
The Fragility of Afro-textured Hair
Afro-textured hair is naturally more fragile due to its texture. The tight/kinky curls are fine in diameter but dense and thick, making them more susceptible to damage from heat-styling tools.
At our clinic, we have a strict policy when it comes to heat… Don’t use it!
Whilst we can’t force everyone to stick to this method, you should consider that if you are going to use heat, there will be an impact on your hair. This may be limited by using heat styling tools at lower temperatures, using heat protectant products, and limiting the frequency of heat styling, but the damage has still been done.
Incorporating moisturising and conditioning treatments into your hair care routine can help mitigate some heat damage sustained and improve hair manageability until the damage is ready to be trimmed off.
The Impact of Chemical Treatments on Afro Hair
Relaxers, perms, colour treatments – the chemical parade is long and varied. These treatments are often sought for their transformative capabilities but are a double-edged sword.
The following are some ways in which chemical treatments can damage Afro hair:
- Breaking down disulfide bonds: Chemical relaxers break down the disulfide bonds found within the hair’s cortex layer, which can reduce hair elasticity and weaken the hair.
- Compromising the hair structure: Chemicals used in treatments like bleaching, relaxing, perming, or straightening can compromise the hair structure by penetrating the cuticle to bleach the pigments in the hair or alter the hair’s shape.
- Harsh formulas: Damage can occur when the formula used in chemical treatments is too harsh or when processing takes too long, leading to permanent damage, breakage, and literal hair disintegration.
- Rough outer hair shaft: Bleaching/dyeing and excessive heat can damage the hair’s protective outer cuticle layer, making hair more prone to tangling, matting, and snapping.
It is important to note that damaged hair may be beyond repair, and no amount of conditioning, protein treatments, or miracle products can help. The only way to stop hair loss from chemicals is to reduce their use and focus on strengthening the hair, making the scalp healthy and committing to regular trims.
Let’s Talk About Lye
Sodium hydroxide, or lye, is a potent alkali often found in conventional hair relaxers. It works to dismantle the natural curl pattern of the hair. Although lye relaxers can swiftly alter hair’s bonds, they can have potent actions on the integrity of the hair shaft if not used correctly, breaking more disulphide bonds than is appropriate and leading to hair disintegration, hair breakage, and in severe cases, chemical burns.
Remarkably, this powerful chemical, lye, has some pretty extreme uses, such as unclogging drains and dissolving animal remains. It even finds its place in some mortuaries for chemical cremations.
When utilised on afro hair, lye relaxers infiltrate the outer protective cuticle and break bonds in the cortex layer of the hair shaft to loosen the natural curl pattern. This procedure leaves the hair fragile and prone to breakage and may even cause scalp burns and lasting damage. Persistent and heavy use of lye-based hair straightening products or relaxers can heighten the risk of breast cancer, compared to more moderate usage.
It’s worth mentioning that not all hair relaxers incorporate lye. Some rely on other chemicals, like calcium hydroxide and guanidine carbonate, to break the hair shaft’s chemical bonds efficiently. However, these relaxers can also damage the hair and scalp if not used properly.
Hair loss and Relaxers
Over the last 13 years in our clinic, we have seen patients presenting with increasingly thin hair to the top of their scalps, scalp inflammation, and scarring already present. 95% of these patients had a history of using hair relaxers and at least one occurrence of chemical burning from the relaxers during that time.
This type of hair loss is diagnosed as CCCA. Whilst not every person who has relaxed their hair experiences CCCA, almost all patients with CCCA have a history of strong chemical processing of their hair. It is a link that still requires more research, and undoubtedly, there are genetic components that have to be considered, but we can no longer say that chemical styling has no long-term impacts associated.
Find Out About Formaldehyde
Formaldehyde, also recognised as formalin and methylene glycol, is a colourless chemical with a pungent odour, commonly used in hair straightening treatments. Should its concentration in the air surpass 0.1 parts per million (ppm), it may cause eye-watering, burning sensations in the eyes, nose, and throat, nausea, coughing, wheezing, and skin discomfort. The substance poses health risks when inhaled or when it comes into contact with the skin or eyes.
In the context of afro hair treatments, formaldehyde can have various effects. Some potential implications of formaldehyde use include:
- Hair Straightening: Treatments containing formaldehyde can break down protein and water bonds within the hair, enabling it to be manipulated and straightened.
- Frizz Control: Formaldehyde-based treatments create a barrier around the hair when straightened with heat, removing “frizz”.
- Extended Effect: The impact of formaldehyde treatments can last for a considerable amount of time, keeping hair smoother and straight.
However, it is crucial to remember that formaldehyde is categorised as a carcinogen, and its usage carries associated health risks. Exposure to formaldehyde in hair treatments can lead to eye, nose, and throat irritation and respiratory issues. Several authorities, including the FDA, have cautioned against using formaldehyde-releasing hair treatments and advocate for safer alternatives. The use of this product in salons affects not only the recipient of the hair treatment but the salon staff too.
Endocrine Disrupting Chemicals in Hair Care Products
Several chemical hair products encompass endocrine-disrupting chemicals (EDCs) that can hinder the normal function of the body’s endocrine system. Such EDCs can be sourced from various means, including personal grooming items like hair colourants, bleach, relaxers, and styling mousse.
Specifically, these can include:
EDCs can enter the body via numerous pathways, such as through consumption, inhalation, skin contact, and water; even minimal dosages may prove harmful. Given the body’s endocrine activity relies on minuscule hormonal alterations, even slight disruptions to these levels can have significant developmental and biological repercussions. Consequently, even minor exposure to EDCs can disrupt the body’s delicate systems and induce health issues.
The long-term consequences of EDC exposure in hair products remain somewhat nebulous. However, research indicates that several such products contain parabens, phthalates, and other chemicals identified as endocrine disruptors. The sad truth is that roughly 50% of products marketed to Black women incorporate these types of chemicals, in contrast to 7% targeting white women.
The Combination of Heat Tools and Chemical Treatments
Imagine a small fire, steadily growing. The use of heat tools on afro hair is akin to feeding that fire with small twigs, slowly but steadily. Now picture dousing it with petrol, the flames escalating rapidly – that’s like adding chemical treatments into the mix. The synergy of these two elements creates a scenario far more damaging than their individual effects.
- Cuticle Damage: Chemical treatments, such as bleaching or straightening, can cause damage to the cuticle scales of Afro hair, making it more prone to breakage and dryness.
- Increased Porosity: Chemical treatments can increase the porosity of Afro hair, making it more susceptible to moisture loss and damage from heat styling tools.
- Weakening of Bonds: Chemical straighteners, like those containing formaldehyde or glyoxylic acid, can weaken the bonds in Afro hair, especially when heat is applied. This can lead to cuticle irregularity and decreased hair elasticity.
- Loss of Natural Proteins: Chemical treatments can strip Afro hair of its natural proteins, leaving it weak and brittle.
When heat treatments are applied to chemically treated Afro hair, it can exacerbate the damage by further drying out the hair, causing moisture loss, and increasing the risk of breakage.
Are You Damaging Your Hair and Body?
We fully understand the pressure placed on women today. Not only to be able to fully express your identity and beauty but also to have convenience and enjoy stress-free styling. However, we encourage you to ask the question, “Is it worth it?”
We see more women coming into our clinic suffering from irreversible hair damage and compromised scalps from harsh chemical treatments. Many of our patients veer towards relaxers because they lack clear information on how to care for their hair in its natural state. They find that it takes up too much time, or they have less versatility when it comes to styling. Conversely, they feel that relaxed hair is simply easier to manage. Especially when most stylists accept and promote the idealised Western beauty standards of long and straight hair.
Sadly, these long-term medical issues are becoming more prevalent as the greedy world of commerce kicks up its advertising and influencer campaigns. Black women are constantly subjected to marketing campaigns that use claims and vocabulary which dilute the dangers of these products. In some cases, they are claiming that they are actually good for the hair! There are simply no viable alternatives being made available on a mass scale. This simply isn’t fair: you deserve to have all the facts.
You’re Worth More
Just like a book is much more than its cover, your hair is more than a style statement. It’s an integral part of your identity and well-being. But, overreliance on heat tools and chemical treatments can cause significant damage to afro hair and pose risks to your health.
Promoting the acceptance and celebration of natural hair textures is crucial. By avoiding damaging practices and adopting proper hair care routines, black women can promote hair health and reduce the risk of hair loss. Education about diverse hairstyles is important, along with challenging beauty standards to alleviate the pressure faced by black women.
We warmly encourage you to get in contact with us if you’re suffering from heat or chemical damage to afro hair or for advice and sensible options.