What Are the Dangers of Relaxing Hair?

Profile of an young black beauty with long straight hair
Relaxers remove curl by altering the chemical bonds of the hair. (Image: AND-ONE/iStock/Getty Images)

Relaxers change the appearance of hair by altering its chemical makeup. During the relaxing process, the chemical bonds of the hair are broken then reformed into a straight, relaxed pattern. The chemicals used in the process -- sodium hydroxide, lithium hydroxide or guanidine hydroxide -- are generally safe if used properly. Misuse by an untrained person or an uncaring professional, however, can lead to severe consequences, including chemical burns, hair damage, breakage and hair loss.

Scalp Irritation

Perhaps the most common side effect of hair relaxers, mild scalp irritation presents as redness, itchiness and a slight burning sensation at the application site. Some irritation during application is normal. However, symptoms should disappear immediately after the chemicals are rinsed away. Irritation that lasts for a few days after the process may indicate the need for a milder formula or a shorter processing time.

Chemical Burns

Chemical burns occur when the chemicals used to break down the hair structure are allowed to remain on the skin long enough for the skin to start to break down and dissolve. Severe chemical burns are not only painful but also can result in secondary infections, permanent hair loss, severe scarring and emotional distress. Chemical burns range in severity from first degree to third degree, with the most extreme burns requiring skin grafts.

Hair Damage

Damage occurs when relaxing treatments are performed repeatedly without sufficient time between treatments. Damage can also occur if the formula is too harsh or if too much time is allowed for processing. Damaged hair may appear dry, frizzy and dull. Chemical damage also makes hair more susceptible to further damage from the environment, sun, thermal styling tools and styling products.

Breakage and Hair Loss

Once hair becomes overly damaged, it breaks and falls out. If you suffer breakage, postpone all chemical processes until your hair is healthy again. The most common sign of breakage is an overall thinning of the hair. However, some people experience a receding hairline as a result of extreme breakage at the front of the hairline. Although rare, some people even experience heavy, localized loss, resulting in bald spots.

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