Chemicals in Hair Relaxers – The Health Effects

3. Chemicals in Hair Relaxers

For many black women, using a hair relaxer is an essential tool for maintaining their hair.  However, the chemicals used in relaxers are being linked to causing health issues that can be chronic or deadly.  Accordingly, women can be exposed to the chemicals in hair relaxers through scalp lesions and burns.

Chemicals in hair relaxers in woman's hair
Woman with relaxed hair

Besides scalp irritations, hair relaxers are being linked to causing uterine leiomyomata (benign smooth muscle tumours of the uterus), blindness, breast cancer, and early puberty.  Many people are not aware of the ingredients that make up a typical hair relaxer.

For many years the main ingredient used in relaxers was sodium hydroxide, also known as lye.  Sodium hydroxide is a powerful alkaline caustic used in products such as drain cleaners.  Chemical hair relaxers are advertised as ‘no-lye’, which makes consumers believe they are using a safer product.

Unfortunately, much of the ingredients in ‘no-lye’ products can cause the same health issues as lye.  The purpose of the proposed research is to show the harmful effects chemical relaxers have on black women and to show why relaxers should be regulated.

The long term use of hair relaxers can cause physical or chronic health risks to the women that use the products and long term exposure can cause long term health effects on beauticians.

Evolution of Hair Relaxers

We see our hair as a way to define who we are.  We have developed a complex about our hair because we’ve been told to accept the European standards of beauty.  With that mentality, we have become obsessed with hair.  That obsession has helped grow the hair relaxer market.

The hair relaxer was invented by Garrett Morgan, an African American tailor and repairer of sewing machines in the early 1900’s.  His invention was something he discovered when he accidentally left a chemical he had developed on a cloth made of animal fur.  When he realized that the chemical straightened the fibres of the animal cloth, he tested the chemical on other items before trying it on his own hair.  What he discovered was that his chemical could straighten curly hair.  Once Morgan transformed his chemical to a gel form, he marketed it as an alkaline relaxer which started the evolution of the black hair care industry.

How Hair Relaxers Work

Hair relaxers are strong chemicals that come in the form of a cream.  The two ingredients that give a relaxer its strength are sodium hydroxide and guanidine hydroxide.  Sodium hydroxide has a very high ph factor.  Guanidine hydroxide has a lower ph factor.  Once the chemicals penetrate into the hair shaft, the curl is loosened or ‘relaxed’ and the hair becomes straight.  Although the desired effect is for the hair to become straighter, once this process is done the hair actually becomes weaker and more likely to be susceptible to breakage and other damage. 

Impact of Toxic Chemicals on Beauticians

Beauticians are surrounded by high levels of chemical exposure on a daily basis.  Many of the ingredients found in hair products can cause health-related issues such as asthma, dermatitis, and neurological symptoms.  The chemicals in hair relaxers are also known to increase the risk of cancer and miscarriages.  Due to the high potency of the products, hairdressers are encouraged to have safety regulations in place such as exhaust ventilation.  This prevents them from inhaling too much toxic air.  However, due to the fact that they breathe in fumes all day, it can still cause harm.  Also, there are some beauticians that work out of their home and do not have the same regulations as a regular salon building.  There needs to be a resolution to reduce the health crisis women working in salons are facing.

Types of Hydroxide Relaxers

  • Active Ph Market Positive NegativeSodium
  • Hydroxide
  • Hydroxide 13-13.5
  • Lye
  • Lithium & Potassium
  • Guanidine


Women go through a lot of lengths to maintain and beautify their hair.  It is scary to know that a person’s quest for beautification can lead to chemical burns, hair loss, cancer, early puberty or other health risks.  Chemical relaxers are still sold in many stores even though there have been complaints and evidence of the damage that the ingredients may cause.

At present, regulations do not require hair relaxers to be pre-approved before it goes onto the market.  The law does not even require the manufacturers of the relaxers to say what their safety information is.  A government body would only get involved when there are several complaints.  They then investigate and only enforce action when the product is not in compliance with the law.


  • I am mixed chinese-african-indian. I have thin, curly-frizzy hair and have been usind hair relaxers since I am a teenager.
    Now I am 29 years old and I have decided to stop using any relaxer. No hair dying also, nothing. I lose lots of hair everyday. My house is full of my hair everywhere. Sometimes I wonder how I still have hair on my head.
    I understand the harm that these chemicals can cause.
    Thanks for the useful information.

    • Hi Connie

      Thank you for your reply and I sympathise with you with regard to your hair loss. You have made a great choice to banish all hair products containing harmful chemicals and, in time, your hair will recover and grow back to its natural beauty.

      I’m pleased you find the information useful.


  • I don’t usually leave comments on people’s blogs but I feel compelled to this time as I felt that this is such a well researched and a personal account of this lovely lady’s personal experience. My cousin is at present going through very aggressive chemotherapy at the moment and as a consequence has lost her lovely hair, this is what has lead me to read as much as I can about health issues and effects of chemicals we put into our bodies and through our hair so it was so refreshing to stumble across such a well written article that we can relate to, This has convinced us of the harm we have been doing to ourselves. Happy to say we will embrace our natural looks and will not be using all the relaxers etc again.
    We await your next posts with great interest,Thank you

    • Thank you for leaving a comment and I wish your cousin well in her cancer journey, as I know it is very tough going through the harsh treatment. I am so pleased that you found my blog informative and I will continue to share issues on hair loss.

      Take care, Lynn

Leave a Comment