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Chemical Hair Relaxers: Myths & Magic


The Hair Benders Int'l Chattanooga, Tennessee Makeup: Darin Wright

Whether done professionally or in the privacy of your own home, chemical hair relaxing can magically alter the basic structure of naturally wavy or curly hair into a new straighter form.

It is important to note that the treatments known as Japanese hair straightening (Yuko, Liscio, etc.,) are not chemical relaxers. Instead they are known as chemical straighteners.

The difference between chemical hair straighteners and chemical hair relaxers (Phytospecific, Rusk, Dark & Lovely) is that straigheners will result in stick straight strands and relaxers will soften and relax.

Chemical straighteners are must stronger than relaxers and can be very harsh and damaging. Depending on the hair type, texture, condition and prior chemical use, some hair should be chemically relaxed instead of straightened.

Curly Hair Pride

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Some hair consumers with naturally curly hair would never ever think of either chemically straightening or relaxing their hair. While they might temporarily straighten their hair with styling products, brushes, blow dryers and hot irons, some people with curly hair pride frown upon using chemicals to alter their natural ringlets.

This is not the case with all naturally curly blessed people. Some prefer to eliminate their natural texture with chemical relaxers because they are much less damaged than chemical straightening.

Relaxer Kits

There are two types of relaxers which include:

Sodium hydroxide Ammonium thioglycolate

Sodium Hydroxide

The Hair Benders Int'l Chattanooga, Tennessee Makeup: Darin Wright

Sodium hydroxide relaxers, which are considered to be caustic relaxers, are designed to soften and swell the hair's fibers. Hair experts consider sodium hydroxide to be more like a hair straightener than a relaxer.

As the solution penetrates into the cortex of the hair, the cross-bonds (sulfur and hydrogen) are broken. The action of the comb, the brush or the hands in smoothing the hair and distributing the chemical straightens the softened hair.

Manufacturers vary the sodium hydroxide content of the solution from 5% to 10% and the pH factor between 10 and 14.

In general, the more sodium hydroxide used and the higher the pH, the quicker the chemical reaction will take place on the hair, and the greater the danger will be of hair damage.

Because of the high alkaline content of sodium hydroxide, great care must be taken in its use.

Ammonium Thioglycolate

Ammonium thioglycolate is a chemical compound made up of ammonia and thioglycolate acid. It is the main active ingredient in both chemical hair relaxers and chemical perms.

Although ammonium thioglycolate which is also referred to as a "thio" is less drastic in its action than sodium hydroxide, it soften and relaxes overly curly hair in somewhat the same manner.

Relaxer Kits

Most relaxer kits, whether sold only to professionals or to hair consumers, contain the following items:

1. Chemical hair relaxer 2. Neutralizer 3. Petroleum Cream Protective Base

Note: Top rated hair relaxer kits to try - Phytospecific Phytorelaxer #1 and Phytospecific Phytorelaxer #2

The petroleum cream is used as a protective base to protect the scalp during chemical relaxing process.


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The neutralizer also is called a stabilizer or fixative. The neutralizer stops the action of any chemical relaxer that may accidentally remain in the hair after rinsing. Even with complete rinsing, it is possible that some relaxer may still be present.

The neutralizer for a thio type relaxer reforms the cysteine (sulfur) cross-bonds in their new position and re-hardens the hair.

Base Versus No Base Formulas

When using sodium hydroxide, there are two types of formulas, base and no base. The base formula is a petroleum cream that is designed to protect the client's skin and scalp during the sodium hydroxide chemical straightening process.

This protective base also is important during a chemical straightening touch-up. It's applied to protect hair that has been previously straightened, to prevent over-processing and hair breakage.

The Brown Aveda Institute Mentor, Ohio Stylist: Ashley Allen Brown

Petroleum cream has a lighter consistency than petroleum jelly and is formulated to melt at body temperature.

The melting process ensures complete protective coverage of the scalp and other areas with a thin, oily coating. This helps to prevent burning and/or irritation of the scalp and skim.

Previously treated hair should be protected with a heavy moisturizing cream conditioner during the straightening process.

No base relaxers are also available. These relaxers have the same chemical reaction on the hair, although usually the reaction is milder.

The procedure for the application of a "no base" relaxer is the same as for a regular relaxer except that the base cream is not applied. It is advisable to use a protective cream around the hairline and over the ears.

Chemical Hair Relaxing Steps

The neutralizer also is called a stabilizer or fixative. The neutralizer stops the action of any chemical relaxer that may accidentally remain in the hair after rinsing. Even with complete rinsing, it is possible that some relaxer may still be present.

1. A chemical relaxer is applied. The hair begins to soften so that the chemical can penetrate to loose and relax the natural curl.

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2. As soon as the hair has been correctly process, the chemical relaxer is completely rinse out with warm water followed by a shampoo neutralizer or a prescribed shampoo with neutralizer.

3. Depending on the client's needs the conditioner may be part of a series of hair treatments, or it may be applied to the hair before or after the relaxing treatment.

Extremely curly hair that has been damaged from heat appliances or other chemicals must be re-conditioned before a relaxer service is performed.

Hair treated with lighteners or metallic dyes must not be given a chemical hair relaxer because it might cause excessive damage or breakage.

Recommended Strength Of Relaxer

The strength of the relaxer is determined by the strand test. The following guidelines can help in determining which strength relaxer to use for the test.

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1. Fine, tinted, or lightened hair - Use mild relaxer. Relaxers to try: Radical AntiCurl - Resistant Formula #1 or Phytospecific Phytorelaxer #1 available at 2. Normal, medium-textured virgin hair - Use regular relaxer. Relaxer to try: Radical AntiCurl - Resistant Formula #2 or Phytospecific Phytorelaxer #1 available at 3. Coarse, virgin hair - use strong, super relaxer or for resistant strands. Relaxer to try: Radical AntiCurl - Resistant Formula #3 or Phytospecific Phytorelaxer #2 available at

Rusk AntiCurl Relaxers do not contain sodium hydroxide. As a result it will not get hair stick straight. It will however relax it, defriz it and soften it.

Regular relaxers usually don't last long and just damage the hair.

Scalp Examination

It is very important to always inspect the scalp carefully for any scratches, eruptions or abrasions before applying a chemical relaxer. To obtain a clearer view of the scalp, part the hair into 1/2" sections. Hair parting may be done with the index and middle fingers or with the handle of a rat-tail comb.

In either case, you must exercise great care not to scratch the scalp. Such scratches may become seriously infected or seriously aggravated by the chemicals in the relaxer.

Lye Versus No Lye Hair Relaxers

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The alkaline based relaxer was discovered in the 1800s in the United States when African Americans who sought to straighten their hair discovered that lye based formulations worked.

Proline, the manufacturers of Dark and Lovely claim to have invented the modern day relaxer in 1971. Their alkaline relaxer consists of lye, potash lye and lime mixed with mineral oils and petroleum jelly.

Relaxers containing no-lye are based upon calcium hydroxide. No-lye relaxers are popular with Caucasions but not work as well for African American textures or hair that is extremely curly or nappy.

Hair Relaxer Myths

Hair relaxers have cycled in popularity throughout the years. As their use has grown, hair myths have popped up.

Listed below are some of the most common myths and misinformation:

Curls Will Come Back Before Root Regrowth

Some people believe with Rusk or PhytoRelaxer that the curls eventually come back. Depending on who you talk to, if applied correctly, the relaxers will permanently block the return of curls, except with root regrowth.

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The reason that the manufacturers warn against leaving the relaxer on for more than 20 minutes is to prevent less experienced hairdressers or consumers from overprocessing and burning hair.

Depending on hair type, texture and condition, some hair will process in just 20 minutes while others require 40 or even 60 minutes.

There is a risk in testing long application beyond the recommended minutes in the instructions. If you decide to push the envelope, work with an experienced hairdresser who can apply the relaxer and then watch your hair closely as it processes to determine the perfect processing time for your hair.

It is not recommended that you push the envelope at home. Relaxers are much less expensive than chemical straighteners or thermal reconditioning treatments. Why not pay the few extra dollars, at least initially until you understand the product, to make sure your hair is protected.

The Brown Aveda Institute Mentor, Ohio Stylist: Samantha Albenone & Lydia DiCello Brown

Proper Application

Hairdressers and consumers are sometimes confused about proper application of the relaxer products. It is very important to make sure that none of the product ever touches the scalp or any part of the face, neck or skin. This can cause burns or irritation.

If the product touches the scalp, it can also damage the hair bulb and impact future hair growth. In rare cases it can also cause temporary or permanent hair loss challenges.

Use Only High Quality Tools

Once hair has been chemically relaxed it is more fragile and has a higher risk of damage. Only use the highest quality brushes from Mason Pearson, Kent or Conair.

Avoid cheap combs and opt for high quality Kent, Conair, wood or bone combs. Poor quality brushes or combs will destroy the hair shaft by ripping away the scales with rough edges or ridges.

Deep conditioning treatments should be performed weekly on all chemically relaxed hair to build back strength and prevent hair from feeling like straw.

When done properly relaxed hair can be straight, shiny and soft.

Select Hair Relaxers According To Hair Type

Rusk relaxers and Phytospecific Relaxer #1 work best for hair that is Caucasian, naturally wavy or curly. Hair that is African American, nappy or kinky will require the Phytospecific Relaxer #2. Dark & Lovely is also designed for use on African American hair.

More Hair Relaxer Facts

The Brown Aveda Institute Mentor, Ohio Stylist: Hallie Wedge 2007

Hair relaxers can be used on any length of hair from super short to long. Some people use spot relaxers to deal with stubborn cowlicks or whorls. They may also use spot relaxers on uneven growth patterns.

Hair relaxers can also be used on just the roots, just the ends or throughout the entire head of hair.

It works on hair of all races and is used by men and women. African American men often use "kits" as they call them to help them achieve softer strands that can be styled into 360 Wave styles as well as for braiding.

Hair relaxers work for hair that is combo meaning one part curly, one part wavy and one part straight. Depending on how long the relaxer is allowed to process the results will rank from stick straight to subtle waves with soft bend. In general it leaves healthy hair looking shiny and healthy.

Curls and natural texture always come back when the roots grow back.

Relaxer treatments can be applied to 100% human hair extensions. They can not be applied to synthetic extensions.

Depending on chemical relaxing preferences some people prefer Rusk, some Phyto, some Dark and Lovely and other prefer other product options.

Chemically relaxed hair can be easily altered to add back curls and waves or straightened even further through hot irons and rollers.

Hair that has been highlighted may or may not be able to handle a very mild relaxer like Rusk. This should only be attempted after a series of patch tests to make sure that hair will not break off.

It will relax hair enough to make waves more manageable in humid weather.

The Brown Aveda Institute Mentor, Ohio Stylist: Ashley Allen Brown


Check out a list of all hair relaxer kits available at in the Marketplace.

The Rusk Anti-Curl will not get curly hair straight. However, what you need to use depends on what the hair texture is and what your desired results are. If the hair is only slightly wavy and you don't need to get the hair bone straight, then the Rusk would probably be ok.

If the hair has any kind of curl pattern or a frizz problem, any thermal reconditioning product would be a better solution.

By the way, the ingredients in the Rusk thioglycolate. There are formulas for virgin, colored, or highlighted hair and you just need to use the appropriate solution.

Most of the Japanese straighteners (i.e. thermal reconditioners are not meant to be used on Afro-American hair because they will not get the hair straight).

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- Revised Date: 01/01/08

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