Ten years ago, I would have never imagined I'd be seeing so much natural hair on the red carpet and on social media — let alone laws that empower women who want to wear their hair in its natural state, no matter where they are. But slowly and surely, more people are publicly choosing to embark on a natural to relaxed hair transition, whether it be for the sake of ease for at-home styling, or preference of aesthetic.
According to a February 2020 study by Royal Oils by Head & Shoulders and Gold Series by Pantene, Black women are outwardly confident with their hair, with 80% today completely content with their selected style. That number is staggeringly higher than where it was when the shift from relaxed hair began. Women are not only forming a deeper appreciation for natural texture, but also a heightened desire for overall hair health.
However, for many women, the decision to cease relaxers was about more than hair. It's important to note that for years, women veered from relaxers due to health risks, particularly fears of increased breast cancer risk. Later, a 2008 study by Cancer Epidemiology Biomarkers and Prevention found that the allegations weren't backed with enough research. And yet again in 2019, another study conducted by researchers at the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences that found there was no concrete correlation between cancer and the hair treatment. The study insisted that there are a slew of other factors affecting Black women, and much more research had to be done to validate the long unfounded claims. In it, Dale Sandler, Ph.D., chief of the NIEHS epidemiology branch, said that while people are exposed to a variety of things that could be linked to breast cancer, it's unlikely that any single factor explains a woman’s risk. However, he noted that while it is too early to firmly advise against isolated factors, avoiding relaxers is yet another step that women can take to avoid potential dangers.
Now, as a vast majority of Black women have fully transitioned, have learned their real texture, and have acclimated the curly life into their day-to-day, some are surprisingly going back to the relaxers. But it's not because of societal pressures and not because of fear of diseases. Unlike what the natural movement aimed to do away with, women aren't reverting back to the straightening system due to shame or a lack of self-confidence. It's based on preference and manageability.
"I loved my natural texture, but I stopped having the time to properly care for it," says Erin Stovall, a former curly girl and New York City-based beauty editor at Oprah Magazine. "My coils were thriving when I had an entire day to spend washing, deep conditioning, detangling, and twisting. But as soon as I started trying to get it all done in an hour, the breakage was real." Stovall then began experimenting with frequent silk presses in hopes of added manageability. However, it was to no avail. "Those became a problem because I wouldn’t be able to work out," she says. "Ruin a fresh press? No, ma’am! Plus, I constantly worried about rain or humidity."
Chinyere Ekwuocha, a student in Washington D.C. who's worn relaxed hair for almost three years, now feels the same. While she mostly wears her hair in protective styles, she found that even during her time off, her hair was proving too much to handle. "It was always a process. I'd want to let my real hair breathe and I felt like I couldn't do that... ever," she says. "So I went back to in-salon relaxers, and my hair is in incredible shape."
And instances like Stovall's and Ekwuocha's aren't rare. Kiyah Wright, celebrity hairstylist to Laverne Cox and Lala Anthony, knows best that women don't want to spend exorbitant amounts of time on their hair. "What women desire nowadays is less time," she says. "In days like these, time is something we're slave to. Time is everything, and it seems like everyone just has less time. Even I often wonder what's happening." And Derick Monroe, Dark and Lovely spokesperson who works with Tyra Banks, agrees. "The surge in relaxers could definitely be related to the idea that the natural hair requires similar levels of maintenance," he says. "Many women started converting to natural hair with the thought that it would be easier to maintain, when both require equal amounts of care. It’s more about which hair care journey fits your lifestyle."
Wright also notes regional differences as reasons women may prefer their hair straight. "In Los Angeles, you don't have to worry about humidity because it's so dry out here," she says. "You could wear your hair straight for like two weeks and maintain that silk. Much of a woman's decision for texture relies heavily on climate and it being easy to manage."
Stovall concurs, admitting that she would have loved to have kept her natural texture, but the busy pace of her life just didn't allow. "I loved it, but it was hard," she says. "I know a lot of women of color experience microaggressions and overt discrimination, but that wasn’t my experience, nor would I have cared what other people thought. I felt confident wearing my curls and protective styles like cornrows to the office." However, both Stovall and Wright are well aware that this isn't the case for everyone. "This is generational," Wright says of Black women's relationship with their hair. "It's important to get people to shift the mindset, and to get women to be comfortable with what they like, not what others deem acceptable."
But in all textures, the No. 1 priority is health, and Stovall believe she's achieved that with her relaxing routine. "When I relaxed before —from the age of 12 up until I was 18 — I used box relaxers and my mom did it at home," she says. "Now, I schedule regular salon visits every three months for my touch-ups."
Finding a stylist who is skilled at relaxers in the age of naturalism has also been an integral part of Stovall maintaining a healthy head of hair. "My stylist is super careful not to overlap sections, so my strands aren’t over-processed like they were before. Additionally, she rinses the chemicals out more quickly — to the point that my hair still has a little bit of texture to it when wet." The main difference she notes is that her hair still maintains movement and body. "In the past, I would leave the relaxer on for as long as possible, it was bone-straight and lifeless! I take the time to do deep conditioning treatments in between appointments and opt for air-drying over hot tools," she says. "In general, my hair is way healthier. When I experienced hair loss and breakage in the past, I blamed it all on the relaxers. I’m more knowledgeable now and I know that most of it was actually caused by improper application and a lack of hair care. My hair care routine is faster now, but I’m much more diligent about it."
Luckily, brands are creating products that bridge the gap — for natural girls, those venturing back into relaxers, and everyone in between. Take the Head & Shoulders Royal Oils collection, for instance. "One of the things with being a stylist is I'm not big on a lot of grease," says Wright, who's a P&G Beauty ambassador. "I do not like my hair stiff. What I love about it is I can use the Royal Oils products basically on all textures of hair and I don't get that heavy product feeling. One of my favorites is the Moisture Milk. Moisturization does not equate to oiliness, and this product leaves the hair weightless yet still hydrated."
And while at-home relaxers certainly shouldn't be an option for all, as the potent treatment requires a certain skill. Luckily, however, at-home relaxers have come a long way from that of decades ago. "I suggest home relaxing to responsible consumers!" Monroe says. "That means someone that will take their time to read the instructions, condition their hair for maintenance and keep track of trims to minimize split ends. As a professional, my main concerns are the health of the hair and having proper practices is vital considering relaxed hair can at times be dry and brittle."
So whether you're still embracing your 'fro, or strongly considering straightening it, I think everyone can agree on this: The most important thing is optimal hair health, and the confidence to wear your hair however you see fit.
Hair At Work Study (2020, February). https://www.businesswire.com/news/home/20200212005783/en/New-Study-Royal-Oils-Gold-Series-Confirms
Permanent hair dye and straighteners may increase breast cancer risk. (2019). https://www.nih.gov/news-events/news-releases/permanent-hair-dye-straighteners-may-increase-breast-cancer-risk
Rosenberg, L., Boggs, D. A., Adams-Campbell, L. L., & Palmer, J. R. (2008, May). Hair Relaxers Not Associated with Breast Cancer Risk: Evidence from the Black Women's Health Study. https://cebp.aacrjournals.org/content/16/5/1035.figures-only