Curly or textured hair looks gorgeous when you style and flaunt it the right way. But sometimes, managing it becomes a true challenge, especially during the hot, muggy summer months. So here comes the importance of softening and straightening the hair professionally. It not only tames the mane perfectly but also gives it a frizz-free, silky, and bouncy look. While there are multiple ways to straighten hair, most people go for a chemical relaxer or keratin treatment to save time and stress. These two methods are prevalent among women with Afro-American or ethnic hair. But what are the differences between these two? How do they reduce frizz and smoothen the hair? Should you go for a hair relaxer or keratin treatment? Let us unfold everything about these to you.
Hair Relaxer or Keratin Treatment – Choosing the Right One
Both chemical hair relaxer and keratin straightening are professional hair treatments that make curly hair softer, smoother, and straighter. But trying to distinguish between these two can be tricky until you consult an expert and have all the correct information in hand. So, let us help you decide the best option according to your hair type to achieve the desired results.
Everything about Chemical Relaxer
What is Hair Relaxer?
A hair relaxer is a chemical-based cream or lotion applied to coarse and kinky curls to turn them softer and straighter. As a result, it reduces frizz and makes the hair more manageable. However, relaxers do not make the hair straight, and you may wish to go for further straightening after undergoing the procedure. Natural hair relaxers are also available, which are essentially deep hair conditioners providing intense moisturization.
Chemical relaxant kits available in the market can be used at home for salon-like results. But it can be tricky to use them effectively without formal cosmetology training.
How Does It Work?
The chemicals break down the disulfide bonds that hold the protein structures together within hair strands during relaxation. This allows the hair elements to be manipulated and rearranged, thereby altering the hair’s overall texture.
Types of Relaxer
The best relaxer is chosen by matching the relaxer’s strength with the type and texture of hair. A ‘strand test’ helps assess compatibility. Typically, there are three kinds of chemical hair relaxers:
- Sodium Hydroxide Relaxers (Lye Relaxers) are strong alkaline for fast results that can also cause scalp inflammation. Work on coily, curly, and wavy hair.
- Calcium Hydroxide Relaxers (No-Lye Relaxers) – Harsher than the lye versions and make hair drier. Suit all three types of hair and sensitive scalps as well. It should be used along with a ‘de-calcifying’ shampoo to avert calcium buildup.
- Ammonium Thioglycolate Relaxers – Work well on wavy, curly, and fine hair. Do not suit coily or very coarse hair.
A relaxer of regular strength is enough to treat very thick, coarse, and kinky hair. Too much active chemical in the formulation can damage hair.
Whether a professional hairstylist relaxes your hair or you do it at home yourself, the procedure comprises the following steps:
- A light coat of petroleum jelly is applied all over the scalp as a ‘barrier’ to protect it from chemical burns.
- In virgin hair, the relaxer is applied to the ends of the locks first as they take longer to process.
- It is then worked the way up to the roots, and the strands are smoothened throughout the step.
- After 10-15 minutes of processing time, the relaxer is rinsed out of the hair with warm water.
- A good conditioner is applied to rebalance the pH level.
- Then, the alkalizing chemical process is deactivated using a neutralizing shampoo several times.
- Finally, moisturizing treatment is applied thoroughly to reinstate the hydration of the hair.
- For new growth, overlapping is avoided, and only the hair roots are touched up every 8-10 weeks.
Over-relaxed hair looks limp and lifeless and may thin out over time too. Hence, it is recommended that you get your hair relaxed relatively straight while leaving in a tiny bit of texture.
Based on the length of your hair, the relaxing treatment can take anywhere between 30 minutes and 1 hour.
Taking proper care of your relaxed hair is essential to keep it in tip-top shape, and here are the ways:
- Use a gentle, sulfate-free shampoo to cleanse your hair without stripping off its natural oils
- Maintain its moisture balance by applying lightweight yet deep-penetrating oils and leave-in conditioners regularly
- For extra hydration of the hair, deep condition it once every week by alternating a protein and moisturizing mask
- Steer clear of heat styling tools like flat irons, curling irons, etc. to avoid dryness
- Trim the porous and fragile ends of your locks whenever necessary
How Long Does It Last?
The straightening effects of a chemical relaxer last for approximately 6 to 8 weeks until new growth occurs. After that, however, the change to your existing hair structure is permanent.
Risks and Side Effects
Chemical hair relaxers need to be used carefully to avoid potential side effects. These include chemical injuries, extremely dry hair, dullness, frizziness, weak and fragile hair (1), hair loss, etc. Relaxers should also not be used on color-treated hair, and the application of dyes should be limited after undergoing the treatment.
A salon treatment for relaxing hair will cost you up to $200, while the prices of at-home kits range from $15 to $20.
Keratin Hair Straightening
What is Keratin?
Keratin is the structural protein of our hair, nails, and skin. It is also found naturally in our internal organs and glands and can be derived from animals’ nails, horns, feathers, and wool. As our hair’s building block, keratin is widely used in hair care products, supplements, and treatments. The protective protein is rich in a specific amino acid called ‘cysteine’, which makes the hair super strong and highly elastic, thus turning it healthier and less prone to breakage.
What is Keratin Treatment?
Keratin treatment, also known as Brazilian straightening, is a semi-permanent chemical process that makes curly and frizzy hair smoother, shinier, and more manageable. This treatment softens and strengthens the hair to give it a sleek, flat-ironed appearance rather than straightening it out directly by disrupting its texture (2). It uses a formaldehyde-releasing solution containing keratin protein and some other conditioners for this purpose. The method works for hair of all types, textures, and colors.
Keratin treatment is not good for severely damaged or extremely fragile hair. It is also not recommended for pregnant and breastfeeding women.
How Does It Work?
In Keratin treatment, a unique blend of hydrolyzed keratin is infused deep into the hair cuticles, which are the layers of the overlapping cells forming your hair strands. It smoothens these cuticles by adhering to them, making the hair strands relaxed at the sub-cuticle layer. As a result, the hair turns less frizzy, voluminous, and super glossy. Moreover, it appears straight and becomes very easy to style.
After a keratin treatment, your blowout time can become shorter by 40% to 60%. It also makes the hair frizz-free so that you do not need to worry about walking out in light rain or humid weather.
Performed in the salon by hair experts, this time-intensive procedure for getting straight, smooth hair involves the following steps:
- Your hair is prepared by washing thoroughly. Then, it can either be blow-dried or left wet for the next step.
- The keratin protein solution is applied to the hair well to become completely saturated.
- It is allowed to work on the hair for 20-30 minutes to facilitate the breaking process of the keratin bonds.
- Then, the hair is blown dry and flat-ironed strategically to reseal the keratin boned in the hair structure.
Serums, shampoos, conditioners, and other hair care products containing ‘keratin hydro lysates” can make hair damage-resistant and repair dried out hair.
Though the time required for the treatment depends on the texture of the hair, the volume of the hair, and the formula being used by the hairstylist, it usually takes anywhere between 2 and 4 hours to be finished.
Handling your keratin-treated hair in a delicate way is the trick to keep it nice, and the following are the choices to make:
- Stay away from washing, tying up, and styling your hair for the next 72 hours after a keratin treatment to avoid the risk of denting
- Always use sulfate-free shampoo and conditioner for your keratin-treated hair for its proper maintenance
- Try to choose hair products comprising keratin, biotin, and zinc to retain the silky, smooth, and shiny look of the hair
- Avoid salt water and chlorine water after treating your hair with keratin, as they will strip the treatment due to the harshness.
How Long Does It Last?
It is not a permanent hair straightening procedure; the results will last from 3 to 6 months based on your hair care routine and the regularly used products on your hair.
Risks and Side Effects
During keratin treatment, formaldehyde gas is emanated from the formulations used by the professionals. This emission level can exceed the national safety standard for chemical exposure by 5 times (3). Frequent exposure to such high levels of formaldehyde in an enclosed space can pose serious health hazards like nosebleeds, sore throat, scratchy eyes, and respiratory problems for anyone. In addition, the chemical was categorized as a ‘carcinogen’ (cancer-causing substance) by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in 1987 (4). Therefore, pregnant women, breastfeeding mothers, respiratory patients, people with sensitivity to formaldehyde should strictly stay away from this treatment. However, formaldehyde-free smoothening formulations are also available in the market these days. Hence, make sure you visit a salon where only this kind of straighteners is used.
If you have certain skin conditions like psoriasis, seborrheic dermatitis, etc., you should consult a dermatologist prior to undergoing a keratin hair straightening treatment (5).
The costs of professional keratin treatments usually range from $200 to $800. At-home keratin treatment kits are also available at less than $50, but they are messy, difficult to apply, and not as effective as salon treatments.
So, What are the Differences Between the Two?
Well, you are the best person to decide on which treatment you should go for getting straight and smooth hair. Both chemical relaxers and keratin treatments have their advantages and disadvantages. If you do not mind turning your hair weak and restructured for a permanent straightening solution, the chemical relaxer is the way to go. But if you are not ready to play with the chemical composition of your hair, stick to keratin treatment and enjoy its temporary outcomes. Choose the one according to your requirements and budget.
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)
Should I Color My Relaxed Hair?
Relaxing and coloring do not go hand in hand. Ammonia and peroxide used in lifting hair color can lead to severe breakage of the strands. So, if you underwent chemical relaxing, replace your permanent hair colors or henna with temporary rinses and semi-permanent colors.
How to Prepare Hair for Chemical Relaxing?
Ensure that you do not aggravate your scalp by scratching, brushing vigorously, using harsh shampoos, etc., before going through the process of relaxing. These will lead to chemical injuries, including scalp irritations and scalp burns.
What are Natural Hair Relaxers?
Natural hair relaxers are deep hair moisturizers that weigh down the hair with extra oils and fat. While using these, your hair will need some additional heat treatment too.
What are Keratin Supplements?
Keratin supplements are keratin proteins found in the form of capsules and powder. They are primarily available in health food stores. However, overconsumption of keratin protein can affect you by causing too much protein buildups in the body.
- “Sample Records for Chemical Hair Relaxer“, Science.gov
- “Feather Keratin Hydrolysates Obtained From Microbial Keratinases: Effect on Hair Fiber“, ncbi.nlm.nih.gov
- “Elevated Formaldehyde Concentration in “Brazilian Keratin Type” Hair-Straightening Products: a Cross-Sectional Study“, ncbi.nlm.nih.gov
- “Hair-Smoothing Products that Release Formaldehyde When Heated“, FDA.gov
- “Keratin Hair Treatments: What to Expect“, WebMD.com