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People — almost all women — straighten and relax their hair for a wide variety of reasons, with research showing that beautification tops the list. Making your hair easier to manage, peer pressure, and a desire to have a socially acceptable appearance closely follow. 

Still, relaxing your hair can have both short- and long-term consequences for your hair and health as well, and there is more than something to be said for considering going natural. 

What's In Hair Straighteners And Chemical Relaxers?

Unlike heat-based temporary straightening methods, chemical relaxers permanently alter the composition of your hair by, well, chemical means. Both the factors that determine the appearance of natural hair and the chemical process used to straighten it when you relax your hair make for rather fascinating — and equally complicated — chemistry lessons, but for most people, it's enough to say that some really potent and nasty chemicals are involved. They include:

  • Lye
  • Hydroxide (sodium, calcium lithium, potassium)
  • Guanidine carbonate
  • Formaldehyde (banned for this purpose in countries that regulate this kind of thing, but nonetheless used)
  • Glutaraldehyde
  • Ammonium bisulphite
  • Carbocysteine

The last two of these are less powerful, but have been found to be among the safest ways to achieve straighter hair. 

What Side Effects Can Chemical Relaxers Have?

Side effects of chemical relaxers can include damage to the hair shaft that results in thinning and weakening of the hair, allergic reactions to any of the chemicals used in the process, burns of the scalp, discoloration of the hair, and hair loss. Some women report staphylococcal infections following hair straightening, and one study even found that hair relaxer use is associated with uterine fibroids. Frizzy hair, dandruff, and split ends are among the less severe consequences of chemical relaxers, and though not talked about as much, research found that these phenomena are not at all uncommon.

Your risk of experiencing side effects from hair straightening increases over time, as you have the procedure repeated, research shows. 

While hairdressers commonly argue that the risks of relaxing your hair are worth it because you're not relying on (also damaging) temporary straightening methods when you've relaxed your hair, even they readily acknowledge that you shouldn't repeat the procedure too often if you want to preserve the health of your hair and scalp over the longer term. 

To Be Fair...

The long-term use of permanent hair dyes, likewise practiced by millions upon millions of women worldwide, has been shown to be associated with numerous different kinds of cancer, as well as short-term effects such as conjuctivitis, allergic reactions, and respiratory issues. 

While relaxing your hair carries its fair share of risk, its more recent bad reputation seems less deserved when put into this context (you don't hear much of an outcry over the risks of bleaching your hair). Relaxing your hair is for many, like dying is, a big part of cultural and societal beauty expectations for women. Failing to uphold these standards, too, can have consequences — and you don't need to look further than cases of girls being told they're not welcome at school with natural hair to understand this, as stupid as that is. We're certainly not here to browbeat you into going natural, but if you want to, there are benefits. 

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