Straightening Hair - Relax or Heat?

This question comes from B, 'I think I remember you saying that you think relaxing the hair is more safe than using direct heat on it. Can you please tell me why? I have been thinking of relaxing my hair lately, but the thing that has stopped me, was that I didnt think my hair would be as healthy and that it would all fall out! I know its a bit extreme, but with the bad rep that relaxers get, I am terrified. Yes, I used to get relaxers before, but I knew nothing of hair blogs or hair forums with healthy hair tips.'

I did comment something to this effect on both BGLH and agrlcanmac. I do think that some natural hair really is not designed for repeated or high heat application. This applies to hair with kinks (random twisting of the hair) and to hair with very small curls.

If you wish to permanently wear hair straight then in my view using heat on a regular basis is not ideal. Why? If you refer to the How hot is too hot post, you will see that at a temperature as low as 160 celsius (320F), keratin, the protein that makes up hair begins to sustain permanent damage.

For some hair, this temperature is not high enough to actually straighten hair which means that the flat irons, hair dryers etc will be turned up even higher.

Does this mean relaxing is a fail safe method?

Not at all, relaxing also carries its own risks including chemical damage to the hair breakage and alopecia. Sites like mine exist because of this very real risk. I personally experienced breakage due to relaxing.

So why the preference of relaxing over heat use?

It is about mathematics to me. Hair can be relaxed once every 2-3 months, 'stretching' relaxers is now quite popular with some people who get retouches 2 or 3 times a year.If you are heat straightening, then you will more than likely be flat ironing at least once every week. In reality probably more than once a week - we know that at the slightest sign of reversion, it is super easy to just pick up the irons again.

This means that hair sustains damage every single time the heat is applied. This damage is cumulative, meaning that if you start out with 5% damage today (arbitrary number), in one month assuming 4 heat sessions, you end up with 20% damage or more because it easy to redamage damaged hair (how many times can I say damage lol).

With a relaxer, you will damage the hair once and it will not (if you have a good stylist) be damaged again. So your 5% stays there. If you have relaxer reapplied to your already relaxed hair then you will have some problems. Yes people do straighten relaxed hair too, but this will not require as much heat or as many passes of the iron.  

Is there a fail safe method to straighten hair?

There is no fail safe method. I do think that if your hair has a larger more regular curl or is less kinky (ringlet forming or wavy hair) then the chances of serious damage from heat is low (because the heat needed to achieve the result is low). If heat is used very occassionally then this too is also safer (not safe).

Please note, I am NOT against straightening natural hair on occassion, the problem in my opinion arises if you regularly and repeatedly use high heat. Essentially natural hair works if you do not stray far from its default texture majority of the time.


  1. Thank you so very much JC.
    It all makes sense to me. When my hair was relaxed, it wasnt healthy at all because it was beyond damaged from overlapping relaxers, frying with heat and coloring (bleaching) multiple times. It would break off and never grow past my shoulders. But now I know why!

    I think I'm gonna go ahead and do it soon. If I dont like it I can always change it :)

  2. Interesting post...

    I'm not sure which method is better. Regularly relaxing or straightening hair can cause hair AND scalp damage. I'm not sure which is worst/better: constant heat or constant chemicals.

    Similar to the way that some hair doesn't take to heat straightening methods, some hair doesn't take to relaxers either... so you run the risk of leaving the relaxer on too long, over processing, etc, etc. And, often, many relaxed heads use heat in-between relaxers to "touch-up" their 'do or to curl their hair. So, now that means heat & chemicals are in rotation.

    I've recently big chopped because I decided that I just didn't want to go through the time, effort, and money to try to get my hair to be a texture that it did not want to be.

    But I do not turn my nose up to anyone who has fabulous relaxed or heat straightened. If you can make your hair work, flaunt it! =)

  3. I know what you mean hairgrease. This is why I say a relaxer correctly done is preferred(i.e not bone straight on hair that cannot take bone straight and never applying it to the scalp).

    Ultimately with heat or chemicals there is no fail safe so bottom line, they are both risks.

  4. Speaking of hair straightening.. I have a question. I did some experimenting with mixing baby food with my conditioner for my pre-poo. A couple of times bananas, another time carrots, and a few times before both of those I mixed yogurt with my conditioner. Now I have several patches of unusually undefined hair! When I first cut my relaxed hair after growing out my natural hair I saw that my texture seemed to be a mix of 4a and 3c - now I have patches that look like blow dryed hair.. even when it's dripping wet! Is it an acid overdose?! Will my hair revert back?! Help!

  5. I don't know anonymous. I am not sure why you say an acid overdose - did you find that mixing baby food caused the pH of the conditioner to change? Hair is actually a little bit acidic so it usually takes something alkaline to cause a straightening effect or heat.

    I think you need to examine what else you did with your hair. Did you heanna it - looser curls can be badly affected by henna? Did you heat straighten it after?

    I think you need to consider trying a simple routine and watch your hair over the next month and see if it changes. If it does not, it could just be that the loose wave is your texture (I don't know how long you have been natural but if it is a short time for example a big chop within the last 6 months, your hair may still be growing out and with length, it can appear different)

  6. I've always thought this,no offence but i never understood straight haired naturals/constant pressers- relaxers are damaging but there is no way that amount of heat regularly is not harmful. Might as well get a relaxer.

    My hair really can't bear heat

  7. JC you have hit the nail on the head! I have very tightly textured hair, 4B/Z coils that zigzag in no defined pattern and I've only straightened my hair 3 times in 3 years! But each of those times I flat-ironed, my hair sustained heat damage. There were straight strands all around the edges of my head (beside my ears) and in the back.

    My stylist said it would be "better" for me to relax my hair than to straighten it occasionally because although my hair seems quite coarse, it is actually very fragile.
    At the time, I thought she was just being difficult because the natural hair was difficult to blow-dry, then relax. But now, I see the essence of what she was saying.

  8. ummm.... your argument is flawed. You assume when one's hair is relaxed heat will not be used. Most relaxed people use heat on their hair every week as well. If one is relaxing AND using heat the damage would be worst then just heat straightening the hair. I would suggest like you a relaxer is better only if one will use heat free styles mostly. If not, then the heat straightening method would be better.

  9. Anon - I think you are making too many assumptions. The current best advice for relaxed hair is to wrap hair at night to give it body and keep it straight. I have not seen any person with decent relaxed hair advocate for weekly straightening.

    In fact, relaxed hair care is not too dissimilar to natural hair care. More and more ladies are opting for less heat and regular co washing. They style their hair in wash and gos, braid outs and bantu knot outs.

    However even if people did follow a weekly straightening routine as you suggest, they would definitely require much less heat with it because relaxed or texturised hair is structurally able to become straight without much coaxing. This is unlike natural hair where people will often use high heat on a flat iron or go thorough multiple heat tools such as blowdry, rollerset and flat iron.

  10. I respect your opinion. But some of your ideas are wrong again. Just like realexed hair should be wrapped. Straightened kinky hair should also be wrapped to maintain a straight look. Which works great as well.

    Although weekly straightening should not be advocated it is current practice. Anyone that goes to professional on a weekly basis will be exposed to heat. Now if you do not believe rollersets count as heat then your points are valid, but I consider sitting under a dryer heat.

    But from observation many women do use heat once a week (or atleast biweekly) to blowdry or flat iron or rollerset (esp those that go to a salon on a weekly or biweekly basis). That is how most women handle relaxed hair. If you go to a salon they don't even advocate airdrying relaxed hair.

    (Don't get me wrong I'm transitioning and I did alot of heat free styles but that was only after exposure to websites)

    Also Haircare forums are not representative of black women and hair care. Most of the people I know don't even know about hair forums or blogs. This is something relatively new to mainstream black society. (I'm from Miami, FL not a small town in no where land. And I went to a large university and was part of a sorority. So I was around alot of women and learned many of their hair routines out of interest. I know it is a small sample size but I feel that it is ok given the University had mainly out of state women. )

    And even though relaxed hair may require less heat. Many people blow dry at a high setting regardless. Alot of the fancy flat irons have 1 setting. I've been to several salons in my time and they use the same heat level regardless. And to straighten kinky hair it goes through the same steps (roller set, blow dry, flat iron). I honestly do not believe kinky hair is treated that much differently (besides the detangling process which if not done properly can be damaging. i've never seen the pressing process so that may be more harsh. Can't speak on that).

  11. All I am saying is this. If one wants to get a relaxer and treat their hair like with little or no heat then sure maybe it is less damaging. But if one is going to relax the hair and use heat weekly of even bi weekly it can and will be more damaging then just using constant heat on natural hair.

    I do enjoy your blog and keep up with the good work! It is the first natural hair blog that I've learned alot from. :)

    But sometimes alot of naturlista's forget that they are the vanguard and alot of the ideas openly advocated about hair care on forums is not the norm in the hair industry as whole or even daily practice among black women i.e. cowashing, flat iron usage, blow drying, air drying, stretching relaxers. All of this is really knew and alot of women just go to the stylist to do their hair and we all know alot of stylists do not follow these techniques (maybe only advocating rollersets but they still tend to blowdry after).

    That is all I want to say. lol

    Also many people don't even give a relaxer correctly many times overlapping and what not but I guess your assumption is perfect use.

  12. Anon you are very welcome to disagree, this is why a debate is possible.

    I only speak of good hair practice and this is why I specified a good hair stylist to relax hair. I agree with you on overlapping relaxers causing grave damage and highlighted my own hair loss when relaxed.

    Yes this post is based on the best relaxed hair advice which is relax once only, wash and condition as normal, minimise handling and heat.

  13. Hahaha I just came back to read this. Its all cool. Forgive my lack of proofreading. We just need to all be clear about our assumptions. Thank you for answering everything back so quickly.

  14. I know this is an old post, but I beg to differ. When the hair is being relaxed, you not only sustain damage to the hair strands but the chemicals affect the scalp and hair follicles themselves. This means eventual thinning of the hair or even hair loss.

    Relaxing the hair affects the disulfide bond which is the second strongest bond in the hair as opposed to the hydrogen bonds (the weakest bonds) that are broken with heat. When you are using heat, you can't have the dial on the flat iron turned all the way up everytime that you straighten your hair. Because heat does have a softening effect on the natural curl pattern, less and less heat should be used with repetitive usage of the flat iron over time. I still believe that heat is a better alternative to relaxers if used properly.

    Most naturals use heat on their natural hair thinking that it's a one time thing, so their hair won't sustain any damage at all. In fact they'll use the highest setting, because they think they're hair is in its natural state and can take it. Wrong! Then they wonder why they have heat damage? It's silly. Heat has already changed the structure of the hair with that one use. Naturals who don't know how to use heat, give it a bad rep.

    To be honest, you just have to learn what works best for your hair. People with kinky hair cannot wear it straight all the time. So even if they are using heat, they have to mix it up with some heatless styles. It's all about balance.

  15. Anon - There are factual inaccuracies in your comment

    1. There is no conclusive evidence that relaxers damage the follicles, in truth it is only a theory. Most women who have relaxed their hair previously or who are relaxing their hair do not have a problem growing hair. Thinning is usually a result of misuse and overlapping of relaxers.

    2. Disulfide bonds are not the second strongest bonds in hair. C-C and C-H bonds also exist and these are much stronger than S-S bonds. The disulfide bond is actually regarded by chemists as a weak bond.

    3. The disulfide bond does get damaged with heat and the reason why thermal straightening can permanently straighten hair is because heat breaks peptide and disulfide bonds (a process known as fission).

    I agree with your last paragraph - repeated use or high heat is not ideal for hair, even hair that is naturally straight.

  16. I got my information from another site, but it didn't go too in depth. They only mentioned there being 4 bonds in the hair - peptide, disulfide, salt, and hydrogen bonds, peptide bonds being the "strongest". (This was from an article written early this year, eeks)Your explanation makes sense though. There's so much misinformation going around!

    As for relaxers, I just find them too risky with the chance for chemical burns and it seems very likely that the chemicals are doing much more than affecting the actual hair. Thanks for responding, I enjoy reading what you have to say on this blog.

  17. Hi JC -
    I love your blog! So much great information. I wanted to ask you this very question.

    I have extremely, thick "Oprah" like hair and I was considering going natural because of a bad perm that I put in. I overlapped the perm in some sections which caused the breakage/damage. The day I saw a ton of my hair going down the drain after that mishap, I decided no more perms. But I often wondered what would be more damaging, the heat that was necessary to straighten my hair or my Phyto relaxer. While transitioning I went through a lot trama and I wondered if it was worth it. It seemed as if I lost so much hair when detangling because of those dreaded single-strand knots (or in my case multi strand knots) In fact, I lost more hair detangling than I did during my relaxer mishap. And even though my hair is thinner than it was prior to my perm mishap, fortunately for me I still have a ton of hair but nothing seemed to moisturize it enough to prevent those dreaded tangling sessions.

    Everything that I read on hair blogs never seemed to work for me b/c my hair is so heavy and thick. I tried to add aloe vera juice to my conditioner after a light protein treatment and my hair started to dreadlock! In the past, I never applied much heat to my hair b/c I was never good at flat ironing so I usually used caruso steam rollers for curls. In the end, I got another touch-up but if I can find a way to avoid those single strand knots (in my case multi-strand knots) I will love to go relaxer-free.

  18. JC,

    I agree with your analysis. I had this very same discussion with someone a couple of months ago, and this is the exact view that I expressed. However, I did acknowledge that results will vary from person to person. She says her hair is now growing much better after giving up relaxers and turning to regular blowdrying /flatironing. I know of people (including on the hair boards) who were heat-using naturals, whose hair has turned around for the better after switching to a judicious & informed use of relaxers.

    It's all about finding a way to do the least harm to your particular hair. My fragile, fine (but super-duper dense) strands seem to dislike both heat and relaxers, so I'm stuck with shrinkage and tangles! I'll get there though. I'm thinking of using stretching methods like banding combined with products like Curlaways, with the use of occasional and mild heat.

  19. my routine for straightening natural and straightening relaxed hair is exactly the same. wash, condition, blow dry, flat iron, then wrap at night to keep it straight. either way it lasts 1-2 weeks. one is just without chemicals. i've never had a relaxer that made my hair so straight that i didn't need to use heat.


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