Although it may seem like the hair scales have completely tilted in favor of curly girl domination, chemical relaxers–or creams that semi-permanently straighten hair–are still very much a thing. With any hair texture, curly or straight, establishing a routine that will keep strands healthy, hydrated, and full, requires a hell of a lot of work. For those who don’t have the time or interest to put into a multistep style or care routine, relaxers may seem like an easy fix, but it’s actually the opposite.
When any kind of chemical is involved, hair is instantly compromised—so your daily habits are crucial for maintaining the integrity and health of your mane. So if you’re someone who swears by a relaxer every couple of months, hairstylist Pekela Riley has some helpful info on exactly how to keep your locks luscious through it all.
Perfect the Process
One of the most important things you can do for relaxed hair is stick to a consistent touch-up schedule. Although it varies from person to person, six to 10 weeks is the general range of time that you should go between treatments. Even if you feel like your roots are growing out fast and you’re due for a touch-up, stick it out and don’t re-treat too soon. It can lead to serious damage.
“Parts of the hair can be over-processed and under-processed, which creates uneven tension and break points when not relaxed consistently,” Riley cautions. Also try to avoid any overlap, which is when the relaxer is put on the previous section of hair that has already been treated. Make sure the formula is applied to new growth at the root.
Don’t Erase the Texture
Relaxers have always had a degree of healthiness to them, and because fewer stylists are doing them these days, they’re taking the time to become more educated on the application and how to make them healthier for hair. Where relaxers can go all wrong is when you try to make the strands too straight.
“There was a time when people would get mad if their hair wasn’t bone straight via a relaxer, which takes a lot of processing time. This extreme demand for straight hair led to the misuse of relaxers,” says Riley.
Relaxers were meant to relax a curl or wave, not straighten it out, which ultimately eliminates its elasticity. “The intention was to relax it enough to do a roller set, blow-dry, or style it. The relaxer was a process to aid in styling ability,” says Riley. She always warns against combining keratin treatments with relaxers, because it’s just too much for hair to handle.
Color with Caution
If you want to add color on top of your relaxer, stick to either a semi or demi-permanent dye—never permanent color, which is bound to cause breakage. “The exception is if you have really short hair, like a pixie—you can cut the hair faster than the rate of damage,” Riley notes.
Add metallic dyes that you mix with water do the list of don’ts as well. They don’t interact well with relaxed hair. Some spray- on hair colors that have metallic pigments in them should be avoided as well.
If you want to play with color, consider your style or cut. Natural hair allows for more color. There’s an option to have both relaxed and natural texture at the same time. “For a lot of women with medium and short length hair that needs relaxing on the back and sides — I leave the top and crown natural to have color. This merges the best of both worlds,” says Riley.
Try the Texturizing Method
A texturizer and regular relaxer are the same chemically. Often texturizers are mild relaxers. The difference is the timing instruction, as texturizers don’t sit on the hair for as long. The texturizer processing time is fractional, which allows it just enough time to smooth the curl, versus a regular relaxer, which erases all waves and curls completely out of the hair.
Any texture can withstand a mild or normal relaxer. The variation comes with the degree of processing time needed, which should be adjusted according to the texture. The rule of thumb is you should only use the lowest strength of relaxer you need, so you have time to apply properly without over-processing.
Look for Signs of Damage
Relaxed hair becomes unhealthy when it’s over-processed. Over-processing happens when the hair is broken down more than it should be, past the point where the keratin protein, naturally found in hair strands, is compromised.
All hair textures and styles, relaxed and curly, have the same fundamental needs. Riley calls them the Power 3s: moisture, protein and essential oils. “With curly hair, the curl in and of itself represents elasticity, so it can expand and contract back into place,” she says.
Relaxed hair takes out too much of the elasticity so it cannot return into place without breaking. It becomes like a stick—if you try to pull on it, it can only break; there’s no wave, curl, or recoil for it to contract back into place. Curly hair can stretch sometimes twice as much as relaxed hair without breaking. “You can tell it’s not healthy because it will be limp or mushy and very easily broken,” says Riley.
Maintain Your Mane
No matter what your texture style, curly or straight, keeping your ends trimmed will prevent splitting and breakage. Riley also suggests rotating among the power 3s, in three-week intervals: Do a moisture treatment the first week, switch to a protein treatment the second week, and for the third, swap in essential oils.
Also, keep heat styling on relaxed hair to a minimum. Any hair is susceptible to heat damage, but relaxed hair is even more vulnerable. If you’re going to use a curling or flat iron, set the temp to the lowest option. “You never ever need hot heat on relaxed hair,” says Riley.