What’s worse: chemically straightening hair or blowing hair out and flat ironing it 2–3 times per week? I know they’re both bad, but is there a lesser of the two evils?
The Right Brain Replies:
Chemically straightening is about the worst thing you can do to your hair. That’s because the first step in the hair straightening process breaks apart the protein bonds in hair.
Breaking those bonds allows you to take the curl out of the hair but it’s very harmful because not all the bonds are repaired. So, your hair is left much weaker after straightening.
Blow drying and ironing are harmful too, but they’re much less damaging than chemical attacks. Plus, you can use heat protection products that will help cut down on the damage.
The Beauty Brains bottom line
You can iron your hair straight many times before you’ll equal the damage from chemically straightening it one time.
NOLA Darling says…
As Denise pointed out [in recent comment on this post], a chemical relaxer “rearranges” the hair bonds, permanently smoothing the cuticle so that the hair remains straight. While the hair may be permanently altered, it is not damaged in the sense of split ends and breakage one gets with regular use of a flat iron. As a black woman with 3B hair (i.e., tight corkscrew ringlets) living in the most humid place in the country, who has used both the flat iron and a chemical relaxer to straighten my hair, I (and any hair stylist specializing in “black hair”) will attest to the fact that regular flat ironing is far more damaging. When I decided to start wearing my hair straight for work, I had to flat iron it at least twice a week to keep it frizz free, and every time I washed it, I had to blow dry before using the flat iron. Well the cumulative effect of all that heat and tension was lots of split ends (even after use “heat protecting serum”). Once I relaxed my hair, which is a one‐time process combined with regular “touch ups” on the new growth, my need for heat styling lessened severely as well as the associated breakage and split ends. Right Brain, this was clearly a question you should have sought a few expert opinions before responding.
The Right Brain responds:
Thanks calling us out on this NOLA. We encourage our readers to push back when they disagree with something we’ve said. You raised a couple of points that we thought were worthy of a follow up post.
Can’t take the heat
In the first point NOLA (and Denise?) took issue with our statement that “chemically straightening is about the worst thing you can do to your hair” and that “blow drying and ironing are harmful too, but they’re much less damaging than chemical attacks.” I’ll stand by my statement that in general, the damage caused by chemical relaxer is worse than damaged resulting from heat styling. However, NOLA makes an excellent case for why this is not true for her specific situation. This is because her tightly curled hair requires SIGNIFICANT manipulation to get it straight without chemical processing. The combination of successive sessions of brushing/combing, blowdrying, and high temperature ironing, does create a tremendous amount of cumulative damage. If her hair was only slightly kinky and she didn’t have to work so hard to straighten it physically, the result would be different.
Relaxers wreck cuticles
The second is a minor, but important, technical distinction. NOLA (quoting Denise) said that “relaxer rearranges hair bonds, permanently smoothing the cuticle so that the hair remains straight.” While relaxers do straighten hair by rearranging bonds, it’s important to understand that these are the disulfide bonds inside hair (in a region called the cortex.) The cuticles (the outer “shingle‐like” covering of your hair are NOT smoothed by relaxers, in fact, if anything, relaxers can tend to disrupt the cuticles by lifting them up due to alkaline swelling of the hair.
The Beauty Brains bottom line
So there you have it. Heat styling hair CAN be worse than relaxing. Thanks to NOLA for sharing her point of view and giving us a chance to clarify our point.
Ladies, in your experience, does your hair suffer more from relaxer damage or heat damage?