History of the Relaxer
Relaxer, perm, creamy crack, and the white stuff. These are all names used to refer to Relaxers. The relaxer was concocted by Garret A. Morgan, a child of former slaves in 1877 in Paris Kentucky(i). Contrary to much belief Madam CJ Walker did NOT invent relaxers or perms(ii). This is not to say that she didn’t play an integral role in the beauty and cosmetic industry, but this misconception that she invented the relaxer is untrue. Relaxers were designed as a topical cream used to make African-American hair more “manageable” (their words, not mine) by smoothing out the hair follicle in a way to force the naturally curly textured hair straight (iii). Yup that just about sums it all up.
This isn’t high school and I’m not a kid, the term paper flow isn’t happening on this site. So instead of me giving you a term paper description of Relaxers since inception, I’m going to do something a bit different. Relaxers have seen many decades, many years and styles. This chemical has been celebrated for years. Below you will see the timeline of the Relaxers highs and lows.
–1913 Garret A. Morgan founds G.A Morgan Hair Refining Company: The Company’s premier product was the hair relaxer product. This was the forefront and face of G.A Morgan Hair Refining Company. This product was based with alkaline chemicals and soap that contained lye.
–1970’s Lye Relaxers: Lye relaxer is officially produced into Relaxer mixture. Lye straightened the hair alright, did it so good it broke down the protein structure in the hair which resulted in thinning and early signs of alopecia.
–Late 1970’s-early 80′s Living in No-Lye Relaxers: Johnson Products Company, Inc. introduces the Gentle Treatment, the first no-lye relaxer. This relaxer was pushed to not only encourage all that relaxers were good for your hair, but they were now better due to them being No-Lye. This also spun up Herbal and Botanical hair relaxers from companies like Soft & Beautiful (i).
–Early-Mid 1990’s Don’t forget the Rio: I remember this one. I was probably no more than 8 when this infomercial came on boasting about all these benefits of this relaxer sweeping the nation called Rio Hair Naturlizer System. I remember thinking to myself “Wow, I sure wish I had hair like those women”. Thank God I didn’t get my wish. The relaxer industry took a BIG hit (however not big enough to get people to stop using relaxers) when this relaxer stood in the way of a Class Action Law suit against World Rio Corporation. After 53,000 filed cases arose from people using the product suffering from scalp burns, hair loss and green hair (iv); this relaxer was taken off of the market. When I think about this scare I always remember the running joke of “Sure hope that’s not a Rio” being stated when someone walked past a woman with unhealthy hair. Although this incident raised many questions about the safety of chemicals such as copper, ammonium and chloride salts being in relaxers, the industry still didn’t take a nose dive(v). Go figure.
–2009 Good Hair movie by Chris Rock is released: This movie shined a little light on Relaxers and perms within the African-American community. During a segment of the movie Chris Rock visits a scientist and asks him if Relaxers are safe to be used on humans. He does an interesting test of soaking a soda can in the compounds that make up a relaxer. The most surprising result out of this little science experiment is that the last soda can out of 3 totally dissenergrated within the mixture. As shocking as this image was I still didn’t stop relaxing my hair, along with many other women.
– 2010 Marks the 100 year anniversary of Hair Relaxers: How do we celebrate this chemical that has been around for as long as our great-grandparents? We go NATURAL. During this time the “Natural Hair Movement” as some will call it hit a SPIKE. Between the increase of YouTube channels and natural product entrepreneurs popping up every time you hit refresh; relaxers were finally being told to move over, there was a new Curly Sherriff in town. This collective group didn’t need to relax or be manageable in order to exist. There was another pivotal shift in Relaxers during the 100th year anniversary. Due to all of the buzz and key words being put in Google within the Natural Hair Community (NHC), Relaxers took a turn towards conscious care. More companies such as Soft & Beautiful, Dark and Lovely, and Soft Sheen Carson, began incorporating olive, argon, tea tree oil and a slew of other ingredients prominate in the Natural Hair Community into relaxers.
–2011 to Present Day: Relaxers are still incorporating the Natural key ingredients on the boxes of their products. Just goes to show what a little empowerment can do to an industry living off of you. As the percentages of naturals rise the decrease in sales of relaxers will continue to slide. This industry can stand for a good reevaluation if you ask me, but for now it seems to be implementing more conscious ways to maintain relevance. Take a look at the lovely slideshow below of all the new oil ingredients in the perms now. If at any point individuals in the Natural Hair Community questioned their influence, I dare you to stroll down that perm isle and see exactly how much of a difference you make. Perms with olive oil included boasting great health results is like telling a child to never look both ways while crossing the street and hopefully they’ll only get hit by a car and not a truck.
Relaxers have a major competitor, it’s the woman who wants another option outside of straight “manageable” hair. This woman is looking for something new and I don’t mean a new celebrity on the relaxer box. No one knows the next stop for Relaxers. They have 100 years of being in business and to be honest that’s a lot of time to perfect this mixture and get it right. However, I would be remissed if I didn’t tell you I was waiting for the day when all African-American women decided another way for themselves. Relaxers have had a good run, but it doesn’t take much for you to notice your hair growth is being stunted, the health is questionable at times and the whole feel good impression in your hair leaves after 1 or 2 weeks. We can’t determine where Relaxers will go into the future but I know based off of this timeline they have some competition ahead of them.No matter if you relax or rock your hair in its natural state we can’t ever lose sight of health first and everything else second. The history of relaxers is not over yet. I’m interested to see what’s next for the beauty industry and this chemical implanted as a tradition in our community.
(i) History of Hair Relaxers. Retrieved Feb 2012: http://www.ehow.com/about_5098213_history-hair-relaxers.html
(ii) Madam CJ Walker. Retrieved Feb 2012: http://www.madamcjwalker.com/faqs/#10
(iii) Relaxer. Retrieved Feb 2012: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Relaxer
(iv) Ayana D. Byrd; Lori L. Tharps (30 November 2006). Hair Story: Untangling the Roots of Black Hair in America. Diane Pub Co. p. 95.
(v) Zook, Kristal Brent (January 7, 1996). “Get out of our hair: Untangling the politics on top of the black woman’s head“, The Washington Post, pp. C1.
Living in the Curl of it…
Diana (aka DRamZ84)