It's something every woman thinks about and most spend a lot of money on: how to wear your hair.
"Hair is everything to a woman. It begins our outfits, it begins our self-esteem, it defines our prettiness, it defines who we are," said Shawntel Waajid, co-owner of The Nappy Hutt natural hair salon in Savannah.
For black women it's even more complicated.
More and more black women are wearing their hair natural, meaning hair not chemically straightened. You may have noticed it at work, on blogs and social media; we found out there's a very good reason for this growing trend.
Hair is a multi-billion dollar industry, and according to Target Market News (which researches the black consumer market), black consumers spend an estimated $6.6 billion on personal care products and services.
But when it comes to all the products we put in our hair as black women, is it all just going down the drain?
Rosita Fagan chemically straightened her hair for years. She said it caused damage and showed me where she had a patch of hair that wasn't growing properly from the chemicals. She eventually cut all of her hair back and grew it natural.
"My hair is thicker,” Fagan said. “I naturally have thicker hair, but with the relaxer I could see that it broke.
And she said she would never relax her hair again.
"Once I went back to natural, the thickness is back, it feels healthier," she said. "I just feel like I never want to relax my hair ever again."
Fagan is one of the clients at The Nappy Hutt in Savannah, which specializes in natural styles for black women like braids, afros or dreadlocks.
“Today it seems to be a trend, but to me it’s not a trend," said Jibril Waajid, co-owner of The Nappy Hut, and Shawntel’s husband. "It's very important, culturally-wise, because it definitely depicts a certain image of an individual."
The Waajids opened the salon in Savannah almost five years ago after they discovered there was a need for a salon to style natural black hair and to teach black women to care for their hair.
Black hair is often densely curled, and at The Nappy Hutt, they say they often hear women say that it's too much hair to manage, or they don't know how to take care of it.
That's where they come in.
"My main passion is to have individuals to embrace a characteristic that has been within our culture for so very long, and I think it's just needed," Jabril said. "But also educating people in the workplace, such as your managers, because right now it's become a really big phenomenon to where a lot of people
are transitioning, they're going natural, so it's being accepted worldwide."
Several of the stylists at the Nappy Hutt say their clients express concerns about going natural because they're afraid they won't be accepted by their friends and family with their natural hair, and they fear it could impact them in the workplace.
But stylist Melissa Bynoe said natural hair is just as acceptable as any other style.
"Everyone on this planet that we live on doesn't have straight, silky hair growing out their head," she said. "The color of your skin shouldn't matter, and your hair, the texture of your hair, shouldn't matter. When you get a job, the person is hiring you for your intelligence, your natural beauty, your wits, all of these things are what matter; your hair should be the last thing."
And when it comes to your hair, the stylists at the Nappy Hutt say having healthy hair is the most important thing.
"At The Nappy Hutt our philosophy literally is health of the hair first and style last," said Shawntel Waajid. "We were literally repair artists versus hair stylists. A lot of people were here because they'd been through every tragedy under the sun. We were growing people's hair."
They say part of having healthy hair, and good overall health, is about paying attention to what products you use.
"Your natural-based ingredients are basically derived from plant derivatives,” Jabril said. “Hair needs protein and moisture, and it needs a balance, and natural hair needs more moisture than protein.”
Trying to find that balance can be difficult at times Jabril said, but knowing what’s inside the product is very important. So when you’re in a salon or a store shopping for hair products, take a look at the labels.
Just like with food products, if there’s something on the label you can’t pronounce, it might not be that good for you and you may want to look it up.
"The first three ingredients tell you what's in the product, so if you see alcohol or ingredients that are not compatible to the hair, they shouldn't deal with it," Jabril said.
So what is a relaxer?
It's usually a white creamy product and it changes the chemical makeup of your hair to straighten it permanently. Most women get it done every six to eight weeks just at the roots when they grow out.
But some stylists say their clients who have gotten relaxers experience burns, breakage, and bald spots.
“It’s hard for them, and it’s really heartbreaking because they’re used to having thick hair, and now they have to look at their scalps with patches throughout, and it’s really hard for me to see them hurt like that, but they didn’t know. That’s the sad part, no one knew what it was doing to their body at the time,” said Nappy Hut stylist Melissa Bynoe.
But Bynoe said now there is plenty of research and information about the negative effects of relaxers.
"If you got that knowledge and you still choose to continue putting that relaxer in your hair, whatever the future is for your hair, you kind of set yourself up for that," she said.
Jabril said some research shows negative effects of relaxers beyond just hair loss.
"Where they found that sodium hydroxide would definitely basically penetrate the skin and go into the scalp, and it would leave a gummy substance in between the scalp and the brain," he said. "So it is known that chemical hair relaxers, it does damage. Not only to women's scalp but also to their thyroids."
And that's why at The Nappy Hutt they warn women not to get any chemical relaxers, ever.
“For instance, when a woman is pregnant she’s told not to get a relaxer, and why? Because it also affects the baby.”
And once your hair is relaxed you can't go back, which is why many women choose to cut it all off and start back natural. It’s called the “big chop”.
“I parted it in two pony tails, and I just braided it down and hacked it off, and that was the end of it," said Bynoe.
Even our own Georgiaree Godfrey has gone natural, taking the plunge and cutting off her hair.
"You're beautiful regardless, you are not your hair," Godfrey said. "This is a drastic change for me. I'm used to having long hair. I've always had long hair, so to have short hair now and having to embrace it, I just realized that, hey, it doesn't define me."
Now she’s reporting the news with her new short hair look.
"You're still pretty whether your hair is short and in an afro, or it's long, luxurious locs,” she said. “It's not a reflection of who you are. I think our hair is awesome, we can do so much with it, it's so versatile, . So why not appreciate it and uplift it?"
And with so many black women choosing to rock their natural hair, the question now is why do some people choose to still straighten it? And do stylists who do relaxers think they’re bad?
We went to the Cornerstone Salon in Savannah, where they do natural and relaxed hair, and asked the owner, Devalon Young, if she thinks relaxers are inherently bad or dangerous.
"A relaxer, inherently, is a chemical that’s very strong,” she said. “It is lye, which is sodium hydroxide, so technically any chemical out there is bad, but it’s really how a person uses it. It’s really how a consumer gets it applied by a professional. I always recommend any chemical services, be it relaxers, permanent waves or hair colors actually be done by a professional."
She admits, relaxers can be harmful sometimes, causing burns, irritation and damaging the hair.
"In the wrong hands, yes it can be bad," she said.
But she said it is perfectly safe when done by a professional hairstylist.
"The application of the relaxer, no it’s not bad if done properly," said Young.
Young said they do consultations with all customers at the Cornerstone Salon. They make sure each hair treatment is specialized to the individual, and she said there are reasons some customers may choose to get a chemical relaxer.
"The reasons to do it is convenience,” Young said. “A lot of times when you do have a natural curl pattern, depending on how tight the curl pattern is, it's a lot of maintenance," she said. "After a while as the hair grows out and gets fuller, a lot of people will get to the point where they say 'I just can't control this, I just need my hair to be more manageable,' and by manageable it has to fit into their lifestyle.
“You can't spend an hour doing your hair before work and be late all the time. So having that straight look that they desire, chemical straightening with the relaxer would actually do that."
Sometimes black women who wear their hair natural still straighten it occasionally, using high-heat from a blow dryer or flat-iron. Blowout/Blow-dry bars have become more popular lately as well.
But anyone with natural hair will tell you: it doesn't last long. The hair will often go back to its natural curly ways within hours or days. So Young says chemically relaxing it is a viable alternative for some women to ensure the hair won't curl back up.
"The majority of the time, if people want to maintain a straight look without having to worry about the curl reversion after they workout or the humidity in the region, then the best thing for them to do is actually get a chemical relaxer," she said.
Zoe Vatekeh is one of Yong’s clients. She says she wears her hair in all types of styles, including occasionally getting a chemical relaxer.
“I might just be going for a certain look, it’s what I’m wanting to wear at that particular time," she said.
Vatekeh only gets a relaxer twice a year.
"I want a certain look for a certain event or a certain activity or something that might be taking place, and I want a different look for that," she said.
And she agrees with Young: relaxers are fine— if done right.
"If you’re not a professional you should not try it," she said.
There are some keys to getting a good relaxer that won't damage the hair, according to Young.
First, try more mild relaxers.
"If you use a strong one, it's going to really strip the hair to the point where it would break off," she said.
Also, don't get your hair relaxed too often. Many black women get their hair relaxed, or chemically straightened, every six to eight weeks.
Young recommends only getting a chemical relaxer "once a season," or only four times a year.
"Giving their hair [time] to get longer and stronger and actually grow, so that you have
new growth, that will give you stronger healthier hair in the long run," she said.
Another important tip: make sure you use a pre conditioner and post conditioner, and work to "maintain" the hair, or take care of it in-between the relaxers.
"Maintenance is key," Young said. "I tell the clients this is a partnership, we have to work together."
Lastly, Young said you have to customize the relaxer to the individual. Figure out what works for you, but always use professional products. Don't buy a product off the shelf; research who you have doing your hair and what products they use, Young said.
"It's really up to the individual," said Young. "It's really you as an individual finding the right stylist for you, but relaxers aren't bad."
And as for the idea that black women who straighten their hair are hiding from their natural identity and not being true to themselves, Young said that's just not true.
"It's all preference, cosmetics are cosmetics,” she said. “I'm in the field of cosmetology, and that means expressing your outward beauty, it's what you desire. No one can dictate how you desire to look and how you desire to feel. So if you want to wear your hair straight chemically, where you don't have to
worry about it reverting back to its curl, and you can get it done by a professional and it's in a healthy manner, than I say go for it, it’s just your choice."
So what do the experts say? We spoke to Dr. E. Ronald Finger from Hair Restoration Savannah.
"We see a lot of black women," he said.
And a lot of the black women Finger treats for hair loss are from putting chemicals in the hair
"Anything that damages the scalp can damage the hair follicle, and it will stop growing hair."
But there’s something that’s worse.
"In my practice, the most common cause of baldness are the braids and the cornrows, because it literally pulls the hair out," he said.
Finger said harsh chemicals from relaxers and hair dyes can cause what's called scar alopecia, where the scalp actually gets scared. You can also get what's called traction alopecia where the hair is pulled out from braids that are too tight, and the hair won't' grow back.
At that point it might be too late to regrow the hair, but that's when patients often see Finger for any hope at hair-growth again.
"I see it all the time, and of course they come in and I have to do what I can to treat it," he said.
And having harsh chemicals, heat, and tight up-dos damage the hair is something that could affect everyone, not just black women.
"It's not limited to black women by any means,” he said. “Tight pony tails will pull your hair out, and if you keep pulling the hair out, eventually the follicle says 'ok fine, you don't' want any hair? I'm not going to produce any hair,’" he said.
Dr. Finger said black women CAN wear their hair in braids without damaging the hair, if the braids are not too tight. And women can also use chemical relaxers without permanently causing hair loss, if the chemicals never touch the scalp.
His advice is similar to Devalon Young’s: he says you should consult a professional when using strong chemicals on your hair.
"Talk to whoever is dyeing their hair, get someone experienced who knows what they're doing,” he said.
Most relaxers come in mild to high strength. Finger and Young both recommend you use more mild ones, if possible. It's also best to try to avoid products with parabens, alcohol, or sulfate.
In terms of tight braids damaging the hair more than relaxers, stylists at The Nappy Hutt say their braiding technique does not damage the hair. And they're working to change the stereotype that straight long hair is more beautiful.
“It’s always been the longer your hair is, the prettier that you are,” said Shantel. “That’s just not the case. The healthier your hair is should be technically the prettier that you are."
Something all of the stylists we spoke to seem to agree on: wanting black women to feel beautiful no matter how they wear their hair.
"Be you. Of course you want to look pleasing to the eye, but look pleasing to the eye when it pleases you." Devalon Young.
"Your natural born characteristics are beautiful, whether you wear it natural or you choose to wear it straight. It depicts really what’s inside of you," said Jibril.
I’ve worn my hair in many different hairstyles, from braids and other natural styles, to using relaxers, and even wigs and weaves. I’ll probably continue to wear my hair in different styles.
How you wear your hair is your choice as well. Make sure you find a hairdresser that makes you feel comfortable, and discuss what products they're using on your hair.
Copyright 2016 WTOC. All rights reserved.
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