Hair relaxers are products designed to penetrate the strands and loosen the bonds that form the hair’s natural curls. There are three main types of relaxer products: lye hair relaxers, no-lye hair relaxers, and chemical-free or organic hair relaxers. Lye relaxer products contain sodium hydroxide, which is a powerful chemical that straightens the hair and provides long-lasting results. No-lye hair relaxers contain chemicals like potassium hydroxide, lithium hydroxide, guanidine hydroxide and ammonium thioglycolate. Chemical-free relaxers contain gentler ingredients like olive oil, shea butter and essential oils that alter the alkaline/acid balance, or pH, of the hair and loosen curls.
Lye relaxer products produce the most dramatic and long-lasting results. There are two types of lye relaxers: base and no-base relaxers. Base relaxers are stronger and require users to apply a layer of petroleum jelly to the scalp to protect the skin. No-base relaxers are less potent and can be applied directly to the roots of the hair. Both types of lye relaxers are very powerful and might damage the hair and scalp if applied incorrectly or too frequently.
No-lye relaxer products are less powerful, but are not usually as damaging as relaxers that contain sodium hydroxide. There are three types of no-lye hair relaxers. The first type is the most similar to lye relaxers, but contains less powerful relaxing agents like guanidine hydroxide, lithium hydroxide and potassium hydroxide. While these relaxer products are less damaging, it is important to realize that they still contain chemicals. If used incorrectly or on unhealthy hair, these chemicals can damage the hair and scalp.
The second type of no-lye relaxers are those that contain ammonium thioglycolate. These relaxers, which are sometimes called thio relaxers, work by loosening the cystine bonds located in the cortex of the hair. This type of product is very drying and should be followed by regular conditioning treatments.
Relaxers containing ammonium bisulfite and ammonium sulfite make up the last type of no-lye relaxer products. These products are typically the weakest of the no-lye relaxers and are less likely to irritate the skin. Due to their potency, relaxers containing ammonium bisulfite and ammonium sulfite are most commonly sold for at-home use.
Organic hair relaxers are also available. These relaxer products are used in salons as well as sold for at-home kits. Organic relaxers typically contain slightly alkaline ingredients like olive oil, shea butter, extracts and essential oils. While these products might not produce as dramatic results, they are much less likely to damage the hair. Women with dry or damaged hair, who might not be able to use harsh chemicals, can try an organic relaxer to make their hair more manageable.