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  • Consumer's Guide to Perms and Relaxers 

To understand how perms and relaxers work, it would be helpful to familiarize ourselves with what our hair is made of. Each hair shaft is made of hundreds of thousands of dead cells, one overlap the order much like the scales on a fish. The dead cells are mainly a derivative of a protein called keratin and together, they form a protective shield for the hair shaft similar to the top layer of our skin. In a healthy virgin hair shaft, each cuticle cell overlaps and align perfectly with one another to lock in the moisture, oil and chemical consistency in our hair. And this is what gives our hair that silky, smooth sheen.

  "Hair with chemical treatment"       "Healthy hair without chemicals"
rhod-PR-1.jpg (28864 bytes)

When the cuticle cells and chemical consistency in our hair are altered, problem occurs.

Although the end results are quite the opposite, perms and relaxers work in more or less the same way. Most perms and relazers are formulated with alkaline solution that breaks the chemical bonds that hold the hair's protein molecules together. Once the inherent bond and cellular consistency of a hair shaft has been  chemically torn apart, we can then mold and reshape the hair by means of rods and rollers.

Perms and relaxers are probably the harshest of all cosmetics. Few would forget what happened to Rio Hair Relaxers (reported in HairSite Consumer Alert) when the entire product line was banned by the FDA in mid 90s citing that Rio contains harsh chemicals that are unsafe to use. In fact, the FDA confirmed that there were more consumer complaints filed against Rio than any other cosmetic products in the U.S. They received over 3,000 cases of complaints since the product's was launched in 1995. Although the Rio product line was advertised as "chemical free", consumers reported numerous incidences of hair loss, severe scalp irritations, and a host of scalp and skin conditions.

If you are considering using either perms or relaxers, read the following first:

  • Not a good idea if you have existing scalp irritations,  inflammation or even a small scratch on your scalp. The chemicals will make it worse for you.
  • If you have androgenic alopecia, eg: male pattern baldness or female pattern baldness, don't believe that getting a perm is the way to go. While a perm can get you more volume and body in the short run, you may end up losing more hair because of the harsh chemicals in perms.
  • If you are on topical minoxidil, crinagen or any other topical treatment for hair loss, try to discontinue the topical treatment a day or two before the day you get your perm.
  • Try to schedule your chemical treatments (perms, relaxers, hair coloring etc) as INFREQUENTLY as possible. If you already have a color treatment not too long ago, it may not be a good idea to get a perm or relaxer since the chemical dyes may be altered by either treatment. A famous example is from Rio Hair Relaxers when some consumers found that the relaxers turn their color treated hair green. Many people over-process their hair and are paying the price dearly. Most hair stylists recommend that people should wait at least six weeks before they get another perm. But some doctors suggest that it would be better to wait at least eight weeks. If you can wait longer than eight weeks, even better.
  • Test the product first. Most manufacturers suggest doing a patch test on your arm. However, for a more reliable and accurate test, try to conduct the patch test near the hairline area or at the back of the head. Your scalp is more sensitive than the skin on your arm and running the test on your arm may not be a very reliable indication of how your scalp will react to the chemicals.
  • Follow the instructions religiously. Do not leave the chemicals on your scalp longer than the recommended time. You are dealing with harsh chemicals here and there is very little room for error.
  • Do not skip the neutralizing shampoo. This is probably the most important   step in the process. The neutralizing shampoo is intended to rinse off the chemicals on your scalp. Make sure your hair and scalp is completely rinsed off using the shampoo.
  • Note studies have concluded that salon perms and relaxers do not necessarily perfom better than the over-the-counter brands. Also, salon brands are not necessarily safer either.
  • Despite the above comment about salon perms and relaxers, it may still be a good idea to get the treatment at a salon as opposed to doing it yourself at home. Dripping is always a big hassle when it comes to do-it-yourself perms and relaxers and you do not want the chemicals to be in contact with your skin for any extended period of time. Doing it at a salon will definitely save you the trouble.
  • Statistics show that most people who developped adverse reactions to perms or relaxers are those who either do not follow the instructions properly or leave the chemicals on their scalp for longer than the recommended period.

One way to measure perms' harshness is by looking at its PH balance. Generally, most perms have ph balance ranging from 7.0 (same as distilled water) to about 9.5 (slightly alkaline). There is a misconception that salon perms will always do a better job and are a lot safer. In fact, there are studies showing that Ogilivie Precisely Right, an over-the-counter brand, achieve the same resutls as most salon perms and is a lot less expensive. Most brands in the market do a fairly good job turning straight hair into curls. Consumer Reports conducted a study on over ten name brands and voted Biolage Acid Wave as the overall best salon brand while Ogilivie Precisely Right was voted the overall best do-it-yourself brand.  The brands that were put to the test were:

Over-the-counter Brands Salon Brands
  • Ogilvie Precisely Right
  • Biolage Acid Wave
  • L'Oreal Premier Perm Dual Protection System
  • ISO option 1
  • Ogilvie Whisper Wave Soft Body Wave
  • Quantum Classic Body
  • Lilt Foam Normal, Thick or Hard to Wave
  • Toni Silkwave For Normal-to-Wave
  • Ogilvie Conditioning Home Permanent Regular Body
  • Ogilvie Conditioning Home Permanent Extra Body


Same with perms, PH balance is a good indication for harshness. Again, a ph balance of 7.0 would be neutral, like distilled water and the higher up the ph balance goes, the more alkaline the relaxers are. In addition to ph balance, consumers should also examine the lye (sodium hydroxide) contents in some of the relaxers. As a general rule, no-lye relaxers are a lot gentler on your skin and scalp. However, there are studies showing that several no-lye relaxers are actually as damaging as those that contain lye. Buyers have to be aware that lye content is not the conclusive test for harshness when it comes to relaxers. Consumer Report conducted a test on over ten hair relaxers products in the market. Almost all the brands did a very good job as  a hair straightener. The study indicated that Curl Free is the least damaging of all, followed by Rusk Radical. Among the brands that are marketed primarily to African-Americans, Bone Strait is the least damaging.  Consumer Reports concluded that among all the brands tested, Bone Strait is voted the overall best among all over-the-counter products while Rusk Radical is voted overall best among all salon brands.

Over-the-counter Brands Salon Brands
  • Bone Strait No-lye Relaxer
  • Rusk Radical Anticurl Original Forumla 1
  • Revlon Realistic Extra Conditioning Creme Relaxer System
  • Revlon Realistic Creme Relaxer System
  • Gentle Treatment No-lye Conditioning Creme Relaxer
  • Soft & Beautiful No-lye Conditioning Relaxer
  • Curl Free Natural Curl Relaxer
  • Dark & Lovely No-lye Conditioning Relaxer System
  • Creme of Nature no-lye Creme Relaxer System
  • African Pride Miracle Deep Conditioning No-lye Relaxer System
  • Alternatives No-lye Relaxer System
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