Ditch Toxic Straighteners: Expert-Approved Ways to Straighten Textured Hair

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After recent reports linking hair relaxers to uterine cancers, many women with textured hair are ready to move away from toxic straightening. But out of the options available, what are the safest, most effective ways to straighten textured hair?

We spoke with textured hair-care experts to learn the safest options for straightening coily and kinky hair types, how to keep hair safe during and after straightening, and what to keep front of mind when choosing a method.

Studies Show Hair Relaxers are Toxic

This past year, The Sister Study released data collected on over 30,000 women who have used chemical hair relaxers. Their study showed that those who received the treatment four times or more a year were twice as likely to develop uterine cancer than those who do not. Those who used chemical relaxers frequently had a risk factor of about 4% for developing uterine cancer, a relatively rare kind of cancer, as opposed to the normal risk of about 1.6%.

Epidemiologist for the National Institute of Environmental Health and Sciences and author of the study, Alexandra White, MD, explains that more research is needed to know for sure how dangerous relaxers are. “This was the first epidemiologic evidence of an association between hair straighteners/relaxers and uterine cancer risk,” says Dr. White. “More studies are needed to confirm these findings, especially in racially and ethnically diverse populations given that hair product use varies notably among women of different race and ethnicities.”

Relaxers are well known for their side effects, including brittle, breaking hair, scalp irritation and painful chemical burns. This new correlation to cancer is extremely concerning, as is the amount of women who are continuing to receive these treatments.

Founder and CEO of Carra, an AI-driven digital hair health platform for women with textured hair, Winnie Awa explains that she’s witnessing an alarming trend. “We’re actually seeing a resurgence in hair relaxers, which is extremely concerning,” Awa says. “We have to start asking what is going on for women to go back to these treatments knowing how toxic they really are.”

But misinformation is rife within the beauty community and discrimination compounds the issue.

Awa explains that consumers have been operating without any guidance for a long time. “Part of the reason why I got involved in hair care is because I had no idea what I should really be doing or using,” Awa says. “Products are not enough. They need guidance. They need professionals and people who understand what these products do to your hair at a scientific level. That’s why our hair coaches tackle myths directly to discern what people are using and what works.”

Heat Styling and Textured Hair

For celebrity hairstylist and textured hair-care expert Johnny Wright, the solution is actually a return to form: heat styling. “Heat styling is basically the best way to go and there’s nothing wrong with it,” Wright explains. “When done properly with the right temperature, you can still maintain the natural curl pattern of the hair, but also having the versatility of going between straight and curly.”

Heat styling is the only guaranteed non-toxic approach to straightening that has no potential for long-term damage to your hair. Even gentler chemical treatments have potential side toxic side effects. Still, heat styling isn’t cut and dry. It’s important to prioritize the health of your strands when trying to straighten textured hair.

“You should always always use a heat protection product,” Wright says. “I recommend layering your heat protection. Use conditioners with heat protection in it, followed by using a heat protection product prior to applying any type of heat on their hair.”

You can also help retain the integrity of your hair by making sure you have the right tools.

“Use flat irons with ceramic or tourmaline plates, as they distribute heat more evenly and are less damaging to the hair,” Wright recommends. “Make sure you deep condition your hair at your next wash. Moisturize and deep condition regularly: Coily and kinky hair tends to be naturally drier, so it’s crucial to keep it moisturized.” 

And if you want a straight style for an event, “I highly recommended to have your coily or kinky texture heat styled or silked pressed by a professional,” Wright says. “They are experienced in handling different hair textures and can control the heat levels carefully. They can also assess the hair strands, ensuring that they don’t overheat already straightened sections. This way, you can avoid excessive heat exposure and potential damage that may occur when attempting to style your hair at home.”

Straightening Treatments: Word of Caution

According to New York trichologist and founder of multi-brand hair care platform Leona.co, which matches women to the latest hair-growth solutions, Shab Caspara, chemicals are really the only way we have to permanently straighten hair. “For long-term or permanent results, chemicals are required to alter the structure of your hair texture by either breaking the bonds in hair and resetting them to straight or infusing hair with ingredients that tame frizz and texture,” Caspara explains.

Relaxers aren’t the only version of this, but each treatment has its own chemical concerns. Even the most popular option for its relatively gentle effect on hair, the keratin treatment, can actually produce formaldehyde during the chemical reaction.

The FDA recommends checking the ingredients for methylen glycol and formalin, which are both formaldehyde-related chemicals, and has a full list of chemicals that can react to form formaldehyde during a hair treatment on their website.

If you’re concerned about being exposed to toxic chemicals, then straightening treatments should probably be avoided altogether as an option to straighten textured hair.

There’s also the chance that they change the texture and integrity of your hair too much, Wright points out. “I don’t find that they are worth the investment,” Wright explains. “I don’t have much experience with them, but the few times I’ve done Brazilian treatments, or amino acids, from my experience I feel they compromised the hair too much.”

Oftentimes, there is no way to reverse this process. “Remember, these are often chemicals and will change the curl pattern of the hair,” Wright explains. “Every time I’ve done one, the hair starts to shed after a while, and the only way to get back to your natural curly, coily and kinky texture is to let grow out or cut it.”

Protecting Textured Hair after a Keratin or Amino Acid Treatment

If you do choose to receive a keratin or amino acid treatment for a longer-term straight style, there are still things you can do to prioritize the health of your hair.

“If you choose to go with any of those treatments, you must condition their hair often,” Wright explains. “You should also use steam treatments. Steam treatments are valuable beneficial to natural hair. The thing is with any chemical process, you are stripping moisture from hair, it makes it harder for the hair to maintain moisture because the strands have been compromised so much. That tends to be the case for any type of straightening chemical that’s used. So, you want to make sure you reinforce moisture into the hair.  Steam treatments are excellent for that, as they allow for moisture retention.”

You can also invest in products that highlight moisture after you’ve used chemicals to straighten textured hair. You’ll want to look for ingredients like glycerin and hyaluronic acid. “Use products that are humectants, that attract moisture to your hair,” Wright says. “Those are the type of products you want to use if you’re going to do any type of chemical treatment at all, but especially a straightening treatment.”

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