How to Straighten African American Hair

Authored by Alana J. Tutwiler in Hair Care 
Published on 06-28-2009

African American hair can range in texture from straight to tightly curled. If you are African American and want to wear your hair in some of the sleek, straight styles that are popular today, then using some method of straightening is usually necessary. This article discusses methods for straightening African American hair as well as the pros and cons of each method.

Heat Straightening

Heat straightening is a process using a straightening comb heated to a high temperature. After the hair is washed and completely dried, the comb is run through small sections of hair, from root to tip. After the entire mane is straight, a curling iron or a flat iron can be used to style the hair.

Benefits of heat straightening include:

  • No chemicals are used
  • Reversible – if you want to go back natural, you just wash your hair
  • Less expensive than chemical straightening

Pitfalls of heat straightening include:

  • Repeated heat styling eventually damages your hair
  • Risk of burning the scalp, face or ears
  • Long or extremely thick hair takes more work and stylists may charge you more
  • Limited lifestyle choices – getting caught in the rain, going swimming, working out or even living in a humid climate will cause your hair to revert back to its natural state

Chemical Straightening

If you are looking for a permanent alternative, then chemicals are needed. Relaxers are the most common form of chemical straightening for African American hair. A relaxer is a crème that contains either sodium hydroxide (lye) or calcium hydroxide. When a relaxer is applied to hair that has not been chemically treated before, the crème is placed on the entire mane. When a relaxer is applied to hair that has already been chemically straightened, it should only be applied to the roots of the hair. After about fifteen or twenty minutes, depending on your hair texture, the relaxer needs to be washed out thoroughly. Then the hair can be shampooed, conditioned and styled.

Benefits of chemical straightening:

  • Permanent results – even if your hair gets wet, it’s still straight
  • May be easier if you have long or thick, coarse hair
  • Sleek, shiny hair that can be cut or styled in any number of ways

Drawbacks of chemical straightening:

  • Can cause hair damage and breakage
  • Strong chemicals can cause serious burns on sensitive or irritated scalp
  • Can be very expensive if done by a stylist
  • Has to be repeated every six to eight weeks depending on your hair texture

A less harsh chemical alternative for African American hair is the texturizer. This is basically a milder form of a relaxer that is not left on the hair as long. The texturizer loosens the natural curl pattern but does not make the hair completely straight. This is less damaging to the hair and more versatile to style. One drawback of a texturizer is that it works best on short hair, so it may not be an option if you have medium to long hair.

Whatever method you choose for straightening your hair, you should make sure that you are educated about the pros and cons. If you are not certain that you can do it yourself, then you should seek the help of a licensed professional.


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