Most people are aware that there are two types of hair relaxers on the market: lye and no lye. What many of those same people may not know is how the two formulations differ. Some people say, “Oh, I’ve heard that no-lye is safer for your hair.” Others swear that lye-based relaxers get their hair straighter. Knowing the difference between the two can help you and your stylist figure out which ones will work best for you and your hair type.
The pH levels in relaxers generally go from 10 – 14, with the higher levels found in the stronger formulations like “super” strength, and the lower strengths found in the milder mixes. As the pH level goes up, the hair’s shaft swells and the cuticle rises, leaving it exposed and vulnerable to becoming broken and damaged. In general, the active ingredient in any relaxers penetrates the hair’s cortex, irreversibly and permanently loosening the hair’s curl pattern.
- When you buy a lye relaxer, you’re buying a chemical mix that has a higher pH level than a no-lye formula relaxer. This increased pH level means that they’re stronger formulations, and for that reason, are often only available to the industry. When you open the box, you’ll notice that the relaxer comes pre-mixed and ready to go. No-lye relaxers are the ones that come with the activator included which has to be mixed into the formulation in order to “activate” the sodium hydroxide.
- Lye-based relaxers are not as harsh on the individual hair strands as no-lye relaxers can be. Because they rinse off without leaving the ingredients found in no-lye mixes that tend to coat the hair and leave it looking dull, the strand of hair is able to absorb moisture well, and ends up looking shiny and feeling silky. They tend not to damage the hair strand as much because the disulfide bonds in the strands don’t get broken down as much as they do with no-lye relaxers.
- Conversely, this also means that they hair won’t get as straight as with a no-lye relaxer. This is good news for those women looking for mild straightening. The chemical process in a lye-based relaxer works really quickly thanks to the high pH levels, so it doesn’t take a long time to straighten. That’s another reason that professional stylists are generally ones that work with these relaxers. They need to be applied in the right way and as quickly as possible, and then washed out right away to avoid damage. The chemicals last a long time in the jar, so if you don’t use the whole jar, you can store it for later use.
- Lye relaxers may be easier on the hair, but they’re harder on the scalp, another reason that application should be left to the professionals. Women often end up with scalp burns due to the highly corrosive lye. The lye based relaxers that straighten better are called base formula relaxers. These formulas are so strong that a petroleum base needs to be applied to the head to protect the scalp. It’s recommended that you use a petroleum base with a lye relaxer anyway, even if it’s not a base formula version.
- Lye relaxers cause the cuticle to lift and swell, damaging the strand. They should be followed up with an intense protein conditioning treatment once the relaxer is rinsed off but before the neutralizing shampoo is used. It can help repair the cuticle.
No Lye Relaxers
- With a no-lye relaxer, you’re either getting a pre-mixed formula, or one that you need to mix up. No-lye relaxers are only good for one application. They’re best for people who like to relax their hair themselves, and who are looking for straighter hair in the end. They’re often used by people with fine hair. Children’s hair relaxers are usually no-lye as well.
- The good thing about no-lye relaxers is that they’re not as hard on the scalp as lye-based relaxers. The bad news is that they’re harder on the hair! They leave ingredients on the hair that can make it look dull, and feel more dry and straw-like. That’s why so many women experience hair breakage with no-lye formulations. The disulfide bonds in the hair strands experience heavy breakage, which prevent the hair from keeping its elasticity. No-lye also relaxers tend to take longer to process than lye-based formulas, so people tend to misjudge how long they should keep them on the hair, causing breakage.
- It’s advised that you apply a conditioning treatment to your hair prior to application of the no-lye relaxer. This can be a moisturizing conditioner or an oil, and will help protect hair, especially the hair that’s been previously relaxed. It’s also recommended that you use a clarifying shampoo to chelate the hair right after you rinse out the relaxer. This can help remove those pesky minerals and ingredients that they no-lye relaxer leaves on the hair strands. This will help the hair keeps its ability to absorb moisture and stay shiny.
Clearly, what the world is waiting for is for the relaxer companies of the world to get off their duffs and invent a formula that can blend the benefits of both types of relaxer into one super relaxer, while simultaneously eliminating the negatives of both. Until that day, make sure that you discuss thoroughly the pros and cons of no-lye and lye relaxers with your stylist so that you can make the best decision for you.
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