The Hair Relaxer Industry’s History of Targeting Black Women

The hair relaxer industry has a long and disturbing history of targeting Black women. For decades, these companies have perpetuated harmful stereotypes. That’s profiting off the insecurities of these women to fit in with Eurocentric beauty standards.

Hair relaxers are chemical treatments that are used to straighten curly or kinky hair. They are primarily marketed to Black women, who are often told that their natural hair is “unattractive” or “unprofessional.” This messaging has led to a widespread belief among these women. They need to straighten their hair to be beautiful and successful.

According to a study published in Science Direct, chemical hair relaxers have been heavily marketed to and commonly used by Black women. The impact of these relaxers on the community is substantial.

Historically, up to 95% of self-identified adult Black women in the U.S. reported having used hair relaxers. Even in more recent times, a significant portion of non-Hispanic Black women. About 84%, reported current or past use of these products.

This article discusses the dynamic interplay of cultural influences, marketing strategies, and health concerns that have affected a specific demographic.

Use of Hair Relaxers Among Black Women: Historical Context

The emergence of the hair relaxer industry is deeply interwoven with the complexities of societal beauty ideals.

The Guardian notes that it was in the 1940s that relaxers, sometimes referred to as “perms” in the Black community, gained prominence. During this era, top Black entertainers donned sleek, processed waves, presenting an image of sophistication, and belonging.

The prevailing narrative suggested that straight hair was the epitome of beauty. Over-the-counter formulations for hair straightening began to gain some trust.

The 1960s marked a pivotal moment when young people embraced Black pride and started wearing natural hairstyles, including short afros. However, this shift was met with resistance, both from segments of the older Black generation and from various racial groups in professional settings. The decline of relaxers was notable during this period.

In response to evolving beauty standards and societal pressures, beauty companies intervened. They introduced the concept of a looser, wavy aesthetic, effectively reviving the sale of relaxers. By the 1990s, stories emerged of Black women being fired for wearing natural hairstyles.

Whether driven by personal preference, tradition, or external pressure to conform to straight hair standards, relaxers remained a habitual choice for many Black women.

Even prominent figures like Michelle Obama spoke about the pressure to conform to certain aesthetics, highlighting the significance of hair choices for Black women. This historical journey underscores the enduring influence of the hair relaxer industry on the perceptions of beauty and identity in the Black community.

The Role of Stereotypes and Fearmongering

The hair relaxer industry has played a significant role in perpetuating damaging stereotypes about Black hair, depicting natural textures as “unattractive” or “unprofessional.” Advertisements and marketing campaigns have reinforced these stereotypes, creating a narrative that straight hair is the standard of beauty and acceptability.

These depictions have exerted immense social pressure on Black women to conform, compelling them to straighten their hair, often at great personal cost.

King5 documents the accounts of women such as Dr. Monica Rose McLemore, Jamila Conley, and Jackie Page Christian, shedding light on their experience of chemical relaxers. The painful burning sensations, scabs, and burns serve as tangible evidence of the compromise’s women have endured to conform to societal standards.

Even with a clear understanding of the health hazards involved. Numerous women felt obligated to persist with relaxer usage due to societal pressures and workplace biases. Research states that Black women sporting natural hairstyles are frequently viewed as less capable. It’s amplifying the challenges they face in various professional settings.

The Health Risks of Hair Relaxer Use

The use of hair relaxers has long been associated with a myriad of potential health risks, raising concerns among experts and researchers. One significant risk is scalp irritation and burns, often caused by the harsh chemicals present in these products.

Hair breakage and loss are common side effects, as relaxers weaken the hair structure over time, leading to brittle and damaged strands. Chemical burns on the scalp are not uncommon, with potent ingredients causing severe discomfort and, in some cases, scarring.

Furthermore, a study conducted by Boston University’s Black Women’s Health Study revealed alarming findings. Postmenopausal Black women who used chemical hair relaxers faced a significantly increased risk of uterine cancer.

The research involved nearly 45,000 women with no prior cancer history. It demonstrated that those using hair relaxers twice a year or for over five years had a 50% higher risk of uterine cancer.

Even after adjusting for other potential risk factors. The rates of uterine cancer remained significantly higher among women who frequently used hair relaxers.

The Lawsuits Against Hair Relaxer Manufacturers

In recent years, a notable increase in lawsuits has been witnessed as Black women take legal action against hair relaxer manufacturers. These lawsuits assert that hair relaxers contain harmful chemicals. Leading to various health issues, including an elevated risk of uterine cancer.

The emergence of hair straightener cancer lawsuit cases underscores the importance of holding manufacturers accountable for the harm caused by their products. It marks a crucial victory for Black women who have been disproportionately targeted by the hair relaxer industry.

According to TorHoerman Law, plaintiffs argue that manufacturers were aware of these potential health risks but failed to provide adequate warnings. They also claim that the marketing of hair relaxers to Black women has been deceptive and misleading.

These lawsuits have the potential to drive changes in hair relaxer formulations or even the removal of certain products from the market. Furthermore, they serve as a means of increasing awareness. Surrounding the health risks associated with hair relaxers, potentially prompting women to seek safer alternatives.

The Future of Hair Relaxers

The future of hair care for Black women is undergoing a significant transformation. They mark a powerful movement toward embracing natural hair textures. More women are rejecting the societal pressures that once forced them into using chemical relaxers and are instead celebrating their authentic selves.

Simultaneously, the industry is responding to the demand for safer alternatives. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has taken a pivotal step by proposing a ban on formaldehyde. It is a toxic ingredient prevalent in hair relaxers.

This move addresses the concerns regarding the safety of cosmetic products.


Over the years, Black women have faced immense challenges. From harmful stereotypes perpetuated by the industry to the tangible health risks associated with relaxers. The emergence of lawsuits and regulatory proposals signifies a turning point, holding manufacturers accountable and demanding safer products.

As we move forward, it is essential to amplify the voices of these women. Supporting their choices and celebrating their diverse natural hair textures. The future of hair care lies in empowering individuals to define beauty on their own terms. Also, it promotes inclusivity and embraces the rich tapestry of cultural heritage.