Hair care: How safe is that hair relaxer?

It’s common and fashionable to find women and men with treated hair. Some say they do this to enhance their looks, while others simply do it to keep their hair clean.

It’s common and fashionable to find women and men with treated hair. Some say they do this to enhance their looks, while others simply do it to keep their hair clean. But whatever the reasons for treating hair, experts say hair relaxers do have health hazards if not used appropriately.

Paul Ndayishimiye, a 22-year-old man, is still nursing a wound he sustained last December while trying to ‘relax’ his natural hair.


“I had been relaxing my hair for the last three years, and all had been going well. Hell broke loose when I decided to change my hair stylist,” he narrates.


Ndayishimiye says the relaxer left him with a small wound on his scalp and that this came to his attention one month after experiencing some discomfort and mild pain when combing his hair.


Ann Ntusarare, a hair stylist at Kimisagara market, says Ndayishimiye’s case could have been a result of shoddy work by an unskilled hairdresser, explaining that hair relaxers are good when used at the right time and in a correct way.

“Generally, when used, one is supposed to feel some mild irritations on their scalp, but this should fade away as soon as the relaxer has been washed out,” says Ntusarare.

When the irritation persists, then it means the person got burnt in the process.

She adds that relaxers can be more dangerous on short hairs, thus it requires a very skilled person to use them in such cases.

“If hair relaxers are used continuously over short periods of time without proper condition, they can lead to loss and breakage of hair,” she cautions.

Brian Iba, a hair dresser at Eden Salon in Remera, says before applying a hair relaxer on a customer, they have to consider some key things.

A woman with cornrows. Wearing cornrows, braids or dreadlocks is a healthier way of relaxing one’s hair. (Lydia Atieno)

“People have different types of hair textures, and this helps us to identify which type of relaxer to use. For instance, for those with light and smooth hair, we use regular relaxers, but for rough and coarse hair, a super relaxer is ideal,” he says.

Iba also cautions that super relaxers should not be used on people with light hair since they can cause burns and breakages of the hair.

Dangers of using hair relaxers

According to Rachna Pandey, a medic at Ruhengeri Hospital, hair relaxers are used to straighten curled up hair, but they have many health hazards.

“For instance, straightening hair with heat can cause dryness of scalp causing dandruff, dermatitis, falling of hair or even premature graying,” she says.

On the other hand, she points out that chemicals used normally contain sodium hydroxide or calcium hydroxide, which is harmful too.

“The chemicals are not good for the scalp as well as skin. They can cause allergy leading to irritation of scalp, rashes or eruptions over scalp and even the whole body,” she explains.

Hair relaxers can also precipitate or aggravate asthma, colds or cough as a result of allergy in those prone to it. Even when applied over hair or scalp, they can cause hormonal disruption resulting in premature puberty, menstrual disturbances and even infertility.

Dr Janvier Rusizana of La Nou Velle Clinic based in Remera also says hair relaxers can lead to scratching of the scalp due to allergy, which can result into secondary bacterial infections, and later boils over the scalp.

“Some relaxers contain chemicals like hydrogen peroxide, which have a bleaching effect that can lead to premature graying of hair, as well as ammonium nitrite and some other chemicals which have potential of causing cancer,” he says.

Pande also cautions that straightening curled up hair damages the texture of hair and makes it weak. This causes excess hair loss and the hair becomes dry and brittle, losing its natural softness and sheen.

A woman’s hair being treated in a salon. Care should be taken to ensure that an appropriate hair relaxer  that suits one’s type of hair is used to avoid hair loss or wounds on the scalp. (Lydia Atieno)

Rusizana warns against using hair dyes and relaxers over the scalp, especially if the person has some allergy or skin infection like fungal infection.

“Continuously using hair relaxers and dyes, can lead to hair damage permanently,” he warns.

Why we should embrace natural hair

According to Ntusarare, there are various ways of making your natural hair relaxed without using hair relaxers.

“It’s hard to maintain natural hair if you only don’t know how to go about it. Opting for styles such as cornrows, braids and dreadlocks will help one to keep their hair clean while remaining stylish,” she says.

For Dr Protais Munyarugamba of Harmony Clinic in Kigali, natural hair is ideal, but good hygiene should be maintained to keep it healthy.

“If one decides to keep the hair natural, they should keep it clean by washing it regularly and applying the right oil products for a healthier skin (scalp) to avoid hair breakages,” he says.

He adds that, “Hair is small part of one’s overall personality. A neat, clean, smiling and confident person will always look attractive with natural hair rather than relaxed hair.”

Munyarugamba further points out that cleaning the hair regularly keeps germs and other related diseases caused by a dirty environment at bay.

He, however, warns that hair dyes should be avoided as they can be toxic to the body and precipitate allergic reactions.

However, medics say that natural hair does not only look good but it is also healthy keeping it. If one takes a good diet with adequate proteins, drinks enough water, remains relaxed and keeps hair clean, the hair looks naturally glossy and healthy.



Moses Musafiri, a barber

Moses Musafiri

I prefer short hair since it’s easy to maintain. I won’t advice anyone to use hair relaxers if they are not in a position to maintain them because they come with many costs and risks.

Mary Gatesi, a hairdresser

Mary Gatesi

For those with relaxed hair, I think the best way is to keep it clean and to visit a salon after every two weeks for cleaning to avoid breakages. On the other hand, those with strong hair can keep their hair clean by wearing dreadlocks or braids.

Daniela Kayitesi, a student

Daniela Kayitesi

It depends on ones preferences, as for me I like braiding my hair since it’s more affordable and it can last long without bothering me. But I believe one should not stay with one hairstyle for more than two months, it’s unhygienic.

Jennifer Gwiza, a Remera resident

Jennifer Gwiza

For women, hair really adds value to their beauty, and thus plaiting or relaxing it is ideal. But I believe men are better off keeping their hair natural and short, or shaving it off completely.

Compiled by Lydia Atieno

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