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The truth about the lye


A relaxer is a type of lotion or cream which makes hair less curly, and easier to straighten by chemically “relaxing” the natural curls. One of the most common types of hair relaxers are the ones that are lye-based. Lye-based relaxers are the strongest and produce the most dramatic hair straightening. Scientifically, lye is sodium hydroxide.  It is used in soap making, biodiesel production, and household cleaners such as oven cleaner and drain opener (Meadows 2009).   Sodium hydroxide is not safe for human beings to inhale, as it can potentially cause lung damage. The prolonged used of relaxers causes hardened scalp tissue and hair loss (Ferrell 40).  The chemical causes the hair to swell and it penetrates the cortical layer, breaking the crossbonds of the hair. The cortical layer is the middle or inner layer of the hair shaft that provides the strength, elasticity and shape of the curly hair. The other two relaxers are ammonium thioglycolate and guanidine hydroxide (“no-lye”) based.

In the movie Fight Club, there is a scene in which Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt’s character) kisses Ed Norton’s character’s hand and puts a chemical on his hand that results in a chemical burn and excruciating pain for Ed Norton’s hand.  That very chemical is lye. To break it down: women of color put this thick white cream on their scalp and the lye burns their scalp, reconfiguring their beautiful curly hair into straight and lifeless hair.  I used to relax my hair up until the first semester of my sophomore year in college. I can tell you from experience that the process of getting hair relaxed is time consuming, can be expensive and painful. This is directly related to the obsession that some Latina women have with hair straightening.


The image that comes to mind is the innumerable amount of Dominican-owned hair salons in the world. As I did more research on this topic, I found a site that actually helps locate a salon for anyone who needs to get their hair straightened. Taking a short 15 minute walk from my house in Albany to the main street, I can count 4 different salons owned and operated by Dominican women. Relaxers are not the main business for the salons; they are known for their incredible skill at making hair pin straight with a hot blower. And while I understand the want and need to look absolutely beautiful and gorgeous, I wonder where the obsession stems from. Some experts believe that it is a result of a historical learned rejection of all things African. What is so terrible and unmanageable about curly, “nappy” hair that has so many women married to the relaxer and other methods of hair straightening?


Ferrell, Pamela, and Carmen Lattimore. Where Beauty Touches Me: Natural Hair Care & Beauty Book. Washington, D.C: Cornrows & Co. Publications, 1993.

Meadows, Michelle. “Heading Off Hair-Care Disasters: Use Caution With Relaxers and Dyes.” FDA Consumer. Jan. & Feb. 2001. U. S. Food and Drug Administration. 9 Apr. 2009.

by Carmen Mojica


About Adriana Villavicencio

Dr. Adriana Villavicencio is the youngest child of Ecuadorian immigrants. She has moved 29 times in her life, taking her on a journey from California to Bangalore, India, and New York City, where she recently earned a Ph.D. in Education Leadership and works as a Research Associate at New York University. An avid traveler, Adriana has collected experiences in four different continents and 16 different countries. But as a former high school English teacher, some of her fondest memories are those of her brilliant and brilliantly funny students in Brooklyn and Oakland. Adriana has contributed to several publications including the Daily News and, and is a managing editor for the Journal of Equity in Education. She earned a B.A. in English and an M.A. in English Education at Columbia University, and currently serves on the board of Columbia’s Latino Alumni Association (LAACU). She enjoys scary movies with red vines, Sauvignon Blanc, and her Maltese dog, Napoleon.

To learn more about Adriana’s education consulting company, please visit

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author and should not be understood to be shared by Being Latino, Inc.


  1. Señora López says:

    I don’t have any place discussing this topic, but I watched a short film on YouTube a couple years ago about this and thought anyone who was interested would want to check it out.

    A Girl Like Me:

    I think it’s sad that society and the media push a very narrow view of what “beauty” is, and that any woman, whatever her race, should feel any pressure to conform. We should celebrate the diversity of beauty, and the many forms it comes in.

  2. Hey Carmen- Such an interesting question! It is unfortunate so many women (& men, too!) spend so much time and energy to get rid of their natural curls. You’re right, it probably is cultural. However, I also think people don’t know what to do with their curls, so it’s also education.

    By the way, I like the pictures you chose for this blog post, they’re super fun!

    -Katie for Ouidad

  3. Good Topic

  4. Not only it has a good topic – a creative one, but wonderful story, with nice pics – must be a geek in Photoshop lol


  1. […] we’ve been programmed to believe that straight hair is beautiful. The whiter or more European we look, and the further we run from our African ancestry, the better. […]

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