Tabnie Dozier was in kindergarten when she started getting her hair straightened with chemical relaxers that often contained the same ingredients used to unclog drains.
Dozier, who’s Black, spent the next quarter century routinely using the process, sometimes as frequently as every six weeks. That included her 11-year stint as an on-air TV news announcer, a job where she felt she had to conform to unspoken Eurocentric beauty standards that included long, straightened hair. What changed her mind came almost by accident. She moved and couldn’t find a new hair stylist she trusted with the relaxer procedure. Today she has no plans to go back to what’s known in Black culture as “creamy crack.”
“No, I will not return to chemical relaxers,” Dozier, 33, who now has a media consulting business, told Forbes. “I can’t imagine what my mother went through in the 1990s and feeling even more pressure then to adapt to status quo or societal acceptability. But now that I have my own voice and the audacity to wear my crown anyway I choose, I won’t return to damaging chemicals.”
The U.S. market of hair straighteners and relaxers, of which Black women are about 60% of the customers, is dwindling due to evolving beauty standards and health concerns about the chemical ingredients.
Sales of chemical hair relaxers to salons and other professionals have been declining for at least a decade, according to market research firm Kline & Co., from about $71 million in 2011 to $30 million in 2021. Year-over-year sales dropped 25% in 2020 alone, Kline analyst Agnieszka Saintemarie said, and sales continue to fall as “clients prefer more natural hair styles and turn to styling products or styling appliances as alternatives.”
Damning scientific research has accelerated the decline. Relaxers pose an increased risk for breast, ovarian and uterine cancers, according to the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences. In a recent study the agency found that 1.64% of women who never used chemical hair straighteners go on to develop uterine cancer by age 70, but the risk jumps to 4.05% for frequent users of the products.
“Our findings suggest that women should consider their use of hair products in light of the fact that the chemicals in straightening products may influence their risk of developing uterine cancer,” said Alexandra White, a NIEHS researcher and lead author of the study.
Hair stylists and beauty supply store owners said they’re not using or selling nearly as many relaxing and straightening products as they were a decade ago. Several doubt the trend will reverse.
Laquita Burnett, the owner of Freedom Curls Salon in Indianapolis, said she stopped offering relaxer treatments in 2013 after she left her job at a JCPenney salon. She said some of her clientele back then included attorneys and nurses who got the treatment for their professional appearances, and they’d have to return every six to eight weeks to touch up newly grown hair.
“That’s why they called it the creamy crack,” Burnett said. “It’s addictive, you can’t stop doing it and you have to keep doing it so that your hair can stay straight.” She said the pandemic reduced demand for relaxer services as many salons closed and left women no choice but to go natural.
Alnisa Hanks, however, said she still has clients who get relaxer treatments, but far less than she used to. As recently as 2015, more than 90% of her weekly clientele at Glamorous Styles Salon in Union, New Jersey, would get their hair relaxed, but that figure is closer to 25% today. She said some clients still prefer it because it can make styling and upkeep easier than natural hair.
“Relaxers will be here,” said Hanks. “I can’t see them going anywhere. Not unless they just decide altogether it’s linked to cancer and … pull them all off the shelves.”
At some beauty supply stores, natural hair care products are taking over the real estate that relaxers used to occupy. At M&M Beauty Supply in Merrillville, Indiana, for instance, the mix of relaxers to natural hair care products was about 80-20 about a decade ago, according to store owner Dave Abdulla. The opposite is true today, he said.
Environmental Working Group, an advocacy organization, said the number of hair relaxers that it tracks in its personal-care product database has steadily declined since 2011 when it published a scathing report on the product. While the at-home relaxer market has shifted away from using the cancer-linked substance formaldehyde, spokesperson Monica Amarelo told Forbes, EWG and Women’s Voices for the Earth are seeking a federal ban on the use of the chemical in all hair products to cover salons as well. “Most of the hair straightening treatments we worry about are marketed for professional use only,” she said.
Jehcara “Summer” Nelson, owner of Strands of Life Natural Hair Studio in Hermosa Beach, California, said she’s glad to see demand trend away from relaxers. She said for many decades, Black women have faced societal pressure to straighten or smooth their hair just to have a shot at jobs and other opportunities.
“We don’t have to worry about that too much anymore,” Nelson said. “Now that we aren’t using relaxer as much, we can kind of start to relax. And our position in society is not as affected by the way that we wear our hair.”