Women have been slathering their hair with concoctions since cave-painting days. Whether intended to color, straighten, curl, moisturize, or even strengthen the hair, all are considered a chemical service. All matter on earth is considered chemical, but for the purpose of hairstyling, the main focus is on a few; namely, ammonia, hydrogen peroxide, sodium hypochloride, sodium hydroxide, and ammonium thioglycolate.
These five chemicals make up most professional coloring and texturizing products. Most of these substances can be found in the cleaning aisle of the store, but for hair applications, they are compounded with many other ingredients meant to buffer and dilute the chemicals to be safe for hair.
During a chemical service, the hair is opened with an alkaline product to allow changes in the cortex, and closed afterward with an acidic solution or sometimes conditioner. When hair is chemically altered, the health of its disulfide bonds are at stake.
You might recall my explaining salt and side bonds earlier a couple months ago. Disulfide bonds make up the remaining portion of the hair, and their arrangement is what also causes curl pattern to manifest. The remaining ⅓ of hair’s strength not provided by salt and side bonds are provided by disulfide bonds. These bonds cannot be broken by water or slight changes in pH incurred by washing and styling; they are broken by chemicals with an alkaline reaction, which can easily happen when chemicals are mishandled.
Avoiding excess damage starts with knowing what you are using or what is being used on your hair.
Let's begin with color! Hair color is classified by type and action, and the most common categories are semi-permanent, demi-permanent, and permanent. Bleaches and decolorants are a separate class of product, as are fashion colors or vegetable dyes such as henna.
Semi-permanent color is considered deposit-only and lasts generally between four to six weeks. It fades with each washing because it never enters the cortex. Demi-permanent color slightly opens the cuticle, allowing stains to embed further, but still does not enter the cortex. Permanent hair color uses ammonia to open up and bypass the cuticle and enter the cortex. Theses colors first diffuse existing pigment while depositing new artificial color molecules. Decolorizing agents such as bleach have a higher pH than ammonia, providing more lift power.
All of these products except for semi-permanent require a second chemical to become active enough to rapidly work. Hydrogen peroxide solution is the most commonly used product in this case. Again, this product is diluted to be safe on the hair in most cases, and solutions of between 2% and 12% peroxide in water and conditioner is used in the US.
Peroxide has a far more acidic pH than ammonia and bleach, which provides an active reaction when mixed, like vinegar and baking soda. These reactions only last between 30 and 50 minutes no matter what dilution, which is why higher volumes are selected when more action is required.
The reason I joke about frowning on those who color their own hair is not because I am judging anyone's choices or circumstances. It is because a color service by a professional is so much more in-depth than pointing to a color on a box.
Box hair dyes in stores are formulated to work no matter what on any hair. This does not mean that they always do. Box colors are too powerful for most hair textures, and can break down the hair with repeated usage.
Some of these claim to be “ammonia-free,” which is very disturbing. Ammonia is bad for the hair, yes, when not diluted. One must accept the potential for harm when coloring their hair. A professional will (generally) use a product that contains ammonia, but safe amounts. Ammonia substitutes can be more damaging and even stronger, rendering the hair more damaged with every application, and allowing the dye molecules to stain the cortex deeply, making future change very difficult, and more damaging. Think saccharin and aspartame: they might work as sweeteners, but they are not better for the human body despite being devoid of calories.
In the last hair color post I wrote, I discussed how texture also determines what chemicals and what concentrations must be used. Some color lines increase the amount of ammonia for each level up. Some contain the same amount of ammonia through the levels. A box will almost certainly have massive amounts of alkaline ingredients for blonde colors. This is considered a foolproofing system, but really is backwards.
Jumping more than three levels up on the scale is not an easy feat, and I would be very scared of how many bonds were broken to get that light. This can mean doing from a 1 to a 5 or from a 5 to a 7. This also means that a person with dark blonde hair simply does not need loads of ammonia or ammonia substitutes to get to a level 9.
A pro would use a bleach solution and employ application techniques to both place the color well and help it to actually work better and faster, sparing your little hair bonds. A pro would also select a formula that will not over- or under-saturate your strands with pigment. Putting a box of level-3 color on a person that has very thick level-5 strands will only take it to a 4. This person needs a level 2 to make sure enough molecules stay put in their extra large cortex.
For simple changes, staying close to your natural or just covering grays, box color can be OK, but I sincerely suggest that if you can’t get to a pro, try just reading up and selecting a pro brand and buying online. I understand that not everyone has the money to see a stylist, but grabbing a tube online for $12 provides at least two applications for someone with medium-textured, medium-length hair, and a bottle of developer will last up to 30 applications, for around $5. You can do it better AND cheaper if you must do it at home!
Pros will also do two more things that you most likely can’t: reach the back of your head, and get it done faster.
I would also like to touch on texturizing services. Not to scold, but I personally am against services that overly damage the hair, such as retexturizing or excess lightening. You deserve to know the facts: that sacrifices must be made (elasticity and strength) to achieve your hair goals if they cannot be done with wet or heat styling. Hair can be styled in any way with time, the right tools, and products. Causing permanent damage to the hair makes it harder to style.
Procedures such as curly perms, body waves, keratin treatments, lye relaxers, no-lye relaxers, Japanese straightening, etc., are considered texture services. All retexturizing services have the same general action: alkalize the hair, enter the cortex, and break and rearrange the disulfide bonds. The bonds are reformed, but forever changed, as they take the shape that the hair is in when the product is neutralized.
Keratinizing treatments break the bonds using chemicals, and then heat is applied to force extra keratin into the cuticle, further holding a straight shape and lasting months. I do think that everyone deserves to have a manageable hair routine, and if a perm, relaxer, or keratin treatment gives you that, then that is great, but there are a few things you can do to make sure you don’t harm the hair more than you need to.
To prevent excess damage when you desire to chemically alter your texture, avoid reapplying chemicals over hair that has already been relaxed or permed. Again, disulfide bonds represent ⅓ of hair’s strength, and when they are re-formed, not every single bond remains.
When these chemicals re-enter the hair and look for bonds to break, they find things already where they should be, and begin dissolving proteins and amino acids instead. This can cause the hair to spontaneously snap off or dissolve, as all remaining strength is zapped by the alkaline chemicals.
This can also happen when a product is left on the hair for too much time. Make sure to also use a conditioner over hair that has already been treated to block any wayward chemicals trying to enter the cortex again. A base cream is also essential to buffer any products going near the scalp, as skin will most definitely be irritated by alkaline substances.
Again, all of these chemicals are found in the cleaning aisle, but diluted to be safe(ish) for hair. This does not mean that they are safe for skin. Sodium hydroxide, the main relaxer chemical, is very irritating to the skin, and rapidly dissolves dead keratin cells, subsequently burning healthy living skin.
Chemical services can be done at home safely, but there are many variables to consider. I hope that some of you DIY-ers now feel better equipped to get a great and healthy result while in your PJs and watching re-runs. Just don’t forget to set a timer!