Okay, this guide is presented as a beginning resource (see: 101 level) to black folks hair. Keep in mind texture varies greatly depending on the person. Hair can have very kinky curls or be rather straight, depending on the person. Black folks who are very mixed (for example, my daughter who is only a 1/4 black) tend to have curls that are looser in texture. But there are also black people with very straight hair, so that is not always a fast and hard rule.
This guide is presented from the perspective of an American biracial (black and white) woman whose father had very coarse curls. The differences in hair texture vary greatly for biracial folks (being half black and half Korean can create a very different hair texture, for example) but for the most part terms and experiences are similar.
Most common way to straighten hair and until recently the most popular way to wear hair (there is a beginning shift to wearing hair natural, especially amongst younger black women). Hair is relaxed with either a lye formula applied by a licensed beautician or at home with what is referred to as a “box perm” which contain a different alkali agent but are significantly weaker and less caustic than a professional relaxer. Over exposure to either chemical can cause burns on the scalp, and there is a prevalent myth that it has to burn to work, so often girls (few men get their hair relaxed) are taught from a young age to let the burn happen to achieve the best results. Also, scalps that are scratched or have minor surface abrasions burn more readily, so before getting a relaxer many girls will avoid scratching their scalps so that they don’t burn.
The Process: If applied at home a box perm can be bought from just about any retailer. Higher quality, real lye relaxers are done in a salon or by a professional beautician in a private home. Vaseline or another type of petroleum protective gel is applied around the hairline and to the tops of the ears to keep the delicate skin from burning should it come into contact with the relaxer. Relaxer is applied only to the roots for a touch up or to the entire head of hair for first time relaxers. Cream is applied in small sections, and once application is complete the back of a comb is used to “smooth” the hair and straighten it out. After the processing time the relaxer is rinsed out and a color-coded neutralizing shampoo is applied. Once the shampoo no longer turns pink (indicating the presence of leftover relaxer cream) a conditioner is applied. In a salon this is usually followed by a plastic cap and some time under a dryer and at home it can just mean a few minutes of waiting before rinsing. Once the conditioner is finished processing a leave in conditioner specifically for relaxed hair should be applied. This process must be done every 6-8 weeks, to handle “new growth.” Since hair will grow in with the original texture pattern there is often a lot of angst about new growth showing, especially the kinkier the curls.
Styling: relaxed hair will air dry in a wavy-frizzy way if not styled. Various methods of styling include wrapping (a solution somewhere between a mousse and a leave in conditioner is applied, hair is combed, and then person sits under a hooded dryer until dry), blow dry with a paddle brush, or air dry and then flat ironed or curled with hot tongs. Often, a combination of methods is used. This all depends on the length of hair and the style involved.
This biggest misconception is that a relaxer will straighten hair and make it like a white person’s. A relaxer only loosens the curl so that the hair can be straightened more easily and so that it will retain straight styles more readily (humidity and water undo any straightening efforts). There is still maintenance that must be done after the fact. So a character that has relaxed hair cannot jump into a pool and them get out with straight hair like many white people. Not to mention that relaxed hair needs a lot of moisture and can be prone to breakage since pulling the curl taught creates weak points in the strand.
So, those are the basics on relaxers. Next up: natural styles.