Here's How You Can Care For Chemically Treated Hair, Naturally

mbg Beauty and Lifestyle Senior Editor By Alexandra Engler
mbg Beauty and Lifestyle Senior Editor
Alexandra Engler is the Beauty and Lifestyle Senior Editor. She received her journalism degree from Marquette University, graduating first in the department.

Image by BONNINSTUDIO / Stocksy

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As a briefer, chemically processed hair generally falls into one of two categories: dyed or chemically straightened. Both are decidedly not easy on your hair and contain some less-than-ideal chemicals (ahem, bleach; ahem, sodium hydroxide).

I fall into the former category, in a major way. I lift my naturally brunette hair into a sunny California-kissed shade of blond. In a perfect world, I'd let my highlights grow out and I'd embrace my natural hue, but that's just not going to happen anytime soon. And thus, I'm not in the business of judgment: If you want to dye or chemically straighten your hair, I'm right there with you. But it does set an interesting standard: What if you occasionally process your hair but otherwise want to keep it nontoxic? Can natural or clean products adequately care for altered hair?

What is chemically straightened hair?

When you are talking about chemically straightening hair, you are talking about relaxers, which includes thermal reconditioning, often called Japanese straightening. The processes permanently straightens hair, and you only see your curl pattern come back with regrowth. These are not to be confused with keratin treatments or Brazilian blowouts, which last a few weeks and can only tame frizz, not fundamentally alter your texture.

There are three main chemicals used: sodium hydroxide (often called lye relaxers), calcium hydroxide (or no-lye), and ammonium thioglycolate (thermal reconditioning), and your stylist can choose one depending on your need.

When you relax your hair, you are breaking down the chemical makeup of your strands so the hair can be "rearranged" straight, says licensed cosmetologist and hair stylist Gabrielle Corney. It does so by raising the cuticles, so the active chemicals can get into the shaft and manipulate the natural behavior, or curl pattern. "And in doing so, you are also stripping the hair of vitamins and nutrients the hair actually needs to stay strong," she says.

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Here's how to care for it.

The first thing you can do, according to Corney, is to ask for an oil-infused treatment during your process. "After you rinse out a relaxer, technically the cuticle is still open," says Corney. "Instead of shampooing right away and closing the cuticle, I infuse vitamin E into the strand first so you add hydration to the process." (She says just ask your stylist about this while you are setting up an appointment; most will be able to do it.)

After your process, there are a few things you need to know: Avoid heat styling and amp up hydration.

This might be challenging, but only heat style once a week and no more than that, says Corney. (Try air drying instead.) Your hair is already compromised, and heat only make that issue worse. "This is what leads to extreme damage and breakage," says Corney. When you do whip out that curling iron or blow dryer: Here's our guide to natural heat protectants.

And "you have to deep condition; that's essential," says Corney. And this can take many forms. On a hair wash day, swap in an intense mask instead of your conditioner (Corney likes Carol's Daughter Monoi Repairing Hair Mask).

For natural oils, try grapeseed, olive, and avocado oils. These tend to be heavier and can weigh down hair. Skip using them in the morning, and instead apply the oil at night. Before bed, wrap your hair with a silk scarf, which keeps the oils on the strand—instead of transferring to your pillowcase. (Standard cotton cases are very absorbent and can soak up all that oil you just applied.) The silk will also protect hair from damage as you toss and turn.

If you are someone desperate for nutrients every day, try this combo: aloe on the scalp and roots ("It's incredibly hydrating but absorbs immediately," says Corney) and vitamin E oil on the strands. Vitamin E is a thinner oil and can be absorbed into the shaft, so it will provide nutrients without weight.

But you need to set expectations: "The only thing that is going to truly get rid of damage is scissors," she says.

What does coloring your hair do to the strand?

Color processing your hair works one of two ways, and it depends whether you are dying it or bleaching it. When you are adding color—be that darker or a fun, bold hue—the ammonium lifts the strand's cuticle so pigments can be deposited into it, changing the shade. When you are bleaching it, the reverse happens: This time when the cuticle is lifted, color is removed.

"When you are bleaching, you are going through what is called the 'decolorization' process, and it involves fragmenting melanin into smaller and smaller bits so hair becomes lighter," says colorist and co-founder of the salon Spoke&Weal Christine Thompson. This process can be pretty harsh, often blasting open cuticles permanently, making the hair coarser and drier. (Dyes do not have this effect, especially modern versions, which are much gentler on the hair.)

"I have clients who come in having silky, straight dark brown hair who want it platinum blond," says Thompson. "I have to explain to them that they are going to have a brand-new hair texture after—that they need to get used to having rough hair."

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Here's how to keep color fresh.

Those with color-treated hair would benefit from many of the same principles as those with relaxed: Hydrate and keep hot tools at bay. (Blondes especially need to be mindful of hot tools as it can turn strands brassy.)

You can also prep hair for color processing with the clean, natural-ish Malibu C's Color Prepare Wellness Hair Remedy, which extracts buildup and other color-blocking molecules on your hair, so dye is better deposited in the first place. This will limit the need for as many touch-ups or reprocessing later.

Post coloring, avoid washing too regularly. Not only can it fade your shade, but it also deposits color-altering minerals from hard water. It does this because your hairs' cuticles naturally open in steam and the dye can literally fall out from the strand.

You can also "color-correct" hair with blue or purple shampoos or conditioners. The idea behind these is that you can cancel out brass with neutralizing pigments (if you look at a color wheel, you'll see blue and purple are opposite yellow and orange). Rahua's Color Full Shampoo is a mild lilac hue, so it can tone color without altering it too much (the purple pigments are also sustainably sourced).

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