Sunday, April 12, 2009

Natural Hair

So I'm trying to transition to natural hair - that means no chemical treatments like color (my weakness) or straighteners/relaxers - for both personal and political reasons. And, it's giving me fits.

My hair has always been a source of vanity and pain for me. I was bald (though a tough little baldy) for all intents and purposes until about 18 months old. By age 3, I had a big poofy 'fro, and by 4, my curls had grown down my back because I wouldn't let my mother touch them. She doesn't know the first thing about caring for curly hair after having stick straight hair her whole life. I've been told that I cried and cried and cried when she tried to brush my hair (starting at the top, no doubt).

For much of my childhood and adolescence, I didn't know what the fuck to do with the stuff growing out of my head. It was fuzzy, voluminous, and no one around me had hair like mine. Middle and high school were fraught with maximum embarrassment potential. It was the late 90s, and straight hair was very in. Curls were only acceptable if they were big and loose, perfectly spiraled, and straight off of a curling iron.

Mine were never loose enough, so I weighed them down as well as used a lot of braids, buns, and ponytails so that no one could see it. There was an entire year in high school (1999-2000) where I straightened my hair with a big barrel curling iron at least once a week. It was bad. My senior photos are straightened. People who haven't seen me since high school will always remember me with straightened hair, and that sucks.

Fast forward to after a feminist, body acceptance, having to deal head-on with the racism at UT Austin awakening. I stopped hating my hair for being curly, stopped trying to straighten it as often. Over the last few years, I've fallen in love with my curls. Ironic, since they began loosening and becoming wavier. There were sections that wouldn't curl at all, and that pissed me off to no end. Frizzy and straight hair?? Fuck that. Things sort of came to a head about 4 months ago with the texture changes and the frizz. My hair felt like straw coated in kerosene. It looked like shit, and it wouldn't even curl. Something was very wrong.

I'd stumbled across Lorraine Massey's book Curly Girl when it first came out, but her regimen sounded hard, and the routine I was doing was working alright, so I put it out of mind. I started looking to the internet for solutions. NaturallyCurly was one of my first (and most comprehensive) stops, followed by afrobella and a whole slew of other natural hair blogs aimed at curly hair. I can't remember being so thankful for my background in organic chemistry. Seriously, there's a lot to digest about the science of hair and beauty products. It turns out that Massey's Curly Girl regimen is actually sound science. The proof speaks for itself. And, it couldn't hurt.

Around January, I couldn't wait for mail order stuff to arrive, I had to go find something at the stores. I had been using Trader Joe's nourish spa shampoo & conditioner, which was alright ingredient-wise, even though it contained parabens and sulfonates. But obviously it wasn't working with my particular hair type. After many, many trips scouring aisles for anything with an acceptable ingredients list, I finally broke down and went to Whole Paycheck (Whole Foods) when my friend from Grand Rapids came to visit and wanted to go. Nature's Gate shampoo & conditioner were on sale, and the ingredients were alright in the conditioner. Found Giovanni organics, and picked up some conditioner from them too.

So maybe now would be a good point to back up and go back to the chemistry behind natural hair. Things like dyeing and straightening (by heat or chemicals) alters the chemical structure of the hair shaft, which can affect the hair's texture permanently in a variety of ways. Heat treatments like blowdrying, hot combs, curling irons, and blow dryers break the disulfide bridges between the proteins in hair that form curls and kinks. Do I even really need to go into why dyeing and chemically straightening the hair (often lye-based) is damaging and alters the chemical structure of hair?

Now on to the more pernicious stuff. Hair products, like all other personal care products, are targeted and formulated for the default white consumer. You know, women with "good hair." Products for POC are 'niche' markets, and forget about getting anything to work with hair that isn't coded white or black. It's like other minorities don't even exist. Not that it's a big surprise, considering the rest of the beauty industry. Where was I? There are several ingredients found in virtually all commercial hair products that are really incredibly bad for curly and kinky hair. Hello, white supremacy and false dichotomies!

Lauryl and laureth sulfates are industrial strength detergents(surfactants) that strip the hair shaft and scalp of its natural oils. Anyone with curly/kinky hair can intuitively tell you that dry hair is unhappy hair. You may as well wash your hair with dish soap if you're going to use lauryl and laureth salts. That new "sulfate-free" shampoo & conditioner line from L'Oreal *is* sulfate-free. And it also contains lauryl and laureth salts. That's sort of like substituting DDT for carbon tetrachloride, and calling it carcinogen-free. Technically, yes. Is it a worthwhile change, though? Not really. So why do people even buy laureth/lauryl products anyway? Because we've been indoctrinated since the 60s and 70s to believe that lather + squeak = clean. In reality-land, lather + squeaky hair = incredibly dry, damaged curly hair.

The other side to the industrial detergent coin is silicones. Silicones coat the hair shaft, making it appear shiny and feel soft. What's the problem, then? Well, you can't remove them from hair without the use of above industrial detergents. They become sticky and attract dust, dirt, and anything else to stick to your hair. Like glue. Plus, they're more obnoxious than the detergents because they're disguised in the ingredients list. They could be called amiodimethicones, dimethicones, siloxanes, and cyclomethicones. If you use products with silicones, you must at least occasionally wash them out using harsh detergents.

There are other chemicals that are commonly found in curly hair products that can be good or bad for some people's hair. Protein (which I need), and glycerin (which I don't). I think there's been enough chemistry talk today, but if anyone wants more information, I'm more than happy to point to links or make another post.

So around the middle of february, I started conditioner washing (co-washing) with nature's gate and then using the other stuff to condition. My stuff from Oyin Handmade arrived around that time, and I started shampooing once a week to remove any build up, and began using aloe vera gel to keep my hair from 'fro-ing out into a triangle. The results have been pretty decent.

Other important things to keep in mind:
1. Do NOT brush your hair unless it's with a wide-toothed comb, wet, and loaded with conditioner. It'd be best if you only finger-combed your hair, in reality. I just don't have enough time or hot water for that, so wide-toothed comb it is.

2. Do what works for your hair. Lauryl/laureth sulfates and silicone-laden products worked for me for a while. Or maybe my curl was just so tight that it couldn't help but to curl despite the stuff I put on my head. If conventional shampoo & conditioner works for you, then I'm happy for you. If you need to wash more or less often, or need heavier deep conditioner treatments or can't afford the stuff I use, then you shouldn't. Do what works for you. Discover the many shine and softness inducing properties of olive oil, shea butter, honey, eggs, and aloe vera.

3. Experiment, experiment, experiment.

All of my decisions, though, were based on lots of research on curltalk and other natural curly hair blogs. (Do ya see what I'm sayin here? There aren't many curly hair blogs that cater to other ethnicities. That's why I <3 love <3 curl talk, where there are lots of beautifully tressed italians, spaniards, lebanese, greek, syrian, persian, mexican, latina, brazilian, mixed, african american, and white curlies supporting each other.)

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