Permanently straightening curly hair is not easy. Nature holds the curls in the protein structure of the hair shaft, and straightening the shaft involves chemically breaking those bonds. Permanently curling straight hair is similarly difficult. That’s why harsh chemicals are involved in both curling and straightening hair.
A lawsuit was filed against L’Oréal in September of this year, claiming that customers were misled to believe that a hair straightener did not contain specific harsh chemicals. L’Oréal is a huge company with many sub-companies. Probably everyone reading this post has at least one L’Oréal product in their personal care collection. I don’t know if the company did or did not intentionally mislead – but the subject of L’Oréal’s lawsuit provides a good opportunity to talk about the strong chemicals used in products that change our hair.
What chemicals are used in hair straighteners?
Hair straighteners are usually made from lye. Lye is a strong corrosive chemical called sodium hydroxide, and it is dangerous. It is also used in products like Drano to unclog your drain. If splashed into your eyes it can burn them blind. Back when I was in medical school we had to learn about the horrors of what happens when curious children find Drano under the kitchen sink and unwittingly drink it…I have a visceral fear of sodium hydroxide from that lecture series, and was sure to never keep Drano in the house when my kids were little.
Lye also straightens hair. It does this by breaking chemical bonds in the hair itself to release the tight curling of the hair shaft. This chemical can chemically burn skin because it is a corrosive base. It is important to understand that – just like strong acids – chemicals that are strong bases are potentially corrosive and can burn skin.