More stories of women going natural: I spent £18,000 on straightening treatments …until my hair fell out

Journalist warns of the dangers of using chemicals

Eva Simpson

Eva so lovely … journalist has ditched chemical straightening and weaves
WHEN Beyonce’s sister Solange Knowles chose to embrace her natural afro look she was branded unkempt and compared to a homeless person.

But the 26-year-old singer had tired of straightening her hair with chemical treatments which contain sodium hydroxide and can cause hair loss, scalp burns and scabs.

Solange Knowles with afro

Go with the ‘fro … Beyonce’s sister Solange now and, right, before she embraced natural look

Here, journalist Eva Simpson tells how she spent £18,000 on treatments which burned her scalp and made large chunks of her hair fall out. She has now gone “natural” for the first time in years.

“Over the past 26 years, I have spent around £18,000 and many hundreds of hours at the hairdressers all in the pursuit of one thing — straight hair.

But this summer I decided I’d had enough of blow drying, toxic straightening and extensions imported from as far away as India and Peru.

So I have gone back to my roots and joined the natural hair trend that has swept America and is now taking hold in Britain. It is called “transitioning” and involves black women giving up their dependence on chemical straightening and embracing their natural, kinky curls.

Like many black women I know, I was barely out of primary school when I had my first chemical treatment. It was the mid 1980s, I was 12 and the look that was all the rage was the Jheri curl made popular by Michael Jackson in Thriller.

I wasn’t mad about the idea of putting chemicals on my head.

I heard it hurt like hell but I was in no position to protest.

I lived with my gran and two younger sisters and she was fed up of the amount of time it took to do our hair. So I was marched to a family friend who ran a hair salon from her front room.

Getting the Jheri curl effect was no easy task. First a softening cream made from a chemical called sodium thioglycolate was applied to loosen the tight afro curl, this was then washed out and followed by a hydrogen peroxide concoction used to set the size of the new curl around mini-rollers.

I knew it was going to hurt, but until the chemicals were applied I had no idea how much. It was agony.

My scalp felt as if it were on fire. I hoped it would be all worth it — but far from long, curly, luxurious locks like Jackson, I was left with a head of shrivelled up curls and a burnt scalp.

But that wasn’t the end of it. The hairdo had to be constantly sprayed with curl activator to stop it drying out and I had to sleep in a plastic cap to keep it lubricated at night.

Lukwesa Burak

Blister horror … Lukwesa Burak set up website to give hair advice

SKY News presenter Lukwesa Burak’s relaxant horror started when she was 16. Lukwesa, 37, says: “At the hairdresser’s, I was aware the relaxant was burning my head and when I got home I found blisters on my neck. My hair then started to fall out. If you use relaxants too often the hair will never grow back. I feel so strongly, I’ve set up a site,, giving hair advice for black and mixed race girls.”

Four years later I was introduced to another chemical product which at the time really was a revelation.

It was called “relaxer” and was designed to make afro hair permanently straight. Relaxers work by changing the structure of curly hair.

The shape of a strand of hair is determined by the way in which the protein molecules, keratin, are held together. In curly hair, the strands are bent, and in straight hair they are straight.

The chemicals in relaxer break bonds that hold the keratin together. Lye relaxer is used by professional hairdressers because it works quickly.

But it contains the toxic ingredient sodium hydroxide, also known as caustic soda, which is used to unblock sinks.

No-Lye relaxers are what most women with relaxed hair use at home. Although they don’t contain sodium hydroxide, they still contain strong alkalines.

Like the curly perm, it stank and burnt if I ignored instructions on how long to leave in the cream leaving me with scabs on my scalp, but I felt it was worth it.

Marianne Miles

‘Versatile’ … Marianne Miles prefers her natural hair
PR consultant Marianne Miles, 35, from Stoke Newington, London, says: “When I was 12 I had a curly perm. It was a disaster. The hairdresser applied the perm cream over my relaxed hair. Most of my hair fell out so I cut off the rest. As an adult I had hair weaves without a break. Then in 2008 I ditched them altogether. I fell in love with the versatility of my curly hair – I can do so much with it.”

Once relaxed there was no going back to having an afro even if you wanted too. Every six weeks roots had to be “retouched” hence its nickname of “creamy crack” — because you had to keep using it.

By having my hair relaxed in my late teens, I finally felt I was in control of the way I looked.

I no longer had to rely on my grandmother using the hot comb — a metal comb heated on the flames of a gas cooker and raked through my hair to make it straight.

In my 20s I fell for another hair invention from America — the weave.

Hair weave is a type of hair extension worn by black celebrities such as Beyonce, Kelly Rowland and Alesha Dixon.

The look is created by sewing or gluing strips of synthetic or human hair on to the wearer’s hair which has been twisted into cornrows — a style where the hair is braided closely to the scalp.

If the hair is human then it is most likely to have come from India, however these days an increasing amount is originating in Brazil and Peru.

On holiday in New York in 1998 with my best friend, getting our hair in weave was at the top of our list of things to do. It cost 100 dollars but was worth it.

I loved my instant new hairdo which fell to halfway down my back.

It made me feel grown up and more attractive — but it wasn’t without its problems. I would never ever let a boyfriend run his fingers through my hair in case he discovered the wefts and cornrows hidden beneath.

Once, when I was on holiday in Morocco with a boyfriend, I discovered to my horror that a strip of hair had fallen out and was lurking on the floor.

I flew across the room and on to the hair as if my life depended on it. On another occasion when I was working as a showbiz columnist I was left mortified when, during an interview with David Beckham, I hadn’t realised a strand of hair had become dislodged and was sitting on my shoulder.

Hair weaves fuelled a multi-billion global black hair care industry.

It also fuelled the debate, which continues to this day, about whether black women are trying to conform to a European standard of beauty.

I never saw it like that. My decisions were based on what was easier for me. I stopped relaxing when I was pregnant in 2004 assuming it was just as bad to use in pregnancy as it is to use hair dye.

Then, about a year ago, I became increasingly aware of the transition trend.

Its growth is supported by statistics from market researchers Mintel that revealed US sales of relaxer kits have fallen by almost a fifth in the past five years and women are starting to spend money on natural hair care products.

Some women transition by letting the relaxer grow out gradually, while others opt for what is called “the big chop” where they have all of their chemically straightened hair cut off and start all over.

I decided to give it a go earlier this year for a couple of reasons. First the price of hair extensions was getting more expensive. A packet of hair has gone up from around £15 to £50-60 and at least two packs are needed to do a full head.

Second, I couldn’t ignore the health concerns any longer.

A report published in the American Journal of Epidemiology in February suggested there was a link between relaxers and an increase in fibroids — non-cancerous tumours that grow around the womb — in black women.

So in June I joined the transition bandwagon. I went to the Purely Natural hair salon in east London wearing a wig and came out with my natural hair on display for the first time in 26 years.

The look is growing on me and thanks to YouTube I can access thousands of tutorials to help if I get stuck for style ideas.

The natural hair trend has already been embraced by celebrities.

At this year’s Oscars, Best Actress nominee Viola Davis dazzled when she debuted her TWA (teeny weeny afro) on the red carpet.

And Beyonce’s younger sister Solange Knowles, the movement’s unofficial poster girl, has earned plaudits for sporting her big afro at glitzy events.

One of the main things transitioning has taught me is that I have choice — and that I can have fun with my hair.

But I also no longer have to rely on chemicals or fake hair to look my best.

Whatever hair I have on my head, I am still the same person underneath.”

Hair chemical ruined my life

Isabella Broekhuizen

Devastated … Isabella’s hair will never grow back

ISABELLA BROEKHUIZEN, 45, has been a lecturer and model in the UK and is now studying social psychology in Holland, where she lives with her partner. She says:

“Like many mixed race women, I convinced myself I had to keep my curly hair straight to look my best.

“I went to a hairdresser, who put a chemical relaxant on my hair. As I sat there, I became aware of a burning and itching sensation. I was told this was normal.

“Three weeks later my scalp was still sore and I went to my GP. He said I had to go to hospital, where a scan revealed that the relaxant was still burning my head. The sodium hydroxide had burnt right through to the bone. A couple of months later, my hair started to fall out and within weeks I was completely bald.

“Quite simply, it ruined my life. I’d had a lucrative career as a model – that was all gone.

“I also changed from being an outgoing, happy person to someone who rarely left the house.

“I still have no hair and have to wear a wig – it will never grow back.

“I am often contacted by girls who’ve done the same thing all in the pursuit of straight hair. It breaks my heart to hear their stories. I wish I had realised these chemical relaxants are so toxic.”

Isabella Broekhuizen

Head horror … Isabella’s burnt scalp

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