Is It Abusive to Chemically Treat Your Child’s Hair?

K. Emily Bond

hair dye on toddlersWhen I was barely out of kindergarten, my mother took me for my first hair relaxer. She didn't know any better, we both joke now. But I can clearly remember the emotional and physical scars from those early days at the hair salon.

Pretty much all the women in my family (including me and my mom) now wear their hair sans "chemical fire cream," that is to say without so-called relaxers. For us, life is much more natural that way. As such, it pains me to see little girls -- yes, as young as toddlers -- being subjected to what I have come to view as abusive hair straightening.

The same goes for white boys and girls, like Kingston Rossdale and the Jolie-Pitt boys, with prematurely dyed locks.

The issues behind using "kiddie relaxers" versus hair dye are culturally more complicated than "to highlight or not to highlight." Taken at face value, though, that difference is only slight. Here's why.

Researchers have long suspected that hair dyes are linked to an increase in certain types of cancer, including non-Hodgkin's lymphoma. It's also important to take the chemical process into account.

Permanent hair color products and lighteners all contain an alkalizing agent, usually ammonia. When that alkalizing ingredient is combined with a developer, it causes a chemical reaction in the cuticle of the hair shaft that allows color to permeate deep into where the melanin lives.

Bleach, most likely used on Kingston, contains hydrogen peroxide and ammonium hydroxide, not the stuff healthy childhoods are made of. Used frequently or incorrectly, these chemicals can have the unfortunate side effect of making hair more porous and, thus, breakable. Ever heard of baby fine hair? Yeah, that means it's delicate. Would you wash a cashmere sweater with your blue jeans on heavy duty? No, no doubt.

Relaxers open up another can of worms, which I will not delve into right now. At issue, again, is the chemical process.

Chemical relaxers are based on rather complicated pH balances, which, after much reading, I still find entirely confusing. What I can tell you is the chemicals in commercial relaxers are caustic and break down the bonds that strengthen hair, often resulting in weak and brittle hair. They also deplete hair of sebum, natural scalp oils.

I mentioned before the emotional and physical scars of getting my hair relaxed as a young girl. The physical pain was due to the application of the relaxer itself, which was combed through my roots until the stylist asked, "Does it burn?" or "Does it itch?" Only when it began to burn, like out and out burn, was it washed from my hair. That's when you knew it really worked.

Sometimes if I rooted around my scalp, I'd come across clumps of hair along what felt like ridges. It wasn't until later in life that I figured out that those rivets were most likely the result of chemical burns.

From early on, the emotional toil was pretty intense. Feeling different from other girls, who played outside on Saturdays instead of getting their hair "done" and knowing that I couldn't get my hair wet, lest I ruin the day's labor. Yes, it really was that serious.

Maybe "society" is to blame for vilifying one hair type while praising another. The thing is, when I was 4 years old, relaxers were the norm. Why, in this day and age, some moms would continue to use it on their own daughter's hair is a mystery to me, as is blue or bleached blond hair on a toddler? Before that becomes the norm, maybe the trendsetters should have a good long think about what they're putting on and into their children's precious little bodies.  

Is it abusive? Dare I say, it's a slippery slope around the color wheel.


Image via Saffy/Flickr

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