ALLURE: Are Texture Releases Just a Rebrand of Relaxers?
The hair treatment is bringing up emotions and sparking debate.
BY ANNIE BLAY
June 15, 2023
The spicy sensation on my scalp as I wait for my mom to rinse the relaxer out of my hair will forever be etched into my memory. This routine started when I was around 12 years old and as uncomfortable as the burning itch was, I was willing to endure it, just to have straight, flowing hair. Fast forward to age 16 and I’d decided to embrace my 4C curls and go natural. And I wasn’t the only one. Many Black women who grew up getting their hair relaxed jumped head-first into the natural hair movement that started surging about 10 years ago. From 2016 to 2018, at-home relaxer sales declined over 20 percent.
But in 2023, it seems relaxers have come back in style (not that they ever came close to disappearing completely) but this time, with a quiet rebrand. If your TikTok “For You” page looks anything like mine, you’ve recently come across countless videos of women getting a “texture release” or “texturizer” (a hashtag for the latter has more than 10 million views). The comments on these videos suggest that there is some confusion and contention on what exactly a texture release is. Some recognize the curl-altering treatment as a relaxer, while others stake a strong claim that the two are completely different.
To clear things up, we spoke to experts to find out the main differences between a texture release and a relaxer, what’s involved in getting a texture release, and why there’s so much debate about chemically manipulating your natural curls.
What is a texture release?
A texture release is essentially a mild relaxer. The mixture used in the treatment is made of chemicals (namely sodium hydroxide, calcium hydroxide, or lye, which will be referred to as “active” in this story) aimed at breaking the disulfide bonds in the hair, which loosens the curl pattern and texture. “The more disulfide bonds you have, the curlier your hair is going to be,” says cosmetic chemist Erica Douglas. “So relaxer chemistry is all about breaking disulfide bonds, [then] neutralizing the hair back to a lower pH. The final result is that your hair doesn’t have as much curl anymore.”
While some see the treatment as problematic because it reinforces the Eurocentric standard that looser curls are better (more on that in a moment), many are opting to texturize their hair more for manageability than the aesthetic because frankly caring for natural hair can be time-consuming. My average wash day is about three to five hours, on a good day.
Experts advise going to a salon for a texture release service (any treatment dealing with chemicals that have the potential to burn you is best left to the pros), but it is possible to buy an at-home kit. Most, like this one from Avalon, come with a bond-breaking lotion along with a shampoo, conditioner, and a neutralizing solution.
What’s the difference between a texture release and a relaxer?
Texture releases (which are also called texturizers but we’re using the term texture release throughout this article) are similar to relaxers in formula — the difference is the amount of active ingredient used. Traditional relaxers use more active because the goal is to get curly hair bone straight. Texture releases use less because the end game is not to straighten the hair, but rather loosen the curl. “When I was working on formulating relaxers, we would just put a lower amount of active in a texture release product and change the instructions to say, ‘don’t leave it on the hair as long’,” says Douglas.
There are no set regulations around what level the active should be in a relaxer versus a texturizer, but Douglas says texturizers use roughly 35 to 50 percent less calcium hydroxide or sodium hydroxide than a regular-strength relaxer. The amount varies by brand.
Though stylists have been using relaxers to perform texture releases for years, both Douglas and Michaella Blisset Williams, hairstylist and owner of New York City-based hair studio [Salon] 718, warn against using an at-home relaxer kit to achieve a texture release. Doing so risks causing unnecessary damage to your hair because you won’t be able to properly gauge the amount of time to leave the mixture in — it’s not as simple as leaving it in for a shorter period of time because you don’t know much of the active product is present, Douglas adds.
As for maintenance, Williams suggests clients come in twice a year for a touch-up on a texture release to make sure new growth at the root matches the rest of the curl pattern. Because relaxers change the hair texture so dramatically, they require more frequent touch-ups, with about eight weeks in between each treatment to straighten out the roots.
Do texture releases damage the hair?
Any treatment that involves permanently breaking the disulfide bonds in the hair will cause some damage. (Breakage and thinning are the most common types of damage related to texture releases and relaxers.) When it comes to a texture release, it’s about inflicting just the right amount of damage to achieve the desired result. “Breaking bonds in the hair to loosen your curl pattern could make the hair weaker,” Douglas explains. But “you haven’t necessarily damaged the hair. You have changed the biology or chemistry of your hair,” she adds. When done correctly, a texture release can make tight curls and coils more manageable without compromising the health of the hair dramatically. You can cut down on styling time, and heat styles like silk presses will last a lot longer.
The really harmful effects come in when you leave the chemical on too long or if a company is using more of the disulfide bond-breaking active that you would expect in a texture release formula. “What I have commonly seen is that people will leave it on too long, they don’t neutralize the product, and then their hair falls out or it breaks off,” says Douglas.
Another way to make sure you don’t damage your hair when getting a texture release is to begin with healthy hair. If your hair is already damaged from color or keratin treatments, or you have heat damage, proceed with caution. “You’re basically weakening already weak hair,” says Douglas. “But when you have strong healthy hair, these formulations can definitely be used safely.”
What happens at a texture release appointment?
If you’re considering getting a texture release for the first time, we suggest finding a salon that offers the service. The appointment lasts about an hour. Williams charges $200 to $500 at her salons in Brooklyn, New York. (The cost will vary based on location.) She asks her clients to come in with detangled hair that hasn’t been blow-dried or straightened so she can get a good idea of the curl pattern she’s working with before determining how much looser the client wants the curls.
After talking about your desired look, your stylist will apply the texture-release mixture using a comb to evenly distribute the product throughout the hair. (If you are attempting this at home, Williams suggests using a large-tooth comb, as finer ones can “straighten out the pattern too much.”)
Timing is essential. Williams says a stylist will usually check in frequently (starting after five minutes) while the mixture sits in the client’s hair to see how much the texture has loosened, and will rinse out the mixture as soon as the curls are at the desired pattern. Once the mixture has been washed away, the hair is washed and conditioned before a neutralizing solution is applied. The neutralizing step ensures any chemical residue is removed from the hair and restores the hair back to its natural pH.
Why get a texture release?
Some sentiments surrounding these texture release videos on TikTok bring up the age-old argument of what Black women should and shouldn’t do with their hair. Some commenters support the choice to use the treatment for easier manageability on type 4 hair (which is characterized by tight coils that often have a z-shaped pattern), while others criticize those who choose to texturize on the grounds that they are inflicting potential hair damage and the message of “not loving your curls.”
I’ve been natural for over 10 years, and while I love (and am constantly learning to love) my curls, the thought of chemically loosening my hair does cross my mind. I relate with those opting to get texture releases for manageability, and even for those just wanting the look of looser curls, there shouldn’t be any shame. Williams and Douglas agree.
“I’m not pro straight or curly,” says Williams. “It’s really what your lifestyle allows you to do and what you feel comfortable in. I’m here to make my clients’ hair journeys easier and speak to them about the pros and the cons and what their commitment will be for whichever [path] they decide to take.”