A black woman with natural hair
A black woman with natural hair. © Lvnel - Fotolia.com

“Creamy crack”—vernacular for relaxer cream and the dependence on it to maintain bone straight hair—has fallen out of favor.

According to research by consumer trends firm Mintel, relaxer sales have “declined 26% since 2008 [when sales were at $206 million] and 15% since 2011 when sales reached $179 million—the only category not to see growth.”

Mintel expects sales to drop even further this year to an estimated $152 million as African-American women increasingly opt for styles that don’t require them to chemically alter their natural curl pattern.

The Mintel report found that, “in the past 12 months, nearly three-fourths (70%) of Black women say they currently wear or have worn their hair natural (no relaxer or perm), more than half (53%) have worn braids, and four out of 10 (41%) have worn locks.”

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Moreover, 48 percent of the women Mintel polled, “believe natural or curly hairstyles exude confidence and the same percentage consider them daring. Meanwhile, 45% of Black women think natural coifs are trendy.”

Times have changed for natural hair

This report marks a real shift in African-American beauty culture, and is something of a resurgence hearkening back to the dawn of the Afro.

The Afro of the Black is Beautiful/Black Power movements of the ’60s and ‘70s was seen as a radical embrace of black pride for a reason.

From the late 1800s, hair straightening techniques have been popular among Black women and men. James Brown was as famous for his hit “Say It Loud (I’m Black and Proud)” as he was for his chemically treated helmet of wavesMalcolm X vividly recounts giving his hair a fiery “conk” in his autobiography.

When the activism of the ‘60s and ‘70s gave way to the assimilation of the ’80s, Afros soon disappeared as African-American women returned en masse to relaxing their hair. Some still believed straightened hair represented adherence to white standards of beauty and professionalism.

A pioneer in the natural hair field

When veteran natural hair stylist, and the founder and owner of Khamit Kinks natural haircare salon, Anu Prestonia, first started doing hair professionally in 1978, she says her clients were primarily “students, artists, and activists, because these were the people who could wear their hair in natural styles and not get pushback for looking different, for looking cultural, for looking militant, or any of the other negative connotations that people sometimes associate with us wearing our hair in its natural state.”

In 1989, when she officially incorporated her business, Prestonia says the natural hair movement was just beginning to burst from its niche confines. “Around that time a very popular barber shop did some guerrilla marketing and made very edgy haircuts popular,” Prestonia recalls.

“They had posters of these severe cuts all over Brooklyn on lampposts. You would just see them everywhere and people started wearing them,” she says. “The most famous and iconic image of that era is [rap duo] Kid ‘N’ Play with their high-top fade.”

The exploding growth of a cottage industry

In the nearly 25 years that have followed, Prestonia has been eyewitness to natural hair care’s steady growth to its current relaxer-unseating share of the multi-billion dollar black hair care market.

Yet, she describes it as saturated.

“From people who are mixing [products] in their kitchen,” the natural hair guru says, “all the way up to the big boys that are now in the game with the TV commercials and full page advertisements and the billboards so the small manufacturer like myself has to compete with someone who can get the products made for a nickel on the dollar,” it seems like everybody is in the game.

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Who are the “big boys” she mentions? Companies include L’Oreal-owned Mizani, which sells both products for natural and relaxed hair, and Pantene with its Relaxed and Natural line.

“Once big corporations get into the game of something that was a cottage industry, you know that it’s being overrun,” Prestonia says.

Still, Prestonia believes the future of natural hair care belongs to businesses that consistently prioritize the customer. “There’s always been competition,” Prestonia says. “[P]eople had to pass by hundreds of shops to get to my shop, especially when I was in Brooklyn, but I kind of maintained my own uniqueness by always putting an emphasis on hair care and customer care, so I set myself apart in that way.”

New directions, new fans of black hair care

Increased and fierce competition notwithstanding, Prestonia is heartened by the direction of the trend toward self-acceptance this market growth represents.

Ironically, some natural hair advocates see black women’s movement towards natural hairstyles as a phenomenon that also benefits women who aren’t African-American.

Nikki Walton, founder of the hugely popular natural hair care destination CurlyNikki.com believes this movement, “definitely transcends just our [African-American] community.

“While we do have very unique experiences because of the history that we have here in this society,” Walton says, “at the end of the day, if a product that is designed to moisturize very dry hair exists, it will work for somebody that [has] loosely curled hair or… tight curls because that’s what the science is.”

For this reason, Walton says she has always highlighted products for all women with naturally curly hair, while claiming many white women and non-black women with curly hair as fans. Who would have thought the natural hair care movement could unite women in this manner?

Can hair bridge the color divide?

In 2011, natural beauty brand Carol’s Daughter caught major flack for taking this approach.

Founded by African-American businesswoman Lisa Price as a black hair and skin care company, Carol’s Daughter was re-branded to expand its target to women of all skin colors and hair types under the leadership of Steve Stoute, an executive and investor at the company.

Stoute, who authored the book The Tanning of America, chose to represent the new brand with model Selita Ebanks and singers Cassie and Solange Knowles — a decision that left many darker-skinned Carol’s Daughter fans feeling excluded.

“What we were talking about specifically was the diversity of hair textures between Cassie, Solange, and Selita Ebanks,” Stoute said at the time. “It had nothing to do with their skin color, and it was unfortunate that people took the texture dialogue and turned it into a skin color situation because that was never the intent.”

For Walton, who is a licensed psychotherapist, these issues point more to the state of one’s psyche. “If you only feel attractive and appropriate with that weave on, or with your hair straightened,” she says, “and you don’t feel attractive when your hair in its natural state then it’s time for you to sit down and reassess.”

Clearly, the natural hair care industry is still working through these issues. As the popularity of the movement shows no sign of abatement, there will be plentiful opportunities to explore them.

The future of natural hair

Millions of women still opt to perm their hair. While relaxers are on the decline, the market for hair extensions — including straight synthetic and human hair, plus Afros, locs, and strands that are treated to look kinky — continues to grow.

What this says about the future of natural hair is not clear, as the number of online communities, conferences, and products dedicated to the sector continues to grow.

Is a hairstyle “natural” just because the hair hidden by extensions is not relaxed? That remains up for debate.

Regardless, Walton is optimistic that in the future the share of women who see natural hairstyles as evidence of self-confidence, as illustrated in the Mintel study, will continue to grow.

Walton believes that “highly-textured coils will be seen as highly appropriate and professional and attractive in society. It’ll be a norm, and, thus, all these books and websites dedicated to helping you accept something that’s deemed as less than appropriate in society,” she says, “we won’t need ‘em anymore.”

That might make her own book and web site obsolete, but she does not seem to mind.

Prestonia is also hopeful. “[W]hen the day comes that [wearing our hair naturally is] not so much at the forefront of our consciousness, because it’s just something that we’ve accepted and other people have accepted, I think we’ll be moving on to bigger and better things.”

These natural hair care leaders are certainly on the forefront of a community that believes this time will come.

Nana Ekua Brew-Hammond is the author of the novel Powder Necklace and founder of the blog People Who Write. Follow her on Twitter @nanaekua