The New Players in Natural Hair

By Tiffani C. Dawson

Photo by Clyon Jackson.

Being an innovator in the black hair industry made Madam CJ Walker the first self-made black woman millionaire in the early 20th century. Ever since, competition in the $185 million market for hair-care products designed for African-Americans has been vigorous.

Relaxers and weaves have been top sellers in the black hair-care market since the ’70s, when afros went out of style  (relaxers are used to chemically straighten wavy, curly or kinky hair).  Now, a major shift in hairstyle trends is leading companies to revamp their products and marketing techniques.

The sale of relaxers has plunged 17 percent during the past year, according to a report published by Mintel Oxygen, a market research company based in Britain. The drop is directly related to the natural-hair movement, reflected in an 11 percent increase in the number of black women who wear their hair “natural” – that is, without using corrosive hair-care products that straighten naturally curly hair.

In January 2011, Dominique West did the momentous “big chop” – the moment when a woman who previously relaxed her hair, cuts off all but normally short afro, also known as the teeny weeny afro (TWA).

“I went natural because I have an overly sensitive scalp and the perm hurt,” West says.  “It was damaging, not to mention annoying to maintain.  I hate the salon.”

Kenisha Subero, who has been natural for 4½ years, says  “Appreciating my hair was a stepping stone in appreciating and loving myself, something that I could not have attained with a perm.”

The natural-hair movement encourages black women around the globe to stop relaxing their hair and embrace their natural hair textures.  While companies have produced many products to alter black hair, few have focused on providing products to treat the unique characteristics – and diverse range – of black natural hair.

During the last two years, YouTube channels and Web blogs have become the go-to place for so-called naturals to explore which products may work best for them. These bloggers are the face of the natural hair movement; their recommendations hold much more sway among African-American women than do commercials.

“Messages coming from an impartial third party will always have more credibility,” says Prof. David Luna, who teaches marketing at Baruch College.

According to Mintel Oxygen, a YouTube search of “natural hairstyle for Black women” yields 933 results, while a search for “relaxed hairstyles for Black women” only yields 207 results.  Hairstyles for women with weaves yields 369 results.

Many professional bloggers, such as “Curly Nikki,” a licensed psychotherapist and influential style-setter in the natural-hair movement, promote the idea of making hair care products at home, even as she advertises natural-hair products on her Website,  She also advertises a homemade deep conditioner made of grape seed, coconut or olive oil and lots of honey and provides readers with a recipe for the concoction. Readers of Curly Nikki’s blog trade recipes for other homemade natural hair products. Curly Nikki’s website also contains advertisements for products that cater to natural hair, such as Mizani’s True Textures, a line launched by L’Oréal, the French cosmetics giant, and Miss Jessie products.

“I’ve noticed lines launching more natural products in general – whether it’s less harsh hair dye with organic ingredients or vegan friendly conditioner,” says Toni Daley, a Canadian artist and jewelry designer who maintains a YouTube channel where she showcases natural hair styles, as well as her jewelry and art.

Meanwhile, many bloggers publish lists of ingredients to avoid, such as isopropyl alcohol, petrolatum and mineral oil – ingredients that are found in black hair-care products that were once quite popular.

The market for natural-hair products, whether homemade or produced by independent entrepreneurs, is posing a challenge to large cosmetics companies. The research and development teams of companies from L’Oréal to Alberto-Culver have been redesigning products to cater to women who prefer to wear their hair “natural” and compete with the latest do-it-yourself products.

L’Oréal, which was convicted in 2007 of refusing to hire women of color as models in France, is now trying to cater to the natural-hair market. Its Mizani brand, launched a line specifically for black women with natural hair, “True Textures,” which includes products such as shampoo and conditioner, as well as gels and moisturizers, in late 2010.   The True Textures line even offers online styling instructions at  L’Oréal’s foray into the natural-hair market comes even as the company has seen a 9.3 percent drop in the sales of its Soft Sheen Carson Optimum Care and Dark & Lovely relaxers, according to Mintel Oxygen.

Alberto-Culver, which has been a segment leader in the relaxer market, has also seen a sharp drop in sales of some of its products. Mintel anticipates that the natural-hair movement will continue to erode the sales of relaxers, expecting them to decline by 67 percent between 2011 and 2016.

However, Alberto-Culver is hoping to hold on to at least a piece of the natural-hair market with its TrESemmé Naturals line, which is promoted as free of harsh chemicals and has been reviewed by YouTube bloggers, including on the channel of a blogger called “Anaturalbeauty3.” While not specifically designed for black natural hair, TrESemmé contains the ingredients recommended by many natural-hair sites.  And the company places advertisement on many YouTube sites followed by women who use natural-hair products.

Even the market for natural-hair products is undergoing something of a shakeup. For example, Fantasia, a Paramus, N.J., company, that for years has been a popular niche player, has been fending off competition from new entrepreneurial companies. More recently, Curls LLC, a California-based company founded by Mahisha Dellinger, who describes herself on the company’s Website as “a multi-ethnic woman,” has seen sales surge tenfold from $116,000 to $1.5 million over one year, according to Mintel Oxygen.

Other companies that cater to natural hair have also seen tremendous growth recently, including Miss Jessie’s, SheaMoisture, and Talijah Waajid.

Madam CJ Walker would be amazed.