Co-owner Whitney Nolan estimates 85 percent of the 200 clients who visit the salon each week come for natural hairstyles. And not just a blow-out, but also the two-strand twists, braiding and dreadlock styles the salon has added to its repertoire over the years.
“Five years ago, everyone was into perms, but there’s definitely been a shift towards natural hair,” said Nolan, whose mother, Liz, started the salon. “We still do relaxers, but not as often as before.”
A growing number of salons in the Washington area, like Natural Motion, are reporting higher revenue from styling black hair that is not chemically altered. The popularity of natural hairstyles has spawned a crop of specialty beauty parlors throughout the region, and shifted the economic balance of the $185 million black hair-care market.
Sales of chemical straighteners, for instance, tumbled 12.4 percent between 2009 and 2011, according to market research firm Mintel. The number of black women who say they no longer relax their hair climbed to 36 percent last year, a 10 percent hike from 2010.
There are new products that minimize breakage as hair transitions from chemically straightened back to kinky, said Geri Duncan Jones, executive director of American Health & Beauty Aids Institute, a trade association.
“Savvy African-American product manufacturers have added natural hair care products to their offering to meet the great demand of this trend, which will be in existence for many years to come,” he said. “Natural hair care products are the fastest growing category in ethnic hair care.”
A return to roots
African-American women embraced natural hair en masse during the Black Pride Movement of the 1970s, when wearing Afros or cornrows had great political significance. Times changed, and many women returned to having their hair permed.
“Over the years, we have been doing such aggressive hairstyling in our community that a lot of our women are losing their hair. It’s a combination of the chemicals, the product, the heat,” said Stephanie Johnson, owner of the Hair Care Co. in Camp Springs. “A lot of women are thinking, ‘Maybe if I leave the chemicals alone, maybe my hair will get thicker.’”
Relaxers, comprised of sodium hydroxide, calcium hydroxide or lye, can damage hair follicles over time. Inhaling the concoction, as Johnson pointed out, can also be toxic for the stylist applying it to a client’s roots.
Hairdressers withstand the fumes for the payday that comes with the service, which in this area can run anywhere from $70 to $150 per head.
By comparison, “thermal texturizing”— fancy talk for the blow-drying and flat-ironing involved in a press and curl— typically starts at $60.
“There is definitely more money to be made with relaxed hair, but a smart stylist and educated consumer with natural hair won’t shy away from being a regular customer either,” said Bill Lawrence, owner of a namesake salon in Adams Morgan.