This hair trend is shaking up the beauty biz

Forget the relaxers.

More and more, African-American women are leaving behind chemicals used to straighten hair and accepting their natural curls.

The shift to Afro, locks and other natural hairstyles comes amid health concerns about relaxers, which have been linked to fibroids, as well as worries about hair breakage and loss. Celebrities such as Lupita Nyong'o and Viola Davis have fueled the movement, as well, by sporting natural styles.

"In general, in the beauty category, black consumers are beginning to embrace their natural self," said Tonya Roberts, a multicultural analyst for the intelligence firm Mintel.

Two-thirds of African-American women wore a natural hairstyle in 2013, according to Mintel's Black Consumers and Haircare executive summary, published last year.

Karen Grant, the global beauty industry analyst for the NPD Group research firm, said adopting natural hairstyles is a lifestyle choice, similar to how certain people favor organic and natural food. Importantly, it's a lifestyle that is crossing generations.

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Amid the shift, the market for relaxers has fallen for several years now. Sales of hair care products for African Americans reached $774 million in 2014, representing a 12 percent increase since 2009, according to Mintel. Meanwhile, sales of relaxers, which represent about 18 percent of the market value, were worth $131.8 million in 2014, a drop of 34 percent since 2009.

These numbers do not capture sales at independent beauty suppliers, where 87 percent of African-Americans shop, Roberts said. They also don't account for mainstream brands, online sales, wigs and weaves.

"We can see that sales [of relaxers] start to decline as far back as the 1990s. We forecast that the decline [from 2014] will reach 45 percent by 2019," Roberts said.

With the increase in demand for natural products, which help consumers care for and maintain their hair's natural features, larger chains and beauty product companies are trying to grab market share. Walgreens, Target and Wal-Mart now offer a greater range of options to African-American women with natural brands such as Shea Moisture, Curls and Miss Jessie's on their shelves.

L'Oréal's SoftSheen-Carson operates the Dark and Lovely hair-care brand, which is known for its hair relaxers. That brand has also keyed into the natural hair movement with its Au Naturale line, which includes natural hair products such as a mango-scented Knot-Out conditioner and a curl defining crème glaze.

In addition to Au Naturale, L'Oréal last year acquired Carol's Daughter, a well-known natural hair brand created more than 20 years ago. And Revlon, which is behind the Creme of Nature relaxers, has also launched a series of argan-scented products for curly textured hair.

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Yet, Roberts said, larger household products and cosmetics companies still have a long way to go.

One problem they have is that consumers tend to associate larger, mainstream companies with relaxers and other non-natural components. Even L'Oréal's acquisition of Carol's Daughter, an established natural hair products brand, wasn't an easy solution.

"Now that they purchased the brand, they can't rely on the brand's equity," Roberts said. "There may be a perception that L'Oréal will change the formula."

When the purchase of Carol's Daughter was announced, some took to Twitter to express their disappointment.

The founder of Carol's Daughter, Lisa Price, made a video to answer those concerns, which stemmed some consumer worry.

"The last thing L'Oréal wants to do is change Carol's Daughter," she said.

L'Oreal Dark and Lovely products.
Source: L'Oreal
L'Oreal Dark and Lovely products.

The makeup of advertising targeted to African-Americans also shows that companies are realizing the opportunities the fast-growing business represents.

The hair-care products industry in 2014 saw the second-largest year-to-year increase in advertising investment with black media, rising 98 percent, according to Nielsen's African-American Consumer Report.

Still, Roberts said many African-Americans have expressed that these ads present little relevancy to them.

"Overall, African-American consumers want ads that are culturally relevant and diverse," she said in an email. "The vast majority of blacks want to see a greater variety of blacks represented in ads."

Roberts said that the market for African-American hair is big and some opportunities, such as products for children and men, remain untapped. And the movement toward natural hair, she added, is far from being a trend.

"It's here to stay," she said.