The intelligent consumer
IN THE pursuit of stylish hair, black women spend four times more than white women on hair products. The simplest explanation is that due to biology, black women have to do more to their hair to make it manageable.

The structure of hair, according to Keith Hobbs, a consultant at the Institute of Trichologists, can be likened to a pencil. The "lead" of the hair is called the medulla, the "wood" the cortex and the "paint" the cuticle. The cortex of black people's hair is made up of spiral, ladder- shaped molecules that give Afro hair it's "kink". Afro hair has twice as much cuticle as other types.

Despite this, black hair is more fragile because it is best suited to hotter, humid climates. In dryer climates, black hair needs more moisture. If hair dries out - through over-processing or environmental factors - it becomes brittle and breaks, creating the need to spend more both protecting and styling it. While a white woman will shampoo, condition and maybe mousse her hair, a black woman has to shampoo, condition, moisturise and steam.

But no amount of care will undo the damage done by some styles. The fashion for "relaxing" the hair, in particular, will take its toll. Relaxing is achieved by applying a strong alkaline to the hair (usually lye) which alters the molecular make-up. The chemical penetrates the cuticle and enters the cortex, weakening or "relaxing" the bonds that make up the spiral ladder. If a hairdresser relaxes your hair it will set you back pounds 30 or more. Do it yourself at home, using one of the many home-relaxing kits on offer and you'll spend around pounds 6.

But be warned: if the chemical is left on too long, the bonds will be relaxed to the point of breakage, and your hair will fall out. Other hazards include blindness, scaring, alopecia and increased skin sensitivity.

John Firmage - Consultant-in-charge at the Institute of Trichologists, often treats victims of relaxing processes that have gone wrong, and argues that home relaxing kits should be banned. Terry Jacques, three times winner of the Afro Hairdresser of the Year Award, agrees. "People aren't given proper advice; they don't know what they are doing," he says. "I wouldn't prescribe myself drugs if I was ill and for the same reason people shouldn't perm their hair at home."

Hedley Fetahul of Southwark council's trading standards department carried out a survey of 75 people in the borough who had had their hair relaxed. Twenty-one per cent had been burned by home kits. The study also found that some of the "no-lye" relaxers (launched amid concern about the dangers of the chemical) did have lye in them. The threat of permanent hair loss should make people think twice about buying kits off-the-shelf. But going to a hairdresser is no guarantee. I once had my scalp burned by one who left the relaxer on too long, then charged me pounds 39 for the privilege. The Good Salon Guide (mail order 01705 812233) lists qualified hairdressers nationwide.

Even if you escape the chemicals with your hair intact, relaxing may still do your head in. I recently opted for waist-length extensions because daily tonging of my relaxed hair was taking 45 minutes. Other options include: the natural afro; jeri-curls (curly permed); finger and push- waves (hair is saturated with gel, styled then dried rock-hard) and weave- ons (bits of hair - sometimes human - sewn over natural hair). These processes are not cheap.

Regular moisturising and deep conditioning is recommended whatever the style. Hobbs recommends hot-oil treatments like VO5 Hot oil as well as steaming on a regular basis, while Jacques recommends dry-heat conditioning with something like Goldwell Repair. Also recommended are TCB Bone Straight Nutrishock - a heat-activated conditioner, and Nexxus Humecutress Moisturising Condition.

Ranges recommended by Jacques include: Lady Velvet and Designer Touch Grow Complex . Another recommended range is by j f lazartigue, (0171 629 6487 for information). The most important thing for Afro hair is to treat it gently and keep it well moisturised.

8 For help with a hair or scalp problems, send an SAE to: Institute of Trichology, 108 St. John's Hill, London, SW11 1SY, or telephone 0171 733 2056

8 The Terry Jacques salon: 0171 627 4446