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Diversity Boston

Keeping it natural

African-American women in search of less damaging ’dos fuel a booming business

By Meghan E. Irons
Globe Staff / December 5, 2010

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Natural black hair is becoming big business in Boston.

A growing number of companies are catering to local African-American women who sport their naturally kinky hair instead of using harsh chemical relaxers and other straighteners. These businesses are tapping into a burgeoning niche in the $154 million US black hair-care market.

More stylists are specializing in natural hairstyles such as curly up-dos, two-strand twists, dreadlocks (neatly matted coils of hair), and Afros. For instance, eight years ago, Martine Bernard of Roxbury was the only person in the city certified to do Sisterlocks, or finely dreaded hair. Now, there are nearly two dozen trainees and consultants — a boost that surprises Bernard, who has worn Sisterlocks for about a decade.

“It began as a hobby,’’ she said. “Now, it’s become a big business.’’

Natural hair salons are also popping up. Muriel’s Natural Hair Studio in Dorchester, which was the sole natural hair salon locally for more than a decade, launched a second salon in Dudley Square, and Fresh Start Natural Hair Studio opened in Dorchester.

Muriel’s owner, Dianne Princess Taylor, said salons are responding to demand. “People are just tired of the chemicals,’’ said Taylor, whose natural hair clientele is up 30 percent in the past seven years.

Aileen Allen, a 46-year-old Dorchester resident who stopped relaxing her hair eight years ago, said going natrual has never felt better. “A lot of women I know are living healthier now,’’ she said, “and the hair is just an extension of that.’’

As a result, traditional salons that offer chemical treatments are courting women with natural hairstyles, too. Olive’s Beauty Salon in Brighton is a 51-year-old shop that specializes in chemical straightening, but now 25 percent of its clients wear their hair naturally. Owner Stephanie Aguillar said there’s greater appreciation for naturally kinky coils.

“Society has accepted it more,’’ she said.

Even Target Corp. began stocking natural hair products in March, including Miss Jessie’s.

“Our sales have definitely increased in Boston,’’ said Titi Branch, Miss Jessie’s cofounder, who would not give specific figures.