Gabrielle Union Talks Celebrating Healthy Hair and Stopping Relaxer Treatments: 'Hardest Breakup Ever'

Gabrielle Union opens up to PEOPLE about her haircare journey in celebration of her participation in Sally Beauty's first-ever roundtable discussion in honor of Black History Month

Gabrielle Union instagram
Photo: Gabrielle Union/Instagram

Gabrielle Union's relationship with her hair was once tainted by society's beauty standards.

While speaking to PEOPLE ahead of Sally Beauty's first-ever roundtable discussion in honor of Black History Month, Union opened about her haircare journey and how that evolution inspired the launch and relaunch of her product line, Flawless by Gabrielle Union. Taraji P. Henson — founder of TPH by Taraji — is set to host the panel on Feb. 22 in celebration of her recent partnership with Sally Beauty, and will moderate a conversation with Union (whose collection is also available at Sally Beauty), and other Black beauty founders. Viewers can tune in directly on

Growing up in Omaha, Nebraska, Union says her "Blackness was affirmed" as she was surrounded by girls who looked like her.

"I come from one of the largest Black families in the state of Nebraska — one of the largest in the Midwest. I was constantly surrounded by amazing Black women with all sorts of hair textures and types," Union, 49, tells PEOPLE. "I just thought everything was possible."

While in Nebraska, Union says she wore "cornrows" and had "hair beads." However, she admits she distanced herself from that particular form of Black expression when her family moved to the San Francisco Bay Area.

"Most people think of the Bay Area as having a lot of diversity, but the town we moved [to] was 99.9 percent white," Union shares, adding that the desire to assimilate was "so strong."

gabrielle union
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"I just wanted to fit in," Union says. "I wanted swoop, swinging hair and in order to get that I needed a relaxer," Union says of the chemical treatment used to make curls or coils easier to straighten.

Union says: "I had to convince my mom, and I'm sure she thought, 'What's the worst that can happen? They've been around forever.'"

So, Union began using the treatment, starting at age eight and not stopping until 15 years later.

"I didn't care about my hair health," she says. "I would try to leave the relaxer on as long as possible... It was about assimilating and trying to look and appear appropriate and attractive. I wanted that kind of validation that young Black girls get when you fully assimilate and you move away from Blackness towards something that is a little bit more destabilizing and not really affirming at all."

Although Union was able to "fit in," she knew something wasn't right.

Gabrielle Union
Gabrielle Union/Instagram

"To constantly be questioning yourself and not feeling worthy or good enough, I knew I needed to free myself of that and the first step was letting my relaxer go," Union tells PEOPLE.

Despite knowing what was best for her, Union says stopping relaxer treatments was painfully difficult.

"It felt like one of the hardest breakups ever," Union says, later joking: "I've been married twice, and I feel my breakup with relaxers was harder than my divorce." Union was married to retired NFL star Chris Howard from 2001 to 2006. She married current husband Dwyane Wade in 2014, and the couple welcomed their first child together — daughter Kaavia James in 2018. Wade is also dad to daughter Zaya, 14, and sons Zaire, 20, and Xavier, 8.

Union, who big chopped her hair in 2021, later poured her experience into her own haircare line, Flawless, which first launched in 2017. She later re-launched the brand in 2020, including new and better formulations with her long-time hairstylist Larry Sims as co-founder.

"It was a necessary journey," Union says of relaunching Flawless. "I wanted to make sure that we are not exploiting our community. I wanted to make sure that the products work, that we took out the bad ingredients that are super harmful and toxic to our bodies. We took those out and made sure that we were not only Black-owned, but Black-led. We did not overlook any part of our community in the creation of our business and moving forward. We just wanted to make sure that Black folks' needs were being centered in the whole process."

The product line includes conditioners, shampoos, hydrating sprays, restorative masks and more — all under $10, something Union is especially proud of.

Zaya Wade and Gabrielle Union
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"I was able to convince everyone that we should lower our profit margins, so that we can make sure that these products stay affordable. Then, partnering with Sally for distribution is huge because they understand our mission and goal. It's just been amazing," Union says.

For Union, working with Sally Beauty is a dream come true. "It's surreal," Union says.

"One of my first gigs years ago was my face on a relaxer box. It was one of my first jobs 25 years ago. To go from thinking how exciting it was to see my face on a box in a store, to seeing my face and Larry's face and celebrating all kinds of Black beauty is pretty awesome."

With so much knowledge and experience under her belt, Union is making sure to instill both hair confidence in Kaavia and Zaya.

"Right now, Kaavia's hair is more [wild] and Zaya is embracing her 'fro. As parents, we have an idea of how we think our kids look their best. So, you might throw out little comments here or there, but you have to remember at times those comments are rarely helpful."

"As Black parents specifically, we feel like if we can control every little thing, every little decision, our child will be safe, loved and protected. But, at the end of the day, we're just trying to control them. It's okay to let them experiment — when safe and reasonable."

Union added: "So, I'm just trying to let them be free and explore their hair while really leading into hair health."

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