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Bladerunners get serious about hair

Men, as well as women, may benefit from cutting-edge technology for observing hair's chemistry.

Scientists have had a breakthrough on preventing charged hair situations like this one.
Candace Lombardi

"Hair brained" scientists from the University of Bayreuth in Germany have found a way to observe hair follicles at the microscopic level while it moves and reacts to chemicals.

Hair follicles were mounted on the cantilever tip of an atomic force microscope, allowing the scientists to closely observe for the first time how hair follicles react while they rub against each other--and respond to environmental forces like "humidity, water content of hair, and hair stickiness," Eva Max said in a study presented by herself and Claudia Wood at the American Chemical Society's 236th National Meeting on Sunday in Philadelphia.

The observations are helping the team determine what chemical cocktail can be applied to make your hair healthier.

As you probably already knew from the dozens of hair commercials with graphics, rough hair follicles have scales that project out from their shafts, whereas conditioned hair follicles have scales that lay flatter against the shaft, making it feel smoother.

These scientists have been able to observe these rough hair follicle scales rubbing against each other and exacerbating problems of frizz and entanglement. Their friction creates a negative charge that makes individual hairs repel each other like magnets.

Hair care product manufacturers have been trying to develop chemical formulas containing positively charged polymers to neutralize the situation. (Think of it as figuring out a way to have microscopic dryer sheets rub every single hair on your head free of static.)

A Transmission Electron Microscopy (TEM) photo of a piece of hair fragment glued to the cantilever probe of an Atomic Force Microscope. University of Bayreuth

These scientists were able to present a full microscopic analysis of the chemistry of hair as a result of their new observation method.

Prior to this, hair was observed under a typical microscope and product tests often included subjective opinions such as how soft hair felt based on human touch, according to the researchers.

OK, so chemists are figuring out what you can add to your hair to make it more silky and easier to brush, and less frizzy and broken. Who cares?

Seemingly, everyone in the world who has hair and decent access to water.

More than $60 billion a year is spent on hair care products by consumers worldwide, according to statistics presented by the scientists.

So, who's soon going to have the better hair-care products based on this research? My guess is a company who buys their cosmetic ingredients from BASF (Badische Anilin- & Soda-Fabrik). The Care Chemicals Division of the chemical and plastics company is the one who sponsored the research.