Heating up hair science

Researchers are applying a scientific approach to discover how much heat it takes to straighten hair without causing permanent damage.

WEST LAFAYETTE, INDIANA, UNITED STATES (PURDUE UNIVERSITY)- Tahira Reid loves science. So she decided to use that passion to study one of her biggest causes of anxiety – her hair.

“Being an African American woman myself, knowing the challenges, knowing the frustrations that woman have expressed about hair,” said Reid, an Assistant Professor of Mechanical Engineering at Purdue University in Indiana.

“I was always wondering how we can think about this from a mechanical engineering perspective,” she added.

So Reid stepped out of the salon and into her laboratory. There she teamed up with fellow researchers Amy Marconnet and Jaesik Hahn to answer this question – what is the perfect amount of heat to apply when straightening hair without causing permanent damage?

Reid said too much heat applied over a long period of time could destroy the natural curve in hair leaving it permanently damaged.

“We are wanting to see the point at which hair becomes permanently straightened, it’s otherwise called heat damage. And if we understand the onset at which that happens than we might be able to intervene before or give some suggestions before you get to that point,” said Reid.

“If you go to the mall right now you see an isle full of straightening irons, and they have terms like ion technology and twirling. Our question is what are these things actually doing?” asked Amy Marconnet who is also an Assistant Professor of Mechanical Engineering at Purdue.

The team used an infrared microscope, a heating iron attached to a robotic arm, and other hi-tech instruments, to examine hair the same way they would carbon nanotubes.

“So what we can see from the IR (Infrared) camera is the temperature of the hair as a function of a position in time. What we are actually measuring is how the temperature evolves in the strand of hair as we move the straightening iron over it.”

Their preliminary results showed that the science of hair is challenging, mainly because everyone’s hair is different. But the team can conclusively say that African American hair seems more susceptible to heat damage than Caucasian hair.

Natural hair has sparked so much conversation worldwide among black women that “going natural” is now considered as being part of a revolution.

Most black women turn to chemical relaxers and extensions because their hair is too coarse or difficult to manage in its natural state.

Companies like Dark and Lovely, which sell millions of dollars worth of chemical relaxers and conditioners every year promising to make hair straight and more manageable, are now creating brands that target women with natural kinkier hair.

Research at Purdue University is ongoing. The ultimate goal is to gather enough data to give people of different ethnic backgrounds a scientific equation on how to straighten hair – without damaging it.