Scientists Are On A Mission To Protect Curly Hair From Heat Damage

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Morning hair routines can be a long and tiring process for many people with unruly hair. Some use curling irons or flat irons to style their hair, but there are setbacks. In our quest for the perfect "do," we could be seriously damaging our hair. But how are different hair types affected by heat? Researchers are keen to find out.

Our hair type is dependent on our genes, but we can straighten curly locks by applying heat and temporarily breaking the chemical bonds within our hair. Over time, these chemicals can return to their original form, so you get your natural hairstyle back, but applying too much heat or using it too often can permanently damage the bonds between them. This can result in fried hair that is devoid of its natural shape. Though there are a number of different products that claim to protect hair from heat damage, the science can at times be questionable.

“I have always thought about how mechanical engineers can have an impact in this area because we are trained in heat transfer and modeling and other methods that cosmetologists do not learn. As an African-American woman, I have been keenly aware of this problem,” said Tahira Reid, an assistant professor of mechanical engineering at Purdue University, in a statement.

A number of African American women have turned away from styling their hair in this way, instead embracing their natural hairs in what’s been dubbed as the “natural hair movement.” But, as the Washington Post’s Rachel Feltman points out, though there are more women who are choosing to keep the natural texture of their hair, they’re still at risk of damaging their hair when they occasionally use curling or flat irons.

Researchers suggest that current research that examines the effect of heat on hair is quite limited and uses broad categories – African, Caucasian or Asian – but as Reid says, “The whole world does not fit into these three categories.” Researchers have chosen instead to categorize hair types on the tightness of curls.  

Reid and her research team used an infrared microscope to analyze how different hair types react to heat. Their initial findings and experimental design are described in a paper, which was presented at the American Society of Mechanical Engineers' International Design Engineering Technical Conference. The preliminary results found that straighter hair dissipated heat better than curly hair and heat travels differently in different hair types.

“It appears that hair of different types reacts in different ways to the same heat setting,” researchers note in the study.

Reid wants the research to eventually lead to better scientific information on how much heat can be applied to different hair types before it gets damaged. She told the Washington Post that she hopes “a person could make reference to a chart that we can put in their hands, so that they’re clearly able to identify their own hair type, and say 'All right, here is the range of temperatures that have been empirically validated to not damage my hair.’”

[H/T: Washington Post]

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