Frizzy hair science: a tale of attraction and repulsion

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How to cite: Wong M. Frizzy hair science: a tale of attraction and repulsion. Lab Muffin Beauty Science. August 26, 2013. Accessed May 17, 2024.

Hair is very important – it’s an easy body part to change, and can dramatically alter your appearance, but if you wake up with bad hair, your day is automatically terrible.

Luckily, it’s also very interesting, scientifically speaking, since we throw a lot of chemicals at it every day. Today’s post will be on electrostatic forces though – tiny changes which affect how your hair behaves. But first off, we have to have a little talk about…

Tiny positives and negatives

This is an atom – you might remember this diagram from high school science, or everywhere in pop culture:

The middle is positively charged, and the outer balls are negatively charged electrons. (For the sticklers in the audience, I realise I didn’t balance the charges!) Everything is made of atoms – solids, liquids and gases, including your hair.

As you might expect, the negative electrons on the outside are relatively easy to remove from atoms and add back, and in fact, that’s the basis of all chemical reactions, from fires burning to digestion to photosynthesis.

How to stick stuff to your hair

Hair static though, isn’t quite a chemical reaction – some electrons can just rub off from one material to another. For example, if you rub a balloon on your hair, some negative electrons come off your hair and cling to the balloon. This makes your hair positively charged, and the balloon negatively charged:

As you’ve heard before, “opposites attract” – this is exactly what happens! The positive hair and the negative balloon stick together, which means you can torture people like this:


There’s actually a rough chart of what materials like to be positive and what materials like to be negative, called the triboelectric series. Here are some of the things on the list:

POSITIVE (most likely to lose negative electrons)
Human hair
Cotton (around neutral)
Common hard plastics
NEGATIVE (most likely to gain negative electrons)

Items higher on the list tend to lose negative charges to things below them. So if you brush your hair with a plastic brush, chances are you’re charging up your hair to be positive. If the wind (air) is whipping your hair back and forth, your hair is also being charged up (to be negative).

Just like we discussed earlier, opposite attract… but things that are alike repel each other. So if all your hair is charged positive, the individual strands of hair will all repel each other, which makes it poofy and frizzy!

All this charge talk has implications for how hair conditioners work, which is also very interesting, but a topic for a post on its own…

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