Taming the Mane - An Experiment in Hair De-tang...

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Taming the Mane - An Experiment in Hair De-tangling

A common question we get asked here at New Directions is 'Is it possible to make a natural or organic hair de-tangling product?' The answer is both yes and no.

In terms of natural ingredients that help smooth out the hair and make it easier to comb it is hard to go past Apple Cider Vinegar (or any non-sugar containing vinegar for that matter).

The secret to Apple Cider Vinegar's success is the effect it has on the quaternary protein structure of the hair - a structure that contains hydrogen and disulphide bonds. Hair is made of keratin and keratin is held together by what we call disulphide bonds (di means 2 and sulphide means an ion of sulphur. As an aside, the sulphur content of hair is one reason why, when hair is burning it smells so bad). While vinegar isn't anywhere near enough to break to main disulphide bonds that hold hair together it will 'relax' slightly the quaternary structure of the hair - the bonds that tend to make hair kinky, curly or slightly unruly- and this gentle relaxing does make the hair easier to comb.

For those of you that are aware of the 'relaxing' process in haircare you might be thinking that it is usually lye that does the job and not an acid. While it is true that the alkali Sodium Hydroxide (lye) is the best known hair relaxing agent, acids can also be used for this purpose and are frequently used in 'lye free' relaxing products. Thioglycollate salts like those used in hair removal creams are actually a mixture of the salt and the acid and this blend helps to more strongly reduce (or break) the bonds that hold the hair in curls. Thioglycollates and harsher acids or alkali's are able to break or alter the cysteine bonds within the hair giving a more dramatic and longer-lasting straightening or softening effect. That said, using solutions this harsh to 'condition' or 'de-tangle' the hair impractical, potentially dangerous and completely over-the-top.

Other than vinegar people have been known to use beer and especially Guinness to condition their hair. Aside from the fact that this may well leave you smelling like a brewery beer can actually be good for the hair. Guinness is produced by fermenting a mixture of hops and barley and these natural ingredients are rich in skin enriching vitamins. Barley is well known for its abundance of 'B' vitamins but sadly, the main B vitamin linked to hair strength and shine, vitamin B5 or panthenol is missing from Barley. Instead we have plenty of Vitamin B3 (Niacin), B1 (Thiamine) , B2 (Riboflavin) and B6 (Pyridoxine) all of which contribute to the health and vitality of the scalp and a healthy scalp is the first step in producing and maintaining healthy hair. Barley is also a great source of Vitamin A (Retinoid compounds) which further help to maintain scalp health.

Hops is also interesting from a scalp perspective as pure raw hops contain alpha and beta hydroxy acids in combined concentrations of up to 25% - AHA's and BHA can stimulate cell turn over and also help maintain scalp health. In addition Hops is also a source of Essential fatty acids, trace minerals and sugars which can help prevent the scalp from drying out. While these chemicals do undoubtedly get altered through the brewing process some benefits remain into the Guinness making it a reasonably scientific option, if not a little smelly and unconventional option for natural hair care.

In terms of commercially scalable natural and potentially organically certifiable hair de-tangling ingredients this is where we start to get thin on options. Applying vegetable oils such as Coconut, Argan or Olive oil to the hair will help to reduce combing friction and can impart shine but they can also quickly leave hair looking greasy and limp. Oils are best for people with very dry hair - either genetically or through environmental/ lifestyle factors. Fine, Caucasian hair will not take much oil before it looks like it needs a good wash. Water based options tend to give better looking results across a wider range of hair types but these are harder to come across in terms of natural ingredients. While panthenol (pro vitamin B5) is widely found in nature - Avocado, Whole-grain cereal, legumes, eggs, meat, yoghurt and broccoli - The only cosmetic grade of panthenol I've come across in my eighteen years of cosmetic chemistry is synthetic (but may still be nature-identical) rather than naturally extracted to make it suitable for cosmetic use and this processing generally means it is not suitable for organics although it can still be used in natural products. Other than that we can look at herbal rinses to help boost the long-term health of the hair and scalp.

Herb wise horsetail extract has a long history of use in hair care for strengthening the hair. In turn strong hair resists breakage which also makes it look more vibrant and in better condition. It's hair strengthening properties are thought to come from Horsetail's high concentration of silica, a mineral that helps to fortify and strengthen keratin in some situations. Otherwise there are herbs such as Gotu Kola, Ginger and Ginseng that increase blood flow, extracts such as Marshmallow root which contains a natural mucilage which acts as a natural de-tangler and also anti-inflammatory extracts such as Lavender, Chamomile, Licorice root and Yarrow which boost scalp health. For hair growth or to reduce hair fall many people swear by Rosemary the extract of which is rich in antioxidant polyphenols as well as anti-bacterial and anti-fungal actives. There are many more herbs both exotic and native that have been found to have benefits in hair care with most focusing on scalp health over practical conditioning.

When it comes to hard-hitting, fast-acting hair-problem-solving actives this belongs to the synthetics. Long-term hair conditioning and de-tangling requires the active ingredient to deposit evenly and grab onto the hair for the long-term. It is no good if the majority of the active washes off in the shower! To make ingredients stick to the hair the ingredient needs to be cationically charged (a positive charge) as the hair usually carries an anionic (negative) charge. Cationically charged actives are rarely found in a ready-to-use form in nature, the one exception being Ghassoul Clay which does have a cationic exchange capacity and can stick to and condition the hair at least for a short time. The cationic technology used in hair care comes from the textile industry and was originally developed to help with the management of wool fibres. Today we find this technology in ingredients such as Cetrimonium Chloride, Behemtrimonium Chloride, Polyquaterium 7, Quaternium 80 and functional silicones, ingredients which are technically brilliant but not completely natural.

The bottom line with haircare is if you want a product to be effective and meet the expectations of the broader market then some level of synthetic additive is a must. However, if you are happy to do some experimenting at home or you are OK with waiting for the long-term pay-off then nature has a few little tricks up her sleeve.

NDA Mild Hair Detangler Efficacy Experiment

Hair detanglers moisturise hair strands which helps to smooth unruly hair resulting in more manageable locks to comb through. In order for our product to make such claims, we designed an experiment to measure the difference in comb- through force on recently washed and dried hair without the detangling agent vs. recently washed and dried hair with the addition of a de-tangling product to see what difference the product actually made.

The experiment used a force gauge with a fine-tooth comb attached to measure the force required to brush one stroke through the hair on the mannequins head (real human hair.) Readings were taken from 30 brush strokes and averaged to reveal the difference in force required for untreated hair vs. hair with de-tangling product. At first glance, we see that our product has reduced the average comb force of untreated hair by 16%, while a market standard reduced the force by 18%. Once statistical analysis was performed, we were able to deduce that our data was statistically significant and a significant reliable difference between the three data sets can be observed.

As with conducting any experiment, as many variables as possible were kept constant to help achieve more accurate results:

  • A base reading of the hair without the de-tangling product was determined as a control so the difference the de-tangler makes can be quantitatively measured. It was important to remove any knots before measuring started as this would lead to statistical outliers.
  • The mass of each product dispensed (NDA and market standard) was taken in order to make sure equal amounts were used in the tests. (3 sprays of market standard = 5 sprays of NDA: 0.38g).
  • Once the product was applied, it was worked through the hair for 30 seconds exactly and then any knots were combed out in the same way as the base control.
  • The comb was attached to the force gauge securely as possible to provide an accurate reading; the same comb was used in all three conditions.
NDA Mild Hair Detangler Efficacy Experiment


Results Table
Condition Control NDA Hair De-tangler Market Std. De-tangler
  2.945 2.711 3.21
  2.925 2.925 3.4
  2.680 3.504 3.4
  2.950 2.40 3.02
  3.175 2.615 2.504
  3.105 3.614 2.6
  3.1 2.604 3.701
  4.0 2.3 3.3
  4.03 2.005 2.4
  3.770 3.2 2.6
  3.9 3.4 2.503
  4.3 2.7 2.8
  5.0 2.78 3.560
  4.8 3.214 2.835
  4.4 3.4 3.105
  3.4 2.7 3.5
  3.6 3.5 2.7
  3.2 3.409 2.6
  3.7 3.8 3.5
  3.8 3.715 3.09
  3.9 3.4 2.703
  3.601 3.020 2.565
  3.604 3.8 2.739
  3.110 3.1 2.874
  3.708 3.2 2.76
  3.615 3.00 3.7
  3.713 2.6 3.3
  3.51 3.085 3.406
  3.870 3.8 3.112
  3.620 2.505 2.521
Ave. 3.634 3.067 3.0002


Alyce Wangmann & Amanda Foxon-Hill
  (Lab Assistant / Cosmetic Chemist)

12 April 2016

More about: Hair Care, Hair Detangler

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