Articles by: Mark

The Chemistry of Hair Relaxers

I run a science communication module for undergraduate students. One of the assessments involves writing a blog or news style article. This year’s students did a cracking job so I’d like to share some of them with you. So enough from me and over to Ola Odu, a 3rd Year biochemistry student at the University of Hull.

Twitter: @olaodu_
Instagram: @olaodu_

 

Untangling the mystery of how relaxers work and delving into the chemistry behind the process to reveal how kinks, curls and coils are smoothed into a sleek style

The use of hair relaxers is something that is very common among women of colour all over the world and despite its name, the process is far from relaxing. The desire for silky, straight hair stems from the way the media present these flowing locks to be the epitome of beauty, but this comes at a price. From a young age, many girls, myself included, are unfamiliar with their natural hair texture as a result of their attempts to conform to this standard to beauty that they are constantly surrounded by. Despite the widespread use of relaxers, many of us would never consider how they work on a scientific level. Now that I have embraced my natural hair, I look back on the relaxers that I depended on for so long to find out what they really did to my hair.

 

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My relaxed hair 5 years ago compared to my natural hair now


My relaxed hair 5 years ago compared to my natural hair now

Relaxers come in a range of brands, strengths and consistencies, but how do they work? Essentially, it’s a straight perm, usually used by people with thick and tightly coiled hair so that it is easier to manage. Instead of using heat to straighten the hair, chemicals are used to loosen the tightly set curls. Hair fibres are made up of proteins, mainly keratin, that contain different types of bonds which are responsible for each individual’s distinctive hair texture. Hydrogen and disulphide bonds are a main factor in determining the curl pattern of the hair. Hydrogen bonds are bonds that form between water molecules, and are responsible for hair curling as it dries. When hair is wet, the hydrogen bonds are broken. As it dries, the bonds reform, as do the curls. This is why hair can be manipulated by using rollers as a temporary alternative to relaxers. As the hair dries around the rollers, it
holds its new shape once they are removed.

How hydrogen bonds in hair are broken and reformed

Disulfide bonds are much stronger than hydrogen bonds. These bonds form between sulfur atoms in hair fibres in order to provide strength in addition to the formation of curls. These bonds cannot be broken by water like hydrogen bonds, so hair relaxers are used. The chemicals present in hair relaxers break the disulfide bonds. This permanently straightens the hair. However, breaking these bonds makes the hair more susceptible to breakage and split ends.

Illustration of disulphide bonds in hair fibres breaking due to the use of hair relaxer

The relaxers are strong enough to break the disulfide bonds in hair fibres and consequently alter the structure of the curl pattern. This because of their typically high pH. In chemistry, pH is a numeric scale used to state how acidic or basic a substance is. If it has a low pH, it is more acidic and if the pH is high, it is more basic. Hair relaxers are basic, with their pH ranging from 9 to 14 to ensure that they are strong enough to change the hair structure.

 

There are different types of hair relaxers available of varying strengths and made up of different chemicals. Thio (short for ammonium thioglycolate) relaxers are much thicker in consistency than other relaxers, which makes them easier to apply. They have a pH value of at least 10 to ensure that enough of the disulfide bonds have broken. The relaxer is then rinsed out and a neutraliser used to bring the hair back to its original pH value of 4.5 – 5.5. Thio relaxers slowly break down the bonds in the hair’s proteins in order to straighten it.

However, lye relaxers work in a slightly different way. In this process, lye is the active ingredient. Lye is a mixture of sodium hydroxide, water, petroleum jelly, mineral oil and emulsifiers. This relaxer is absorbed by the hair’s proteins and weakens the bonds rather than breaking them. The curls are then loosened as the hair fibre swells open. However, the amount of lye in the relaxer can vary, so weaker products can minimise the extent of damage to the scalp. Lye relaxers typically have a pH between 12 and 14 and do not require a special neutralising step, unlike thiol relaxers.

Increasing awareness of the potentially harmful effects of sodium hydroxide led to the development of no-lye relaxers. They work in the same way as lye relaxers, but the sodium hydroxide was replaced with potassium, lithium or guanidine hydroxides. This means no-lye relaxers are gentler on the scalp.

Once the hair is relaxed, it is permanently straightened. But as the hair continues to grow, the roots will be natural. This means the relaxing process should be repeated regularly to achieve a consistent look, but excessive use of relaxers can cause damage over time, leading to chemical burns and hair loss. Relaxers contain strong chemicals to ensure that all the bonds holding the curls are altered. These chemicals can be harmful if overused or applied incorrectly.

Overall, hair relaxers are useful in managing thick, tightly coiled hair when used moderately. But, it is a permanent alteration to the hair’s curl pattern, so it is something that should be well considered before undertaking. Personally, my hair is much healthier without the use of relaxers, but this is not the case for everyone. What you do with your hair is your choice and should come from you, and you alone. Ultimately, all hair textures are wonderful and beautiful in their own way and should be celebrated!

By January 31, 2018 1 comment general chemistry

Curiosity and distress


I had a particularly low period during my post-doc career, nothing seemed to be working.  The days of failed experiments stretched into weeks and then months, with no end is site.

About that time I came across a quote (from the zoologist Marston Bates), that mirrored my mode

Research is the process of going up alleys to see if they are blind.

At first this seemed like a dark description of the scientific method that chimed with the distress I felt after yet another fruitless week in the lab. It conjured up an image of a lost scientist wondering down one street after another, repeatedly hitting dead-ends and having to double back to the point where he started. And as a result achieving nothing for his efforts.

That evening I nursed a beer whilst dwelling on the quote and considering my options. Maybe research science wasn’t for me after all. Perhaps I should try something that felt less like wondering around in the dark. And then it occurred to me that Marston may have left a word out. Perhaps the quote should read

Research is the process of, systematically, going up alleys to see if they are blind.

If I treated every failure as a setback, as I was doing at the time, then I was without hope of reaching my goal. But that one word changed everything, no longer was I haphazardly wondering around trying to find my way out of a maze. Instead I became a cartographer plotting the possibilities and marking off the blind alleys.

That moment represented a sea change in my thinking, it is a moment that I often look back on as a fork point in my life, without that light bulb moment I may well have remained in the dark and taken a completely different career path.

But despite this moments importance I couldn’t quite label what had happened. Until I came across a piece within Merck’s Curiosity report. It described the four traits of the curious. The first three seemed obvious, and I imagine they are words that would crop up regularly when folks are asked to described characteristics of the curious. They are inquisitive, creative problem solvers and open minded. The fourth trait I hadn’t considered before, but it is the one I now recognize as having germinated in my mind as a result of Bate’s quote; distress tolerance, the ability to cope in difficult and anxious situations.

And it’s the lack of distress tolerance that can put the kibosh on curiosity, the most creative, open-minded and inquiring person will come to naught if they give up when things get tough.

Which leads on to my next challenge… These days I spend a significant amount of my time out of the lab, communicating science. I direct a science festival, I go out and about to schools and public arenas.  Why? Well in no small part I’m trying to inspire people to be creative, inquisitive and open minded. But maybe that isn’t enough, do I need to introduce distress tolerance to my science festival?

But how to do that?

Should I focus on tales of failure as much as the rare successes? After all science is full of things that don’t work, the eureka (or even the ‘oh good’) moments are the rarity. But when we communicate our science we invariably showcase the things that work and gloss over the mass of experiments that didn’t produce the result we hoped for.

And if we only ever present the good stuff, how will folks react when they get into the lab or out into the fields and discover that actually stuff, largely, doesn’t work? Somehow I doubt that a workshop filled with demos that don’t work isn’t going to draw the crowds, but stories might? Tales that celebrate stresses and challenges of science and the stuff that doesn’t work, the ideas that proved fruitless, the broken kit and the pitiful yields, would people come and listen to those?

So here’s my aim. I’m going to try and bring narratives, to my science festival, that highlight the challenges and the way we overcome them, but equally as important the ways we don’t. There are some really great examples of this sort of thing out there already. Story Collider, is full of them (Stories about stressful situations), Maryam Zaringhalam writes about failure at Scientific American, she has even started a  forum for scientist to recount their failures (by her own admission it’s a flop). And then there’s F*#$up nights where folks recount their greatest screw-ups to the assembled audiences.

Watch this space, watch me fail 😉

 

 

Full disclouse …  Merck asked me to join their  Curiosity Initiative, which consists of science and technology-based opinion leaders. It was established by Merck to seek connections between scientific research and the underlying question: Why Curiosity? There really is some interesting stuff in their curiosity report, so do take a look. Merck is known as Merck KGaA, Darmstadt, Germany in the United States.

By December 8, 2017 0 comments opinion

The Secret Science of Superheroes — the origin story


Remember that League of Extraordinary Scientists? You know, the one’s that wrote a book about superheroes in a weekend. Well their Herculean efforts have come to fruition. The Secret Science of Superheroes (published by the Royal Society of Chemistry) is out now and this is what it is where it came from …


If you are going to enjoy a superhero movie (or more pretty much any action film for that matter) you’ve got to be able to suspend disbelief. Especially, for those of us that have a scientific bent. There’s just too much that is just plain impossible and if we whinged about every little detail that wasn’t quite correct we’d sure as hell annoy anyone else trying to enjoy the escapism of a fantasy flick with us. I learnt that particular lesson from my little brother after he hit me because of my incessant complaining about the physical inaccuracies of Road Runner cartoons. I grew out to it, eventually. Or at least learnt to kept my over thinking of animations to myself.

So this book is not about picking holes in movies. Although that is fun … OK, let’s do that a little and get it out of the the way now.

First off spaceships don’t need wings. Without an atmosphere the protrusions are merely decorative. And without any atmosphere there’s no need for them to bank as they turn in the vacuum of space. Plus there is precious little resistance to movement, which means that spacecraft need just as much power to slow down as they did to accelerate (which get’s handly overlooked in the movies). And why do starships always have the same orientation when they meet in space?

Lasers beams — You can’t see them from the side, unless there is something around to scatter the light — see if you can spot the beam next time you use a laser pointer. And whilst we are on the subject, laser beams don’t make ‘puchu puchu’ noises (and even if they did you won’t hear them, at least Alien got that right. Remember, in space no one can hear you scream).

Armour is no good in a crash — It doesn’t matter how much super hard material a superhero encases himself in (we’re looking at you Iron Man), you’re still going to turn to mush when spectacularly crashing into a building. What you really want is something that slows you down gently. That’s why, in the event of a collision, we like cars with airbags and crumple zones, instead of ones constructed from inflexible titanium body work.

Being hit by a bullet (let alone a weightless laser beam) won’t throw you backwards. A 9mm slug, fired from a handgun, has about the same momentum as a water balloon thrown by a child, whilst a football kicked by a professional can easily have 4–5 times the momentum of a bullet. And from my experience water fights rarely result in people getting knocked off their feet by a balloon impact, and footballers loosing their footing is more often the result of their special ability to trip over blades of grass.

All great examples of reality being suspended for the sake of drama. And we’re cool with that, because in a good movie the impossible is allowed, but the improbable isn’t (to paraphrase Aristotle with modern parlance)[1]. So we are fine with faster than light travel, fiery explosions in space (no oxygen = no fire), and laser sound effects. However indestructible metals, webslinging humans and invisibility leave us pondering how science might explain them.

So this book is about trying to suspend the improbable. It is about the ‘missing’ scenes (and science) that could be in movies and comics if what actually gets shown to use on the silver (of flat) screen had any basis in reality. Basically if we accept what we see in the movies what else must be true?
Now I could have taken a typical solitary, leisurely approach to penning this book, holed up in an office writing over months and year. But if I’ve learnt anything from superhero flicks it’s that all the best stories have teams: Give me X-men, The Justice League and the Fantastic Four over the lonely Spiderman or Batman any day. Secondly, faster is better. You never hear of a hero travelling slower than a plodding tortoise or proclaiming to be the most ponderous man alive.

No, a book about heroes needs a more rapid fire, heroic approach. Which is why I assembled a league of extraordinary scientists and set them the Herculean task of writing this book in just 36 hours. Plonked in the middle of the Manchester Science Festival and Salford University’s Science Jam, in a blur of flying fingers worthy of the Flash we cranked out over 200 pages delving into all the nitty gritty science that fascinates us but seems to have been overlooked by movie makers.

Onwards then to some of the most important questions in science. How do heroes handle big data, why did mutant super powers evolve, how might super soldiers be engineered, and just what do superheroes have for breakfast?

But before we get to that, one more thing. Scientist love to categorise things; elements go into periods and groups on a table, life get kingdoms, families and species, matter comes in phases and it goes on. We have a need to take an object or concept and give it a nice neat point on a diagram. And so inevitably, during our frenetic weekend of typing (punctuated with regular trips down rabbit holes — comics strips out of context caused much mirth, google it) a means of charting superpowers emerged. The super hero, intrinsic, extrinsic, location diagram (otherwise known as The SHEILD) also turned out to be a rather neat alternative to the conventional contents page.

Finally, a special thanks to Andy Brunning of Compound Interest fame, for the wonderful infographics that run throughout the book.

 

Image Credit: Andy Brunning

By October 5, 2017 2 comments fun

The Underground Map of the Elements – now with Nh, Mc, Ts & Og



What with the names of the four latest elements being confirmed I thought it time I updated the original Underground Map of the Elements. So here it is resplendent with nihomium, moscovium, organesson and tennessine! Enjoy

Underground map of the elements 2016

Link to PDF version.

By December 3, 2016 8 comments fun