- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 17, 2004

The world of hair care and styling products is a maze of high-tech chemical formulas hand in hand with some notable marketing skills.

Products available for use on those slender strands — whether in the form of liquid, cream, mousse, gel, wax or serum — are a playing field for scientists whose toys are a mix of ingredients such as cationic polymer, fatty alcohols, ethanol, fragrance, oil, preservatives, protein, silicone, solvents and surfactants.

And you thought you were just trying to prevent bad hair days.

No matter the number of ingredients listed on a hair-care product — by law each ingredient making up at least 1 percent of the product must be listed — a product’s exact formula remains something of a company secret.

What isn’t secret is that water is the main ingredient in most of them — up to 90 percent of all hair-care products, according to the Pantene Co., a division of Cincinnati-based Procter & Gamble. With the exception of serums, which are mostly silicone-based, water is important as a solvent that allows other ingredients to blend well.

Such facts normally don’t intrude on visions in the heads of consumers who rush out to try potions promising — like the marriage vow — to preserve and protect (or correct) in sickness and in health all types and forms of hair.

In the weeks following the annual Academy Awards show, the rush to imitate celebrity hairstyles seen on men and women alike is especially intense, says Sara Lord of Ury Associates, 3109 M St. NW.

“Those movie stars at the Oscars all have fried, overcooked, done hair that is worked over and made beautiful because of all those finishing products,” she says. “You want hair to look healthy and full of body and not overprocessed even though everybody’s hair is. It’s all an illusion to make it look gorgeous and shiny.”

Hairstylists and beauty consultants such as Ms. Lord are on the front lines, advising clients about which products to use for the desired end. Basic styling aids such as gel and mousse give hair volume and shine, she explains. Mousse works on the roots of the hair; the heavier gels and pomades or waxy products are used for shaping and overall design.

“The number one key ingredient in these [styling aids] is polymer — a water-soluble adhesive that helps spread the hair by breaking up surface tension,” says Cheri McMaster, principal scientist with Pantene. “As the water dries, the polymer stays on. If you add hair spray into the regimen, you get more polymers and less water — making hair more resistant to humidity.”

The latest items on the market include leave-in conditioners and hair masks, which are treatment potions akin to face masks. Pantene this month is introducing an overnight treatment lotion that is rubbed into dry hair at bedtime and doesn’t have to be rinsed out the next morning.

Where ingredient recognition is concerned, Christine Hall, product development manager for the John Frieda line, part of the Andrew Jergens Co., says aloe gets a nod from consumers, and increasingly so does silicone. Silicone is a man-made property whose base is silicon, one of the most abundant elements on Earth because it can be found in sand, clay and granite. It’s found in many conditioners and such products as Frieda’s Frizz-ease, a styling product started in 1990 to promote the control of hair without leaving a sticky residue on the hands.

Because similar ingredients are used by different companies to perform the same function, packaging rather than labeling becomes key to moving products off the shelf.

Even so, the inclusion of recognizable plant oils is becoming more common, but to label or prefer something natural or organic is misleading, Ms. Hall warns: “It may or may not mean something when you talk of organic. Poison ivy is natural, but it isn’t good for you, whereas avocado oil is good for you. We probably could use a synthetic substitute, but people feel better knowing the real thing is included.”

As if to prove its scientific basis, avocado oil — third among the ingredients in Frieda’s popular Sheer Blonde Dream Creme styling product — is also given its Latin name persea gratissima.

Formulations can be spoken of in terms of their negative and positive charges. Hair has a negative charge, especially if it has been damaged, Ms. Hall says, but a conditioner will contain positive charges.

“The ammonium compound, or amine it contains, reacts with an acid that results in positively charged molecules that are attracted to hair,” she explains. “The conditioner stays in the hair because it is basically a bunch of positively charged molecules.”

Conditioners also contain fatty alcohols that add moisture and help create softness in hair, according to Mrs. McMaster. “[Manufacturers] have a lot of different options,” she says. “A cream version has more weight, but foam is better for thinner, finer hair.”

Whatever the choice of product, hair care is a complex matter, and a consumer easily can be confused by company claims. Further information on the subject — and beauty science in general — can be found on Proctor & Gamble’s Web site, www.pg.com. Another good source is www.cosmeticscop. com, a consumer-oriented product review site.

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