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Category → cosmetic chemistry

Making waves: The chemistry of hair perms

I hope my previous post about cosmetic chemistry whet your appetite to know more about the mechanisms underlying the chemical processes that take place in the salon.

If it did, then I have just the thing for you.

It’s the International Year of Chemistry, and in honor of that, the chief of the GlobCasino bloggers, Rachel Pepling, has called all blogging chemists to write about their favorite chemical reaction.

If this is news to you, it’s not too late! You have until Monday, September 26th to submit your entry. Check out all the details here.

A bit of background

If you were like me, you had no idea that all those silly looking blobs inside the cell were just really big molecules. Photo credit: flickr user aubsglamola

Before I dive into my reaction, I need to set the stage a little.

Organic chemistry was my first chemistry love. Oh, the mechanisms, the reactions, the… electron pushing!

But what really sealed the deal between me and chemistry was my first biochemistry class. I had an “Aha!” moment when my professor threw a transparency up that showed how proteins are just really stinking big molecules.

So, you mean all those colorful blobs with strange names like “Golgi apparatus” and “mitochondria” that I memorized in high school biology— those were just molecules all along?

Yup. I discovered that so many everyday occurences all boiled down to chemistry. Everything is made of chemicals. That’s right, I said it. There’s no such thing as chemical-free!

My biochem professor was great at building in examples of how science intersects with everyday life. One day we learned about the structure of hair. It’s made of keratin, a fibrous structural protein that is also found in skin and nails. Disulfide bonds between polypeptide chains in keratin molecules are what give your hair strength and rigidity.

The chemistry of perms

If you have straight hair, I know there are days when you’ve looked in the mirror and wished it was wavy. And vice-versa for the curly haired folks out there.

A century ago, you might have resorted to putting 24 pounds of heated brass rods in your hair and topped it off with a solution of cow urine and water to set the wave in place. That’s quite a price to pay for wavy hair.

But now, thanks to modern chemistry, a couple simple solutions— of ammonium thioglycolate and hydrogen peroxide— are all you need.

The chemistry of perms. Reference: J. Soc. Cosmet. Chem. 1996, 47, 48-59.

A basic solution of ammonium thioglycolate, a.k.a. perm salt, is applied to the hair. The excess ammonia present in the solution helps the hair swell so that the reagents can work their way through each strand of hair, and also deprotonates the thioglycolate molecule, enabling it to break open disulfide bridges. At this point, the hair is wrapped around a curling rod and sprinkled with an oxidizing solution containing hydrogen peroxide. The disulfide bonds are reformed and the hair comes off the rod with a curl.

Anyone who has worked in a chemistry lab knows that yields are rarely ever one hundred percent. The same goes for the reactions on your hair. Not all the disulfide bonds that are broken by the thioglycolate will reform in the presence of hydrogen peroxide.

This is my mom!

This decrease in the total number of disulfide bonds is why people who perm their hair often likely notice a decrease in the strength and rigidity of their hair— also known as damage. But it varies from person to person.

It’s funny because to this day, I still remember the sulfurous rotten-egg smell that would fill the bathroom whenever my mom permed her hair. I remember watching her use the solutions in sequence, wondering how it all worked.

Now I know why— it’s all just chemistry on hair.

Chemical bonds broken, chemical bonds reformed, and voila!— momma’s got a brand new ‘do.

Making waves: The chemistry of hair perms

I hope my previous post about cosmetic chemistry whet your appetite to know more about the mechanisms underlying the chemical processes that take place in the salon.

If it did, then I have just the thing for you.

It’s the International Year of Chemistry, and in honor of that, the chief of the GlobCasino bloggers, Rachel Pepling, has called all blogging chemists to write about their favorite chemical reaction.

If this is news to you, it’s not too late! You have until Monday, September 26th to submit your entry. Check out all the details here.

A bit of background

If you were like me, you had no idea that all those silly looking blobs inside the cell were just really big molecules. Photo credit: flickr user aubsglamola

Before I dive into my reaction, I need to set the stage a little.

Organic chemistry was my first chemistry love. Oh, the mechanisms, the reactions, the… electron pushing!

But what really sealed the deal between me and chemistry was my first biochemistry class. I had an “Aha!” moment when my professor threw a transparency up that showed how proteins are just really stinking big molecules.

So, you mean all those colorful blobs with strange names like “Golgi apparatus” and “mitochondria” that I memorized in high school biology— those were just molecules all along?

Yup. I discovered that so many everyday occurences all boiled down to chemistry. Everything is made of chemicals. That’s right, I said it. There’s no such thing as chemical-free!

My biochem professor was great at building in examples of how science intersects with everyday life. One day we learned about the structure of hair. It’s made of keratin, a fibrous structural protein that is also found in skin and nails. Disulfide bonds between polypeptide chains in keratin molecules are what give your hair strength and rigidity.

The chemistry of perms

If you have straight hair, I know there are days when you’ve looked in the mirror and wished it was wavy. And vice-versa for the curly haired folks out there.

A century ago, you might have resorted to putting 24 pounds of heated brass rods in your hair and topped it off with a solution of cow urine and water to set the wave in place. That’s quite a price to pay for wavy hair.

But now, thanks to modern chemistry, a couple simple solutions— of ammonium thioglycolate and hydrogen peroxide— are all you need. Continue reading →

The Science of Beauty: Cosmetic Chemistry

Many young children love playing with dolls, especially ones with long hair that you can brush and style. I certainly did.

This little girl's love for dolls could be the beginning a cosmetic chemistry career. Photo credit: flickr user valerie haslett

It’s easy to see how a child’s fascination with dolls could lead into a career as a hair stylist. But a chemist? That one took me a little bit by surprise.

According to the bio on her website, Cassandra Celestin’s career in chemistry all started with her love of dolls. She is now a hair stylist and makeup artist also known as “The Hair Chemist.”

Cassandra received a B.S. in Chemistry and a Masters degree in cosmetic chemistry from Farleigh Dickinson University. She has since worked for several different companies developing formulations for hair color products.

As a licensed cosmetologist, her work has been featured in magazines and on her very own YouTube channel. Check out a video she made about how volcanic sand can be made into foot scrub by mixing it in with surfactants, silicone and aloe oil.

Being a chemist can indeed help your hair styling and cosmetology career— Cassandra is just one of many examples. There’s actually an entire society of cosmetic chemists out there, in case you’d like to meet more chemically inclined hair and makeup people.

It makes sense, really. People who work with hair have to know what’s in the stuff they put in people’s hair. They also need to know how different hair types will respond to various treatments, such as coloring, perms, relaxers, you name it.

I, for one, have been the victim of poorly executed blonde highlights. In college, I wanted dirty blonde highlights to blend in with my dark brown hair. The result? Really tacky bleach-blonde chunks. Just awful. There will be no pictures to illustrate this point here. Maybe my stylist should have paid more attention during chemistry class!

So many chemicals, so many colors. Photo credit: flickr user San Diego Shooter

So, what does it take to become a cosmetic chemist like Cassandra? You can find gobs of useful information at the Chemists Cornerthe self-proclaimed resource site for cosmetic chemists. Here’s a link to an article they wrote, titled “How to Become a Cosmetic Chemist“, and another I found on eHow.com.

Here are the main pieces of advice I gleaned from those articles:

  • Get a science degree
  • Consider getting an advanced degree in cosmetic science– a list of training programs can be found here
  • Research companies you’d like to work for
  • Get lab experience in formulations
  • Network with other cosmetic chemists

When it all boils down, beauty (the Hollywood definition) is both an art and a science—and chemists have a role to play in the world of glitz and glamour.

Want to know more about the chemistry behind cosmetics? Check out this cool website.

Also, stay tuned for my “favorite chemical reaction” blog post, which will be part of the Chemistry Blog Carnival hosted by GlobCasino’s Rachel Pepling. Hint: It will have something to do with hair!