One particularly rushed morning, my preteen daughter requested (more like demanded) my assistance in detangling her long locks. As a balding man with shorthair, this was uncharted territory. I did not even know detangling was a word (for hair, it seems to be more common than untangling). Anyway, I wondered how detangling spray worked.
First, I had to consider how hair gets tangled in the first place. Each hair has an outer covering, or cuticle, composed of flat, thin plates that are laid out like roof tiles. When damaged, the plates can become loose or fall off, leaving rough surfaces that can catch onto other hairs. Since long hair has had more time to grow, it also has had more time to get damaged, which increases its chance of tangling.
What I learned is that there’s more than one way to detangle a coif and my daughter seemed to go with a multifaceted approach. These are the main detangling strategies:
Oils fill in the pores of dry or damaged hair to make it softer, more pliable and less likely to tangle. The oil mimics sebum, which is the oil your skin produces to protect hair and follicles.
Synthesized in many forms, silicone's long molecular chains bind to the surface of hair and add gloss.
Adding acidifiers lowers the pH, which tightens up and smooths the surface scales of hair, by strengthening the hydrogen bonds between the keratin protein molecules that make up the core of each hair.
These are amino acids, like arginine, glutamic acid, and serine—the building blocks of proteins. They help repair keratin, the main protein that makes up hair. They smooth out broken edges, so that hairs don’t catch on other hairs as much.
Surfactants is a mashup of surface active agents. They are molecules with both a hydrophilic (water-loving) part and a hydrophobic (water-hating) part. Cationic refers to the positive charge of the hydrophilic section. The positively charged part is attracted to the negatively charged amino acids in the middle of hairs that become exposed when the cuticle becomes damaged. This leaves the hydrophobic parts on the surface of the hair, creating a thin film that feels smoother and is easier to comb.
My daughter's detangler listed twenty-five ingredients, in order of predominance. First is aqua, which means water in Latin. I thought this was just a deceptive marketing strategy, but it actually has to do with international labelling agreements. Water is a useful solvent in which to dissolve other chemicals.
After looking up all the ingredients on this website dedicated to the chemistry of cosmetics, they seemed to fall into three general categories—the detanglers, the emulsifiers that help the other chemicals stay mixed together, and the fragrances, which can be kind of annoying.
The Internet is rife with DIY detangling alternatives, but I had enough trouble just untangling the contents of my daughter's detangling spray. If you have any recommendations, please add them in the comments.