My tangle-free mane! (Or why does curly hair tangle less than straight hair?)

Anyone who knows me knows I have big hair; big, curly hair – I joke it’s a mane, but seriously it’s not far off. My hair and I frequently don’t get on; it misbehaves, it frizzes, and I often don’t give it the attention that, like a grumpy child, it demands! But, however much I bitch about it, I do think my hair reflects my personality – big and bubbly, and just a little bit crazy!!

One blissful fact about my hair is that, despite it naturally falling into ringlets, it never tangles and forms knots. The only time I have had any serious trouble with detangling the mane was after Halloween last year, when I decided that back-combing the entire beast was a good idea…

SciCom Halloween 2010 Picture source: Jack Croxall

It took most of a bottle of conditioner and an hour with my head over the bath to be blissfully knot-free again! Oh and Anna Perman, far right, is The Moon from the Mighty Boosh… don’t know it? Google it!

As per usual I had a little dig around the scientific literature to see if there was anything which could give me a little insight into the scientific secrets of tangled tresses! Amazingly, I found just the thing I was looking for; “Why does curly hair get less tangled than straight hair?” Tell me more…!

Through a slightly subjective small scale experiment Jean-Baptiste Masson demonstrated that curly hair had less tangles on average then straight hair, as analysed by hairdressers over a 3 week period. (I love the fact that “the experiment was always performed between 4 pm and 7 pm, so that the hair had a chance to tangle during the day.”)

Fig. 1. (a) Results of the first week of experiment: histogram showing the number of people as a function of the number of tangles, for straight hair (black) and for curly hair (gray). Taken from Masson, J-B (2007) Am. J. Phys., 75( 8):701

Masson then goes on to create a mathematical model to try to explain to reason for this slightly counter-intuitive result. Although rather simplistic, it does provide some clues into my tangle free (if slightly wild) mane!

The model examined how exactly hairs, or groups of hairs, interacted. Straight hair was modelled as being made up of one straight segment whereas curly hair was modelled as the combination of straight and curved segments. Statistical analysis, which included parameters about the different ways the hair could move and interact, was done to investigate the probability of two hairs meeting, and the average angle at which they would meet.

The study said that if you “observe people’s hair, [you] can see that there are very few tangles that have a small meeting angle. The local surface structure of the hair is the cause of this behavior: to form a tangle, two hair surface structures need to meet and attach themselves. If the angle is too small, that is impossible.”

Assuming that each hair position and angle of the different hair segment had the same probability of occurring, Masson worked out that curly hairs, despite tending to interact more than straight hairs, had a much smaller average meeting angle – so less tangles occur. Woo! My mane shall remain gloriously free of tangles!

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