Julia Rizzo

Julia Rizzo

For my column this month, I set out to learn something about the science behind curly hair. Just what makes it curly? Why is my hair soft and frizzy while my sister’s is kinky and coarse? The first place I looked was Google Scholar, which rarely lets me down. After a good fifteen minutes of searching all I could find was an incredibly racist, sexist article written in the 1920s about how to classify different hair textures. Not my ideal source material. Further searching revealed that there is a fluid dynamics researcher named R. F. Curl who was responsible with filling my search results with pages and pages of physics-related journal articles.

I did find one gem, however; a LiveScience article titled “Curly Hair Tangles Less Than Straight Hair” (Charles Q. Choi, 2007). This article relayed the findings of French biophysicist Jean-Baptiste Masson. Masson had hairdressers count the snarls in the hair of more than 200 people every afternoon for a week. (Imagine being a participant in that study … ) According to the article, Massons’ math “suggests that when straight hairs rub against each other, they often do so at steep angles that cause tangles.” Talk about debunking a straight hair stereotype! What I found especially memorable about this article is that it was published in the American Journal of Physics. I really enjoy the mental image of a bunch of physicists and professors sitting around and reading about the number of tangles in curly hair and discussing the potential these findings have in improving Velcro design. Congrats ladies, we’re contributing to science!

Finally, I switched my search parameters from “science of curly hair” and “genetics of curly hair” to simply “what makes curly hair curly?” and I got significantly more results. (Sometimes simplicity is best on the Internet after all, I guess.) Apparently there isn’t one quick and easy answer to this question. The shape of your hair follicles, the number of twists in your hair as it grows, the location of the hair bulb in your hair follicle and even the chemical composition of your hair can determine whether it’s straight or curly.

The only scientific article I could fine was a journal published by the American Academy of Dermatology. The author (Bruno A. Bernard) was working for L’Oreal Research; at least we know the people making our hair products are doing their home work! While I had high hopes for this article, it was impenetrable for this particular communication major. While I did learn that humans have an estimated five million hair follicles on our bodies, I came across many sentences like this one: “{Hair} is a self-renewing organ that seems to be a true paradigm of epithelial and mesenchymal interactions.” Oh, now I get it!

So, although my search didn’t turn up any clear answers, I did find some interesting factoids along the way. Although my search for a good answer as to why curly hair is curly continues, I don’t need science to tell me that being a curly girl is something to be proud of!

Stay Curly,


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