Stop everything because there’s been a major hair breakthrough. Scientists are studying graphene as a non-damaging and much faster alternative to changing hair color than traditional dye. And those who love dark hair are in luck because graphene easily transforms a light hair color to something of a deeper hue.
If you need a little chem refresher, graphene is made of a singular layer of carbon atoms, which take on a honeycomb formation (or hexagonal lattice, if you’re fancy). The substance is the basic element of graphite, diamond, and charcoal, and has demonstrated promise as a heat and electric conductor. Perhaps most fascinating of all, graphene has the uncanny ability to turn all things black. Building on this color-transformation realization, Jiaxing Huang, professor of materials science and engineering at Northwestern University, did what any of us would do in this situation — applied these findings to hair, co-authoring a study that was published last week in the journal Chem.
“I started to pay attention to hair colors and hair dyes after some curious observations during travel,” he says. “Then I decided to try a fun Friday afternoon experiment to see if graphene oxide (light brown) and its graphene product (black, after reacting it with vitamin C) can coat hair. And it worked very well.” Huang, who was the study’s lead author, explains: “Graphene oxide is a water-dispersible, oxygenated version of graphene, which is made from graphite powders. It is light brown in color but can be gradually darkened to black after reacting with vitamin C.” The color can also darken with heating.
Huang and his team tested the graphene oxide formulation out on platinum hair samples. Needless to say, the strands didn’t stay blonde for long. Not only did graphene cause the hair to change color, it did so without adding any bulk. The microscopic substance is so lightweight it can barely be felt at all.
When initially sprayed, the substance either exhibits no color or is light brown. The hair darkens when heated, exposed to UV light, or through a reaction to different chemicals, including the vitamin C. “We mix graphene oxide with vitamin C and a polymer binder (glue) together in water. Applying it to hair takes about 10 minutes, including spraying, combing, and drying (with a hair dryer),” says Huang. Just like that, hair is uniformly darkened. The result lasts 30 washes, which is enough to be considered permanent.
Graphene color is different than regular ammonia-based dye because it coats the hair instead of penetrating it. Think of graphene as wrapping paper for your hair — it covers the cuticle but does not actually interfere with the hair’s structure. Ammonia dyes do just the opposite, separating the hair cuticle and diffusing the natural pigment in order to infiltrate the strands. However, not only does this take a substantial amount of time, it also makes hair more prone to breakage, drying, and damage. Try as we might to ignore or deny it, hair dyes are mostly made up of toxic ingredients that can be carcinogenic and may cause allergic reactions, and in extreme cases, anaphylactic shock.
As graphene naturally expresses black, that is the easiest shade to achieve. However, it’s not the only option. The color can be diluted enough to express the full brunette spectrum, beginning with light brown. It can even be used to get an ombré look, though only within the brown family. If it seems like this dream dye substance couldn’t get any better, hold onto your hats, because it does. As graphene is a natural conductor, it’s proven to reduce static, and this same principle applies to hair — meaning a total reduction of flyaways.
“Hair is insulating and can be easily charged up upon rubberizing with fabrics and textiles,” explains Huang. “The problem gets worse if the cuticle scales on [the] hair surface are not fully closed — [such as with] damaged hair or improperly dyed hair — because they can only longer lock moisture, which helps to dissipate the electrostatic charges,” he continues. “Antistatic is a well-known engineering problem, which can be readily solved by a conducting coating. Since graphene is a conductive material, graphene hair dye gives hair antistatic properties. This greatly reduces the annoying ‘flyaway’ effect,” he explains of the technology.
At this moment, graphene oxide can only be found in the lab and is yet not available for sale. However, the future looks bright — or, more aptly, dark. “I am certainly interested in taking this out of the lab to market,” Huang tells us. “There are a few additional studies that need to be done (e.g., scalability, further improving durability, allergy tests).” Ultimately, Huang is seeking research funding to continue perfecting the dye. “This type of work does not fall [within] the scope of typically federal funding agencies,” he explains. “We really hope to get this research funded by someone, to move as fast as we can.”
Huang’s study covers all bases, even including a hypothesis for how excess hair can be put to use instead of simply being discarded: “At the end of their use, graphene-coated hair waste can be readily repurposed or converted to make energy storage materials or sensing devices,” the paper concludes. “I would love to see safer, easier to use and more interesting hair dyes based on our work,” he says of how the technology can be applied. “It should increase the level of comfort, and can inspire lots of new ideas, making a better living for ordinary people.”
Hopefully, we’ll be able to sample the graphene oxide sooner than we think. Until then, we’ll be waiting for a toxin-free, permanent black dye that sprays on silky smooth.
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