Words from Wiechers: Bad Hair Day

Johann W. Wiechers, Ph.D.
Johann W. Wiechers, Ph.D.

Editor's note: The "Words from Wiechers" series considers the lessons our industry can learn from the late Johann Wiechers, Ph.D. He was an adviser, colleague and leader in the industry until his unexpected passing nearly 10 years ago. Presenting Wiechers's insights is Tony O'Lenick; Ali Syed, Ph.D., of Avalon Industries, shares additional expertise.

In Chapter 15 of his book, Memories of a Cosmetically Disturbed Mind, Wiechers states: As long as a community only keeps talking to itself, they will not succeed in getting the major international companies interested in their issue.

Here, Wiechers addresses the problem of the lack of development of formulations designed for use by different segments of the population that have specific needs based upon hair or skin type. This topic is part of an even larger topic, namely global formulations. While global formulations are an interesting concept in that they simplify manufacturing and supply chain, in my (Tony O'Lenick's) estimation, they miss an opportunity to win sales in areas where the demand of some consumers is not identical to those of other consumers.

I have often stated, "beauty is universal, beauty products are not." The specific differences, both physical and cultural, need to be respected and celebrated. On the other hand, so-called product platforms are a key concept for the implementation of product lines. In this approach, the basic functional ingredients are put into a platform formulation and modified for specific markets by the addition of functional materials. This approach is part of a program that is either minimally disruptive formulation (MDF) or functional formulation (FF).

See related: Comparatively Speaking; Minimally Disruptive vs. Functional Formulating

In his book, Wiechers states:

"I have never had a bad hair day. Actually, there is no problem with my hair whatsoever. But it was only recently that I learned that this does not apply to all of us. Whereas it takes me as a Caucasian only a few seconds to comb my hair (although that may also tell us something about the quantity left on my scalp!), you will have considerably more difficulty combing your hair if you are of African descent. Because the sectional plane of the hair of the latter is elliptical, it curls a lot more and, because it curls a lot more, it is much more difficult to comb. And because Black people are fed up with having bad hair days every day, they have been straightening their hair for as long as they can remember.

"Straightening hair is a chemical process in which the strong cystine bonds are broken. The hair is then set in the desired shape and the cystine bonds are allowed to reform, with the help of oxidizing agents, in the new shape. Chemically, this is rather simple but, in reality, this causes a lot of additional bad hair days. Or more correctly, bad scalp days, as one needs an extremely high pH to break the cystine bonds, which causes a lot of scalp irritation.

"At a recent conference in Chicago, I was shown a pile of gruesome pictures of the consequences of hair straighteners. It really is an issue that makes your hair curl! It was not a pleasant sight, but it made me wonder why the cosmetic market has not yet solved this problem.

See related: Targeting Texture; Adapted Combing Test to Assess Curly Hair Product Efficacy

"I heard about the existence of hair straighteners and the resulting bad hair days for the first time when I attended the IFSCC Conference in the Republic of South Africa in October 1999. In an excellent presentation, Patrick Obukowho informed his audience about the history of straightening African hair, how the procedure is done and the associated problems. But he did not present a solution to the problems because he had none. 

"If you want to straighten your hair, you face the consequences; a cosmetic 'Catch 22' situation. Considering the number of Black people in the world, you would think that the consumer need is big enough for the cosmetic industry to solve this problem once and for all. I went back home and forgot all about it.

"But there is also the sociological side to this problem that needs solving. As long as an ethnic community such as gathered in Chicago only keeps talking to itself about their Bad Hair Day problem, they will not succeed in getting the major international companies interested in their issue. I was amazed to see so many non-Caucasian and non-female cosmetic scientists and marketers together in Chicago.

"Why did I never see these colleagues at the other 28 meetings that I attended during the past six years? Why are you hiding? Do not wait for Patrick to give his next talk. With all due respect, he cannot do this alone with the occasional talk and course in Ethnic Hair Care. Come and help the guy to solve the Bad Hair Day problem! You owe it to yourself and Patrick! And to all the Caucasians I would like to say, let your hair down and help solve Patrick’s and many others Bad Hair Day problem."

This article, first published in 2002, does not reflect the state of the current market. Ali Syed, Ph.D., president of Avalon Industries and an expert in ethnic hair care, provides the following insights into the current state of the art:

"The chemical system mentioned here is based upon reducing and oxidizing agents. The hair straighteners employ either sodium hydroxide or guanidine hydroxide in a cream base with high contents of petrolatum, mineral oil and emulsifiers. The reaction mechanism of these alkaline materials is to change cystine bonds into lanthionine bonds in one step. The sodium hydroxide based relaxers are less damaging to hair and loss of elasticity is approximately 40%, whereas hair relaxed with guanidine hydroxide loses around 60% of its strength.

"The moisture contents of the hair are lowered significantly and make hair dry. Modern formulations have reduced the loss to only 15% or so. The sodium hydroxide relaxers are more irritating to the scalp than guanidine hydroxide relaxers. Guanidine hydroxide relaxers are less irritating to scalp but more damaging to hair."

Syed continues, "The most forgotten part of hair treatments is scalp itself. The hair chemists are generally consumed in taking care of the hair and forget the health of the scalp. The alkaline pH of the relaxers impact the skin adversely, such as increasing the scalp pH, scalp irritation, damaging the stratum corneum of the scalp (higher TEWL values) and decreasing the moisture content of the scalp. [The] good news is that progress in managing these issues continues to be made by specialized companies."

See related: Advocating Curls; Optimizing Textured Hair Product Preservation

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