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A Hair Scientist Takes Us Behind the Scenes

By Wendy Rodewald-Sulz / November 4, 2011


There’s a whole lot more to hair science than those animations you see in commercials.

The big beauty companies invest major resources into maintaining state-of-the-art labs to test and research new products. And what goes on behind the scenes is pretty amazing - as I learned when I had the chance recently to speak with Pantene Principal Scientist Emily Overton.

Emily works at the Procter & Gamble (Pantene’s parent company) Sharon Woods Innovation Center in Cincinnati, OH, one of the the company’s 11 technical facilities around the world where new hair care products and innovations are born. She talked to me about hair combing robots, humidity torture chambers and the products that help damaged hair reclaim its virginity (mmm hmm). Here’s what I learned.


Pantene Principal Scientist Emily Overton

Pantene’s scientists test products on real hair. Lots of it.

“In any day here at our technical center, we’re putting hundreds of ponytails of hair through different tests. We really try to mimic every step of a woman’s routine,” including washing, blow drying and being subjected to the elements, Emily says. To put the massive scale in perspective, last year P&G Beauty purchased around 230 pounds of hair from an international hair importer. “That amount of hair can make up to 18,000 ponytails,” Emily says. Teams test three to six distinct types of hair for any given product; from fine to curly, thick or African-American hair, plus hair that’s been chemically treated as well as virgin hair.


Racks of hair at the Pantene labs.

Testing hair products takes a combination of objective science and subjective opinion.

Scientists use technical instruments and digital imaging to study a product’s effect on the hair, but they also observe how trained cosmetologists and real women use the products.

“We have instruments that comb through the hair with a controlled amount of force or pressure to see: how strong is the hair? How much does it stand up against breakage after it’s been shampooed and conditioned?” Emily explains. Machines with surfaces that mimic the texture of human fingers assess how formulas feel to the touch. Computer-analyzed before and after photos help quantify hair’s frizz factor.

But real world performance is just as important, so an on-site salon helps teams gather feedback from people, too. In addition to trained staff hair stylists, “We’ll have women come in and put the product on themselves, and we’ll observe them to see: did they use two pumps of that product? Or did they use three? Did they comb first or blow dry first? And we’re constantly taking those notes to make sure that any testing we’re doing represents what real women are doing with their hair,” Emily says. “They often find new uses that we hadn’t thought of.”

"Expert hair toucher" is an actual job.

Seriously! “We actually have trained experts at feeling the hair to make sure that the hair feels clean. They can tell how many seconds it takes for the shampoo to rinse out of the hair,” Emily says.

How does one become an expert at feeling hair? By going through months of rigorous training, of course. “Hair will be treated with a certain amount [of product], so we control the dose, and then [trainees] have to feel it and mark it on a certain scale from rough to smooth. And until they can get all of those control products marked in the right place, they aren’t qualified to be testing new products.”
Humidity is hair's worst enemy.

“Humidity is a huge deal for hair,” Emily says. “The standard for any of our styling products is [performance] at least 80 percent humidity conditions, because we know that’s really critical for women.”

To test how products perform in seriously soupy weather, Emily and her team send ponytails to the torture chamber. “We have ponytails of hair that will sit in this controlled temperature room for a certain amount of time, and then we’ll use digital photography [to] analyze how much the hair has changed over time,” she explains. “You don’t want [hair] to pouf out or get that Christmas tree look. So we’ll actually measure using digital imaging, basically has the hair poufed out or not after a certain amount of hours. So then we know this new treatment or our newest conditioner has really stood up to one of those torture tests of humidity and kept the hair in its original shape.”
Good-looking hair is healthy hair - but what does that mean?

If you looked at shiny, gorgeous hair under a microscope, you’d see a pattern. “If we think of the structure of hair, the cuticle is that protective layer, and they’re kind of overlapping cells like shingles on a roof,” Emily explains. “What can happen over time, either from combing and brushing or chemical processes, is some of those cuticle cells get chipped off, or maybe get removed altogether, and so you have this uneven surface.” The result? Hair doesn’t align smoothly, so it doesn’t look as shiny.


Compare the healthy hair's cuticle cells (top) with the damaged strands'.

If cuticle cells are the bricks, then the lipid layer is the mortar. “The other piece is moisture. Hair naturally has in it a protective lipid layer, and that can be deteriorated over time, particularly from chemical processing,” leaving hair brittle and rough. “One great thing about conditioners is they can actually help mimic that natural protective layer that was once there,” Emily says. That translates to smoother, shinier hair.
Science takes on split ends.

One of the most recent innovations to come out of the Pantene labs is the new Split End Repair Keratin Protection Crème, and the way it works is pretty cool. “The cream contains a combination of positively charged conditioning ingredients,” Emily explains. “Damaged hair is more negatively charged, so we want to make sure we’re using positively charged ingredients so they’re attracted to the damaged areas on the hair. The cream is specially designed to fuse to the damaged areas and help the split ends form back together, so you get a nice smooth and even surface on the tips,” she says. “And the conditioners in the product help to protect the hair from damaging forces so that new split ends aren’t forming.”

Being a hair scientist is kind of awesome.

The best part about creating hair products for a living, according to Emily? “You can also focus on some of your own personal problems and make sure you’re finding the best solutions for those.” For example, “I color treat my hair as well and use heat implements, so I found that [the split end] cream really smooths my ends, and I’ve been able to grow it longer over the past year. That’s my favorite thing, because now I have longer than shoulder length hair which I haven’t had since I was a teenager.”