Image© Chris Gramly, istockphoto

Although this may be a little too time consuming when you're rushed to get to school in the morning, that simple homemade concoction is based on the same principle as hair gel. Thankfully, the ability to buy hair gel saves you from having to mix up your own brew on a daily basis to achieve your perfect hairstyle!

Did you know? Gelatin —yes! The stuff that makes Jell-O solid— can be used as a substitute when you run out of hair gel.

You probably know that the stuff you are buying off the shelf at your local drug store isn't just gelatin and water. If you actually took a look at the back of your hair gel container, you would find quite a list of ingredients that may make you wonder why there are so many additives and what they are in there for. CurioCity wondered the same thing so we decided to take a closer look into what those ingredients are and how they help to give your hair its style.

Among the most common ingredients, the first on the list of hair gel labels is most likely water. Not the fanciest ingredient, but it is needed to dissolve some of the other things they put into the gel and keep them in solution.

After water you typically find something called polyvinylpyrrolidone (PVP) and/or polyvinylacetate (PVP/VA) copolymers. Polymers are really long chains of similar molecules that repeat over and over again (just like proteins are polymers of individual amino acids). In the case of PVP/VA, the repeated molecules are: vinylpyrrolidone & vinylacetate, which and are great for giving "hold" to your hair. These polymers help people get that "chunky" or "crunchy" look with their hair because they act like an adhesive or glue. This is how the gelatin would act in the homemade version mentioned above, since gelatin is a polymer that is derived from collagen.

Did you know? Polymers, which are long chains of repeated molecules, are added to hair gel and act as adhesives that "stick" strands of hair together.

Many hair gels also contain caster oil; sometimes, you may see that products contain hydrogenated caster oil. The term hydrogenated simply means that hydrogen has been added during processing to convert the liquid oil into a solid (just like making margarine from vegetable oil). Caster oil is used for a whole range of purposes these days, including acting as a laxative, removing worms in the gut (yuck!), relieving arthritis pains, and is also included in the manufacturing of varnishes and soaps. In hair gel though, the main role of caster oil is as a conditioner, to maintain hair's strength and help eliminate dandruff.

Did you know? Castor oil used in hair gel is usually hydrogenated, which means hydrogen is added to convert the liquid oil into a solid. For more on the chemistry of fats see: "It's a matter of FAT."

Polyethylene glycol (PEG) is also high on the list of hair gel ingredients. PEG is there to act as an emulsifier. This just means that it keeps two solutions blended that normally don't mix well. Remember, hair gel contains both water and castor oil; have you ever tried to mix water and oil together? Now you see why hair gel needs the PEG.

Did you know? PEG is used to emulsify the hydrophilic and hydrophobic ingredients found in hair gel.

Most gels contain alcohol, such as sorbitol or glycerol/glycerin. These compounds, known as humectants, hold in moisture and prevent hair from drying out. You wouldn't want your hair to get brittle after spending all your time styling it, would you?!

note: for more on humectants, see the March Home-work issue: "Are you cracking up...literally?"

The list of ingredients in hair gel is usually far more extensive than the ones listed above, and depending on the commercial brand you purchase can include everything from UV blockers to an array of herbal extracts. All together though, these additives help you achieve the ultimate control needed to sculpt your hair into hundreds of different styles!

Amy studied Molecular Biology and just finished her PhD in a breast cancer research lab. She does her part to help the environment by using her bike to get around, buying local produce, and reusing old shopping bags.

CurioCity writer

Article written by a CurioCity expert.

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