Will Wearing A Hat Make Me Go Bald? (Skeptical Inquirer)

10 minute read

While losing the hair on our heads doesn’t have any serious medical implications on its own, it can be seriously damaging to our psyches. Studies have shown that both women and men with alopecia, or hair loss, experience increased stress, diminished self-esteem, and other negative psychological effects.

Some of us live in fear of our part widening or our hairlines receding. Others have made peace with their eventual journey to becoming a Patrick Stewart lookalike. Either way, you’ve likely heard a lot of unsubstantiated claims about behaviors that can cause baldness. As usual, some can be dismissed outright (no, masturbating won’t make you go bald), but some bear further investigation.

Read the entire article here: https://skepticalinquirer.org/exclusive/will-wearing-a-hat-make-me-go-bald/

Static Shocks Are a Seasonal Occurrence, but Science Can Help Us Avoid Them

5 minute read
Originally posted here: https://mcgill.ca/oss/article/environment-general-science/how-can-i-stop-getting-static-shocks

If you live in Canada, you know what a nightmare winter can be for your hair. No, not because of hat hair, (or at least not entirely because of hat hair), but because of static electricity! All those big scarves and wool hats really do a number on the frizziness of our hair. But even if you’re bald you’ve probably noticed that the number of times you get shocked when reaching for everyday items, like keys, doorknobs and shopping carts, increases in the winter too. There’s some interesting science behind these seasonal shocking scenes, and how you can stop them. 

The number one factor influencing how many zaps you get is humidity. But to understand why we need to review a bit about electricity.  When two objects made of different materials come in contact with each other, like your hair and a hat, for example, electrons can transfer between them. The more prolonged contact, the more electrons move, creating an imbalance of charges between your hair and the hat.

Whether the electrons move from your hair to the hat, or vice-versa, depends on something called the triboelectric series. It’s basically a ranking of different materials based on their tendency to lose or gain electrons. Some things, like rubber or acrylic, are very likely to gain electrons and become negatively charged. Whereas other things, like hair, glass or wool, are more likely to lose electrons and become positively charged. In the case of your hair and a wool hat, since human hair is higher on the triboelectric series, the electrons flow from your hair to the toque.

The problem is that same charges repel each other, so now that your hair is full of positive charge, it’s rather unstable. That’s why, when you get near something conductive, like a metal doorknob, electrons from the knob will “jump” to your hair to neutralize the charge, shocking you in the process. It’s also why your hair stands on end when statically charged. The strands are repelling each other!

Why do charges build up in our hair or clothes, but not in other materials? Because insulating materials, like plastic, fabric or glass, will hold charges quite well, while conducting materials, like metals, will not.

Water happens to be an excellent conductor, so in the spring, summer and fall, when the air in Canada holds a lot of moisture, any negative charges built up on your body can jump to the air (or from the air to your body, either way results in a shock) whenever they want. We don’t even notice these numerous small jumps. But in the winter the air is drier, so the charges simply sit on your skin, waiting for you to approach another conductor (like your car or your girlfriend) to leap to freedom.

Read this to hear about why winter air, especially indoors, is so dry!

When thinking of how wet or dry the air is, we tend to only consider humidity. But there’s another metric that’s important: dew point. The dew point is the temperature at which the air is totally saturated with water. When temperatures fall below the dew point, water condenses on solid surfaces, forming dew in the summer, or frost in the winter (hence why the dew point can also be called the frost point). Warmer air can hold more moisture, meaning that when temperatures are low, the dew point and the actual temperature are quite close. Conversely, when temperatures are high, the dew point and actual temperature are far apart.

Why does dew point matter? Because temperature, dew point, and relative humidity (that % you see on your weather app) are closely linked.

As an example, as I’m writing this, the temperature outside is -9 ˚C, and the relative humidity is 57%. Using the chart below, or less confusingly, this online calculator, we can find that the dew point is -16 ˚C. This tells us that if we go outside it won’t feel muggy because the temperature is significantly above the dew point and the air isn’t saturated with water.

However, our furnaces bring that air into our homes and heat it. This doesn’t change the dew point, but it does change the temperature and the relative humidity. What was a relative humidity of 57% at -16 ˚C becomes a relative humidity of only 7% at 20 ˚C. That’s some really dry air.

Now importantly, the only thing changing here is the relative humidity. The absolute humidity is the same since the furnace doesn’t add or remove any moisture when it heats the air. So even though the air inside and outside is equally dry, it feels much dryer inside due to the relative nature of relative humidity. 

Source: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK143947/

One of the easiest ways to counteract the shocks that come with these Saharan conditions is to run a humidifier. Increasing the relative humidity of your home will allow more charges to dissipate into the air and avoid the shocks that come with letting them build up.  Side note: If you think desert-like is a bit too harsh to describe the indoor conditions in the Canadian winter, think again. The average relative humidity of the Mojave Desert is 28%, a full 21% higher than my house right now. No wonder I have chapped lips. 

If a humidifier isn’t cutting it for you, you could also try swapping out your rubber-soled slippers for ones with leather soles. Since leather is a better conductor than rubber, this will prevent charges from building up to the same degree. Similarly, try to surround yourself with more cotton. As it falls in the middle of the triboelectric series, it doesn’t have much of a tendency to gain or lose electrons, so won’t build charges like wool or fur.  

Still really worried about static shocks? You could always purposefully discharge yourself every once in a while. If you carry a metal object like a coin, key or paper clip around with you, and touch it to something metal in your house, any electrons stuck to your body will flow through the metal and away, preventing the “jumping” effect that causes a shock. 

Last, but not least, you can always rely on anti-static products to take the charge out of your hair and clothes. Dryer sheets contain chemicals like dipalmitoylethyl hydroxyethylmonium methosulfate that release positively charged ions when heated to neutralize the negatively charged electrons on your clothes. You can even rub your hair gently with one to remove static! Anti-static sprays and anti-static guns can also be used to keep static to a minimum wherever you need to, from your favourite dress to your Rubber Soul vinyl. 

Source: http://www.saapedia.org/en/saa/?type=detail&id=4070

Sulfates in Shampoo

2 minute read
Originally posted here: https://mcgill.ca/oss/article/did-you-know-general-science/sulfates-shampoo

As someone who likes to routinely dye my hair bright pinks, blues and purples, I’m often told by my hairdresser to use sulfate free shampoos. He often talks to me about how multiple bleachings and dying’s will leave my hair damaged and brittle, and how sulfate free shampoo will be gentler, both on my damaged hair and on the colour. It seems like every time I take a shower it occurs to me to look into why that is, and whether or not it’s true, but somehow by the time I’m dry, dressed and sitting at the computer I’ve forgotten again. Finally though, here is what I’ve found about sulfates in shampoos. 

Shampoo as we know it was invented somewhere near the 1920’s and 1930’s. It was in 1930 that Procter and Gamble made the first sulfate-based shampoo, and since then the formulations haven’t changed all that much. It’s important to remember that ‘sulfate’ isn’t one compound, it’s a common name for any compound containing a sulfate. The ones commonly used in shampoo (historically and currently) are sodium laureth sulfate, sodium lauryl sulfate, or ammonium laureth sulfate.

So what do sulfates do anyways? Well, a couple of things. Primarily they are surfactants, which means they can attract both water and oil molecules, and it’s this property that makes them good for cleaning. They attract the oil on your scalp, then wash away down the drain. It’s also their surfactant status that allows sulfates to create the lather we all know and love in our shampoos. 

The problems with sulfates really are that they’re a bit too good at their job as surfactants. Their ability to effectively strip dirt and oil out of our hair means that we also lose a lot of natural oils that protect our hair and scalp, which can leave our heads feeling dry, or even getting irritated and red if you have sensitive skin. Sulfates are also irritants, so if you get shampoo in your eyes a lot (like me), you may notice that sulfate containing shampoos sting a bit more. If you dye your hair (again, like me) you likely will want to use sulfate free shampoos, as sulfate’s efficacy at stripping oils will also strip colour. 

Outside of being a bit intense, there are no other problems with sulfates. The myth that they cause cancer is just that, a myth, and they have been studied and approved many times for use in hair products. Shampoos need surfactants to work (they’re made up of 5-30% surfactant), and sulfate-based surfactants are the most effective option getting the job done, but there are other options if you find these shampoos drying your skin out or causing rashes. Do not, however, buy into the media hype that normal shampoos are dangerous or unhealthy.

Is Hyaluronic Acid All Hype?

3 minute read
Originally posted here: https://mcgill.ca/oss/article/health-quackery/hyaluronic-acid-all-hype

A quick search of Amazon for hyaluronic acid turns up thousands of products, from liquid serums to pills to creams that make a variety of claims. Balms and serums seem to focus on hyaluronic acid’s ability to ease skin redness and reduce wrinkles while oral supplements focus on the benefits of hyaluronic acid on the joints. Some products, like this powder, make claims about hyaluronic acid’s benefits to both the skin and joints.

How can one substance have so many effects? And is there any truth to the ‘organic liquid facelift’ or ‘joint solution’ declarations?

Within the body, hyaluronic acid plays an important, albeit diverse, role. It is a major component of epithelial tissue, and seems to play a role in cell division and movement. It is also a chief component of synovial fluid- the fluid found inside a synovial joint (like a human’s hips or wrists)- and acts as a lubricating agent. Hyaluronic acid is also found in joint cartilage, where it coats all the cells, and it even plays a role in the body’s innate immune system (high hyaluronic acid levels can be used as a marker for prostate and breast cancers). The average person has ~15 g of hyaluronic acid in their body, and about 1/3 of it is degraded each day.

In short, hyaluronic acid does a lot of things, from skin repair to joint lubrication, so it makes sense that promoters hype it as a possible treatment for a wide variety of health problems ranging from osteoarthritis to sun burns. But what does the science say about its efficacy?

Studies have shown intra-articular injections (injections into the joint) of hyaluronic acid to be just as effective, and sometimes more effective, at managing pain than NSAIDS or placebos, often with fewer side effects, for patients with osteoarthritis. Likewise, studies looking at artificial tears containing hyaluronic acid, used to treat chronic dry eyes, have found it to be a safe and effective option. Same story with dry skin. The thing that begs investigation however, is the oral administration of hyaluronic acid.

There have been a few studies on oral treatments of hyaluronic acid, and they all seem to have quite positive results. This study found that daily supplementation with oral hyaluronic acid enhanced several markers of quality of life in adults with osteoarthritis of the knee, and this study concluded that oral intake of high purity hyaluronic acid is effective in the treatment of American patients of knee osteoarthritis. Some studies, like this one partnered oral hyaluronic acid supplements with exercise and also had positive results.

These results seem promising, and I’d be right on board the hype train with everyone else, if I hadn’t spent some time reading the methods sections of these studies. Each study used a daily amount of hyaluronic acid ranging from 60-200 mg. Most supplements recommend hyaluronic in the 100-200 mg range, but Novisyn, perhaps one of the best known supplements, contains only 17 mg of hyaluronic acid in its once a day packets. 

There is good reason to believe that orally administered hyaluronic acid is absorbed in the digestive tract and that it does migrate to the relevant connective tissues. There is also evidence that it can have a biological effect without even being absorbed. These functions however, depend on there being enough hyaluronic acid molecules present to interact with the relevant receptors, and in a 17 mg dose, this likely just isn’t the case.

So by all means, ask your doctor about hyaluronic acid for your osteoarthritis or chronic dry eyes, but make sure to read the package before you buy the pills. As Dr Joe always says, it’s all about the dose!

Cats Can Get Hairballs…But so Can People!

Originally posted here: https://mcgill.ca/oss/article/did-you-know/its-not-only-cats-get-hairballs-people-can-too

Rapunzel, Rapunzel, let down your hair… 

If you’ve ever had long hair you know how it can collect just about everywhere, so I can’t help but wonder how Rapunzel kept her locks from sticking to the shower wall and getting in her coffee. One thing’s for sure though, she didn’t eat it. If she did, she’d probably be pretty sick.

Rapunzel syndrome is the result of trichophagia (compulsive hair eating), and is essentially a human hairballTrichotillomania is a psychiatric disease in which someone pulls out or cuts off their hair, and when it combines with trichophagia, Rapunzel syndrome is born. The danger lies in the human digestive system’s inability to digest hair, leaving to the formation of trichobezoars (yes bezoars like in Harry Potter), or hairballs. Generally the hairballs are not that dangerous, since humans (unlike rabbits who also get hairballs) can vomit them up, but if they grow too large they may need to be surgically removed. Much more worrying however is the psychiatric state of a patient experiencing this condition, as trichophagia and trichotillomania are commonly seen in conjunction with the difficult-to-treat obsessive compulsive disorder.

Where does the colour go when I bleach my hair?

Originally posted here: https://mcgill.ca/oss/article/you-asked/where-does-colour-go-when-i-bleach-my-hair

Hair naturally gets its colour from a pigment molecule called melanin. There are 2 types of melanin: eumelanin, which gives hair and skin a brown or black hue, and pheomelanin, which gives the red hue. Different mixes of these two dyes are responsible for all the natural hair colours humans can have, and it’s these dyes that must be removed from hair in order to get blonde or white strands.

We tend to think of bleach as one product. You probably have some under your kitchen sink (sodium hypochlorite), but that is only one kind of chemical with bleaching properties amongst many. We can sort the chemicals with bleaching capability into two general groups: those that work via reducing and those that work via oxidizing.

Bleaching by reduction is how bleaches like sodium hydrosulphite achieve their faded hues. They react with a chromophore (the part of a molecule that is colourful) and decrease the number of carbon-oxygen bonds in it, making it uncoloured.

Reducing bleaches probably aren’t what you or your hairdresser are using on your locks though. They’re mostly used for industrial purposes, like bleaching wood pulp to make white paper. The oxygen in the air is actually able to reverse bleaching-by-reduction to a certain extent. That’s why we see white paper turn yellow with age, because the chromophore is being changed back into its colourful form. 

But my hair won’t turn yellow after after I bleach it, no matter how long I wait, and that’s because the bleaches used on hair are a bit different. For that, we typically use H2O2 or hydrogen peroxide.

H2O2 still chemically alters the chromophore, but instead of decreasing the number of carbon-oxygen bonds, it increases them. To reverse this and yellow my hair I’d have to expose it to a reducing agent, and they’re much less common than air.

Household bleaches used for cleaning and disinfecting also work by oxidation, so why can’t we use those to create our blonde hair? 
Well, people used to! Jean Harlow, the original Blonde Bombshell, used to make her locks light with regular Clorox bleach, a fact which might just explain her mysterious death at age 26. When household bleach (sodium hypochlorite) reacts with ammonia, which is used in hair dye to help the dye molecules absorb into hair, it creates chlorine gasThis gas  has been used as chemical weapon in World War I, the Iraq War and the Syrian Civil War, and is very toxic, even in small doses. Not exactly what I want to be filling my bathroom with.

So why does bleach damage our hair if it only reacts with pigment molecules? Well the oxidation reactions aren’t actually limited to pigment molecules, they’re just attacked first because they are numerous and accessible. So if you leave bleach on long enough, once the chromophores are all broken, the bleach will begin to react with the keratin that makes up your hair, causing split ends, damage and breakage.

BioSil: Can it Really Help Thicken Your Hair and Nails?

Originally published here: https://mcgill.ca/oss/article/health-general-science/can-biosil-really-help-thicken-my-hair-and-nails

The ads for BioSil look and sound like every other supplement ad. There are bold claims like “promotes unbreakable nails” (I’m pretty sure that’s impossible); references to science like “molecular biologists have pinpointed the key structural protein…” and “your own DNA fingerprint”; and a blond celebrity (Christie Brinkley) smiling while talking about how this product, in particular, has changed her life.

The BioSil website features the familiar refrain “This statement has not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration” after every statement about their product, as well as snazzy scientific-looking pictorial representations of what it can do for you.

BioSil is manufactured by Natural Factors. Their site features images of sprawling fields and a cross-section of a grassy patch complete with worms. Everything about it inspires thoughts of nature, because natural is always better, right?

Too bad their site also says “You should not use the information on this site for diagnosis or treatment of any health problem or for prescription of any medication or other treatment.” I would definitely call a supplement for “Rejuvenating your hair, skin, and nails” a treatment, but what do I know?

BioSil’s advertisements, bottles and website make three main claims:

  1. Thickens and strengthens hair
  2. Improves skin elasticity and reduces wrinkles
  3. Strengthens nails

The active ingredient in BioSil is choline-stabilized orthosilicic acid (ch-OSA). Orthosilicic acid is just a silicon atom surrounded by four hydroxide (OH) units, but it is unstable on its own. Enter choline. Choline is an essential nutrient for humans that most of us consume more than enough of every day (it’s found in everything from cauliflower to tofu to chicken to almonds). In BioSil, choline serves to stabilize the orthosilicic acid.

BioSil’s website constantly references clinical trial results, so I read the two trials in question. It’s important to note that we can’t take these studies’ conclusions at face value. Not all studies are created equal. There are a plethora of issues that can hide in a study’s design that could call its conclusions into question. We need to evaluate the design and procedures of a study to know whether we can trust its results. That’s not always an easy task, so let me help.

The first study involved 48 middle-aged, white, healthy women with fine hair (as determined by the study’s hairdresser). 24 of the women were given a placebo, while 24 were given 10 mg of ch-OSA orally for 9 months, during which they did not heat or colour-treat their hair. The 45 women who finished the study had the diameter and tensile strength of their hair measured at the beginning and end of the treatment.

As for the results, well, they’re pretty confusing. I mean look at this:

“the elastic gradient decreased in both groups, but the change was significantly smaller in the ch-OSA group (-4.52%, P = 0.027) compared to the placebo group (-11.9%).”

What does P = 0.027 mean? Let me try to explain.

When a scientist writing a study says that something is significant, it is not the same as when I yell at my TV that the colour of the Monster’s hair on The Masked Singer is significant. Significance in science actually refers to statistical significance, which is measured with something called a p-value.

It’s a controversial way to measure significance but has been something of a standard for a long time (though that is slowly changing). You can click below to read about how p-values work and why they are so confusing, but to evaluate this product all you need to know is that if something is statistically significant, we can say that it is meaningfully different from something else.

For example, we could take a hair sample from someone in the ch-OSA group at the beginning and end of the 9-month period and compare them. A statistically significant result would mean that they are significantly different, i.e. that the thickness of the hair changed in those 9 months.

We could also compare the hair of someone using ch-OSA to the hair of someone using a placebo at the end of the 9 months. A statistically significant result here would mean that whatever happened to the hair with ch-OSA did not also happen with placebo.

Almost every experiment has two hypotheses. Yeah, two. The null hypothesis is the status quo, the prediction that nothing will change. By finding a significant p-value you disprove the null hypothesis. In the Biosil study’s case the null hypothesis is that there was no difference between the effects of the placebo and the ch-OSA. The other hypothesis is the alternate hypothesis, the prediction for the effect your treatment will have. By disproving the null hypothesis, you can conclude that the alternate hypothesis may be confirmed. In this study’s case it’s that the ch-OSA supplement improved hair strength and cross-section more than the placebo

So how do we decide which hypothesis fits with our study results best?

The p-value!

Often times the seemingly magical target to match or surpass is a p-value of 0.05.

That tells us that there is only a 5% chance of obtaining the data we did, or data more extreme than ours if the null hypothesis is true.

In our case a p-value of 0.05 would mean that there was only a 5% chance of getting our data, or data showing even more difference between the placebo and ch-OSA if the placebo and ch-OSA really did have no difference in their effects.

Why 0.05? Because that is what scientists have decided. They could have decided something else, and many others do use a different value. But 0.05 remains the usual p-value threshold of significance.

Looking at the study results we can see that the decrease seen in the elastic gradient of hair was significantly smaller in the ch-OSA group than in the placebo group. This would imply that the ch-OSA helped the hair stay stretchy.

But, we can also look at the yield extension of hair, and see that it was significantly increased for both the placebo group and the ch-OSA group. This would imply that it was not the ch-OSA that caused the improvement in yield extension.

Looking at hair diameter (the literal hair thickness) we can see that the hair of those who took the placebo did not significantly increase, whereas the hair of those who took ch-OSA did. So that is a good mark in ch-OSA’s book, right?

Well, it is not as simple as proving significance. Something of concern in these results is the considerable amount of overlap between the placebo’s effects and the ch-OSA’s effects.

Take a look at the graphs below. I’ve shown the range of results for the ch-OSA group in yellow, and the range of results for the placebo group in blue. Where there is green means that they overlap. 

The majority of each coloured section is green.

This means that there was quite a noteworthy amount of people in the ch-OSA group who experienced the same effects as the placebo group, and vice versa.

Do you really want to pay $25.99 plus tax per month for the chance to be in that little yellow bit?

There is another thing we need to remember when looking at these results: statistical significance does not always equal practical significance.

Those who took the ch-OSA saw a statistically significant increase in their hair diameter, sure, but did they notice it in the mirror, shower or at the hairdressers? Did their hair feel thicker to them? It is possible that the result was statistically significant but that, if asked, participants would say their hair felt no thicker to them, meaning that it was not practically significant.

Do you really want to pay $25.99 plus tax per month for results you can’t even see?

We can evaluate the practical significance of a result through something called the effect size. This measures the magnitude of a phenomenon and would give us an idea not just whether hair thickness improved but also by how much. Sadly, this study does not report an effect size (although judging by the percent increases in diameter of hair, I would guess that it is likely quite small).

So, can ch-OSA make your hair thicker? Maybe. But also, maybe not. And probably not by that much.

As for the other study the product cites, well, I’ll skip explaining the analysis of this one and cut to the chase.

The second study showed that ch-OSA actually decreased skin hydration, although it did very slightly improve skin roughness, nail brittleness and hair brittleness. The problem again is one of effect size. Looking at nail brittleness, participants had the brittleness of their nails ranked from 0 (not brittle) to 3 (severely brittle). With ch-OSA treatment their brittle scores did decrease, but by very little.

So, can ch-OSA help your skin be smoother, your nails be stronger, or your hair be thicker? If you are a middle-aged, healthy, white woman who does not treat her hair, maybe. A teensy bit. But if you are anyone else, we have no evidence to suggest so.