The barbers of the future may offer a trim, shampoo, and graphene infusion

graphene hair dye huang
Jiaxing Huang / Northwestern University
Jiaxing Huang / Northwestern University

Scientific advances take many forms, from the mundane to game-changing. There are those that make us marvel at the physical world and those that make us wonder what researchers will think of next. Consider this an example of the latter.

Scientists from Northwestern University have found yet another possible application for the atom-thick “wonder material” graphene — as a hair dye. But this isn’t just any old cuticle-stripping dye. According to a study published this week in the journal Chem, graphene can be used to develop a non-toxic and anti-static hair dye, capable of altering color without chemically affecting hair.

“​We demonstrated the use of graphene to solve a chemical problem,” Jiaxing Huang, a Northwestern materials engineer who led the study, told Digital Trends. “These black carbon sheets work very well as hair dyes.”

Graphene has a few properties that make it truly extraordinary. At just one atom thick, it’s both the thinnest and strongest material known to science. It’s also highly flexible, conductive, and transparent.

Huang and his colleagues wanted to leverage some of the material’s properties to circumvent the undesirable effects of conventional hair dyeing, which entails toxic chemicals like bleach and ammonia. However, rather than using the pure graphene, they turned to it’s cheaper relative, graphene oxide.

Graphene oxides’s thin and flexible geometry enabled the researchers to essentially wrap each hair with a sheet of the material, using a non-toxic polymer to make it stick. The new dye withstood 30 hair washes, the commercial standard for hair dye, and came with the added anti-static bonus, meaning it won’t frizz easily. Huang has created dyes in black and brown, and is experimenting with other colors.

Graphene has baffled and tantalized scientists since it was first discovered in 2004. It didn’t take long for researchers to theorize about the potential applications for such an unusual but promising material. It’s been projected that the material could enable improved water filtration systems, semiconductors, and solar cells, to name a few ideas. Most of graphene’s applications remain theoretical though — and when it is successfully used, it has so far rarely made it out of the lab — making graphene seem like little more than a headline buzzword.

Still, Huang and his colleagues are confident that their new hair dye will be different.

“I think making hair dye could become a killer application of graphene materials, because it uses very humble, basic properties of graphene, [such as] their black color and shape,” he said.

But if we’ve learned anything about graphene (and, for that matter, hair dyeing), we’ll need to wait and see before making any radical predictions.

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