Beauty Bullshit: Ionic Hairdryers
My husband says this is the stupidest shit ever, as basically anything using heat is using ‘ionic technology’ as it basically translates to ‘blows hot air!’, and this is not anything to tout as new or amazing. But then I see shit like this:
And I’m like… it’s time to ask hellocampcomfort.com.”
There are quite a few ionic hairdryers on the market, but they all make the grandiose statements about their products.
Conair’s claim is that “An electronic ionizer generates negative ions, which neutralize positive ions in the atmosphere. The neutralization process seals the hair cuticle, reducing frizziness and leaving the hair shiny.” H2Ion adds that their ionic products “prevent heat damage by reducing hair’s drying time, infuse vital moisture to dry brittle hair and eliminate frizz” [sic]. (No, you didn’t read it wrong. That’s not a sentence.) Claims can get even more wacky. For example, Fitness magazine says, “The negative ions break down water molecules to one-fifth of their size, so they’re able to penetrate each shaft, hydrating from the inside out.” I hope even those of you who haven’t taken a science class since high school can work out why that is a steaming pile of crap all on your own. (I even saw someone touting that magnetism was somehow involved! Whoever wrote that certainly didn’t think that through successfully.)
|Pseudoscience or no, the yellow is pretty.|
Note that these are three different mechanisms by which these ionic hairdryers supposedly work. Either they:
1. Bind to positive ions that are damaging your hair,
2. Reduce drying time, or
3. Magically bend physics.
The last of the three we’re just going to address using dismissive laughter. But what about the first two?
First, a basic chemistry recap: An atom is a basic unit of matter. At the center, it has a nucleus containing positively-charged protons and neutrally charged neutrons. Around it is a cloud of negatively charged electrons. If it contains the same number of protons and electrons, the atom is neutral. If it contains too many or too few electrons, it is an ion.
Water molecules are bent, meaning that they are polar. One side of the molecule is positive and the other side is negative. As a result, the positive side of one water molecule will be attracted to the negative side of the other molecule, meaning they get stuck together. This is called hydrogen bonding. As a result, water frequently will stick together in a sort of weak cluster. Real life water that you actually use when you wash your hair is filled with ions of all kinds. For example, sodium, potassium, hydrogen, and calcium ions are all in water to some extent or another.
According to the marketing, ionic hairdryers are blowing some mysterious negatively-charged ions at your head when they work. I actually can’t even find any evidence that this occurs (the sources are the brands who are trying to sell you their products), and if it does occur, I have no fucking idea what ions we are even talking about. Saying “an ion” is almost as vague as saying “a molecule”. Which ion? Which molecule? I assume we are talking about ions like O2– and N2-, but I can’t find a single piece of commercial or non-commercial literature that is willing to be specific about the physics of what they are purportedly achieving. Nonetheless, we’re going to assume that these hair dryers are actually pumping out negative ions for the purposes of this post. This certainly is possible (using high voltage charges), so I don’t necessarily find that suspect on its own.
When we start talking about the purpose of ionic hairdryers, though, my creeping suspicions simply can’t be ignored. A negatively-charged ion that you might generate in the air, such as O2-, will pass off its extra electron to one of the copious ions already in the water before it will bind to your hairshaft. Thus, it can’t directly solve your hair’s damage problem. Furthermore, a few extra dissolved ions aren’t going to break up the massive amounts of hydrogen bonding occurring in your soggy hair, so reduced dry-time seems equally unlikely.
There aren’t a ton of consumer tests out there, but what does exist seems to support this theorizing. For example, a Good Housekeeping Institute comparison of ionic and non-ionic hairdryers found no relationship between whether or not the hairdryer was ionic and the overall dry-time of participants’ hair.
The chemical implausibility combined with the complete absence of any scientific information whatsoever suggests that, when it comes to hairdryers, “ionic technology” is, well, a load of hot air. Presumably, companies are trying to create a public perception that masks the sad reality: hair dryers just aren’t very good for your hair. It may be more than ‘blowing hot air’ (as Yay4Tay’s husband suggested), but it there’s no evidence that it will have any practical implications for your locks beyond that of a traditional blowdry.