Let’s learn about hair

These long protein strands are good for fashion and function

a young black woman with curly hair smiling

Science is as close as the hair on your head.

LaylaBird/E+/Getty Images

If you’ve had a home haircut lately, you’re not alone. Many hair salons are closed right now. That’s because health experts worry such close contact might spread COVID-19. But whether your homemade hairdo is great — or a terrible mistake — it’s an opportunity to learn more about the thin protein strands found on every mammal on Earth.

Each hair is made of a protein called keratin. The instructions for how to make and arrange the long strands of this protein are in someone’s DNA. But hair, of course, can vary in color, thickness and curliness. And so some people, for instance, get extra instructions that give them blonde hair. Others get genes that result in tight curls. There’s even a DNA tweak that can make someone’s hair uncombable.

Hair is incredibly strong and takes a long time to break down. Scientists can use hair samples to learn about ancient people, or to solve modern crimes. They’ve even analyzed hair to try to find Bigfoot. (Spoiler: They didn’t.)

Want to know more? We’ve got some stories to get you started:

Measure the width of your hair with a laser pointer: Use your own hair and play with lasers to learn about diffraction (7/25/2014) Readability: 6.0

Here’s why Rapunzel’s hair makes a great rope ladder: Hair is much, much stronger than you might expect (3/8/2019) Readability: 6.0

Scientists find genes that make some kids’ hair uncombable: Mutations in any of three genes causes a disorder that makes hair impossibly tangled (1/18/2017) Readability: 6.9

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Bethany Brookshire was a longtime staff writer at Science News Explores and is the author of the book Pests: How Humans Create Animal Villains. She has a Ph.D. in physiology and pharmacology and likes to write about neuroscience, biology, climate and more. She thinks Porgs are an invasive species.

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