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[Image above] Credit: AnnieAnniePancake; Flickr CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

2-D materials, particularly graphene, have gotten a lot of hype since they were first introduced almost 15 years ago.

In addition to helping bestow a Nobel prize upon the scientists who discovered it, graphene is continually referred to as wonder material, one touted for its really great slate of properties.

Those properties get researchers and developers giddy with excitement over the material’s incredible potential applications—everything from touchscreen alternatives and computer chips that keep their cool to bone replacement materials and temporary tattoos.

And yet, despite this slew of research and development on graphene, there are still only a few commercial applications for this go-to thin material.

But a new study shows that graphene’s newest game might be as the next big thing for your hair.

Researchers at Northwestern University (Evanston, Ill.) recently demonstrated graphene’s potential as a hair dye that is easily applied, resists washing out, and is much less toxic than current hair coloring methods.

If you’ve ever dyed your hair, you know that it’s not an entirely pleasant experience—the caustic smell of the chemicals, the long time spent waiting for the color to develop, and the possibility that the process might ultimately leave your hair so dried out that the strands could snap off in the slightest breeze.

Conventional permanent hair dyes require relatively harsh chemicals to open up the strands of hair, allowing the coloring compounds to seep inside. That’s why the color is permanent and resists washing out—it’s actually incorporated into the strand of hair.

Being able to simply coat the outside of the strand, rather than force the dye molecules inside, makes hair dying easier because it takes much less time and eliminates the need for those toxic chemicals. That’s precisely how temporary hair dyes work—they quickly coat the outside of strands—but that’s also the reason why they wash out relatively easily.

The exciting thing about the new graphene-based hair dye is that it has the best of both worlds—it works like a temporary hair dye, but lasts like a permanent one.

The dye accomplishes this best-of-both-worlds feat through a solution of graphene oxide sheets, chitosan polymer, and vitamin C. Chitosan polymer, derived from chiton in crustacean shells, helps disperse the graphene oxide in solution. Chitosan itself, however, is insoluble in water, so vitamin C in the mix helps make it soluble.

The research shows that this graphene dye composition binds to hair extremely well, thanks to the flexibility of graphene oxide sheets and the ability of chitosan to strongly bind to keratin protein, the main structural component of hair.

Applying the dye is incredibly simple. “It doesn’t rely on any chemical reaction—you just brush it on the surface of the hair, comb it, and the hair changes color,” Jiaxing Huang, materials science and engineering professor at Northwestern and senior author of the work, says in an article on Gizmodo.

And the hue is tunable—color intensity of the hair dye can be adjusted simply by varying the concentration of graphene in the dye solution.

So how does the dye stay put?

Because vitamin C makes the dye components soluble, the authors explain, removing it after application onto the hair makes an insoluble coating—one that’s not prone to losing its color even after 30 washes. And while the harsh chemicals of traditional permanent hair dyes can severely damage hair, tensile tests show that the graphene-based dye doesn’t weaken strands.

Plus, there’s an added benefit—because graphene is electrically conductive, the graphene dye helps tame static as well.

Put all these benefits together and you’ve got one really promising potential commercial application for graphene, although the research is very preliminary so far. Testing would first have to show that the products are safe for human use before you find graphene-based hair dye on store shelves.

But with a global hair color market already valued at more than $18 billion in 2016—and projected to steadily continue growing at a compound annual growth rate of more than 8.5% through 2024, according to a recent market research report—this is a commercial product area that is highly attractive to large entities with a lot of spending power.

With major companies like L’Oreal, Johnson & Johnson, and Procter & Gamble in the market, there is a lot of potential R&D funding to develop such a product.

We’ll have to wait and see, but someday you just might have a new do brought to you by 2-D materials.

The open-access paper, published in Chem, is “Multifunctional graphene hair dye” (DOI: 10.1016/j.chempr.2018.02.021).

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