Cracking the Code on Bad Hair

Taming bad hair is a $48 billion a year global business with high tech R&D.

Jan. 3, 2011— -- It's a problem so dreaded that mankind battles against it every day, wielding NASA technology, $48 billion a year and more brain power than MIT and Stanford combined. It's bad hair.

"On a bad hair day, you just feel really ugly," said Trinity O'Connell, 33, a Texan who goes mano-a-mano daily with her voluminous blonde hair.

There isn't a woman in the world who doesn't share her feelings, said Bob McDonald, CEO of Procter & Gamble, which makes Pantene, the hair care market leader. It's a conviction that adds up to $6.7 billion spent in thehair care industry in the U.S. alone and $48 billion globally.

"Every woman in the world believes, rightfully, that she has damaged hair. At least every woman I've met," said McDonald.

To ease their troubles, P&G is in the laboratory, inventing and re-inventing to promote the holy trinity of volume, body and shine and eliminate evildoers like split ends, limpness and frizz. Company advertising shows a woman who has reached the pinnacle of success, whipping her hair over her head and grinning as it settles down, shiny around her shoulders in what is known in the industry as "hair gymnastics."

Big hair is big business, and P&G is scrambling to win back some of the thrifty women who traded down in the current tough economy to lower-priced rivals like Suave. Last year, sales of shampoo and other products declined and one of the steepest drops was U.S. sales of Pantene (down 9 percent).

This year, Pantene undergoes its third makeover since 1999 and the company swears more than the bottle has changed. McDonald told ABC News, "We used analytical equipment and knowledge we gained from NASA to help design this formula with 14 new ingredients that have never been used before."

P&G has employed the dynamic duo of beauty and brain to turn the situation around. On the payroll at the company's research and development center are 1,000 scientists covering at least 17 disciplines.

"We have more Ph.Ds than the combined MIT, Berkeley and Stanford staffs," explained Jeni Thomas, senior scientist. "We're very serious about the work we do. It's also a testament to the complexity of hair science formulation. It's not trivial."

In an intergalactic search for heavenly hair, investigators are using instruments so advanced that they were used by NASA on a mission to Mars.

"The atomic force microscope is one that NASA was putting onto their Phoenix lander to study the surface of Mars. We brought it in to study how hair interacts with ingredients," said Thomas.

Then there are very earthy lab materials, such as rows and rows of human hair used for product testing. P&G is the world's largest purchaser of hair.

"This is high quality virgin hair… from probably 600 women," said Thomas, pointing out hair samples to ABC News correspondent Sharyn Alfonsi.

Bad News Hair: Thick Strands More Prone to Frizz

The untouched hair is subjected to bleaching, coloring and other damage in the laboratory and then treated with hair care products to find out how it will respond. It is hung up in humidity and temperature-controlled rooms to test the reaction in different climates.

"Especially for an anti-frizz or smoothing product, this is a true torture test," Thomas told Alfonsi as they walked into a hot and humid testing room in the R&D center. "If your hair can still look good after 48 hours in this room, you know you're onto something."

Further testing involves focus groups to find out what women want, and even watching women shower to observe their shampooing and conditioning techniques.

Alfonsi has a special interest in taming bad hair after 15 years as an on-camera journalist, reporting from such bad hair hot spots as rainy Seattle and steamy Arkansas. Her hair even inspired a total stranger to set up a website that tracks her tresses' trials and tribulations.

Alfonsi plucked a strand of hair and offered it to be studied under the microscope powerful enough to magnify it 800 times. The findings?

"This is a very thick fiber of hair," said Thomas. "Very thick hair can absorb 40 times more moisture than finer hair so that's why it is more prone to frizz."

And so it is, said Alfonsi.