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Spritz some hairspray into the air over your head and it seems to disappear, leaving only a style that stays put for hours afterward. This is due to the efforts of an assortment of polysyllabic polymers—including polyvinylpyrrolidine, polydimethylsiloxane, and various forms of vinyl acetate and methacrylate—which are fired from the can by an aerosol propellant. Along with a solvent of alcohol and hydrocarbons, the polymers work their way in between individual strands and form a stabilizing film that binds the hairs to each other long after the solvent evaporates. This stability can help preserve a hairstyle’s shape, add volume, or simply protect the skull from paper airplanes.
The days of helmet hair, however, are long gone. Formulas now exist that provide a flexible, more natural look and still allow locks a certain range of motion. Naturally derived polymers such as gum arabic or gum tragacanth, along with vitamin-based compounds such as tocopherols and panthenols, are a few gentler modern ingredients. Some products can also add shine, protect against heat damage, or even block UV radiation.
These feats of chemistry still can’t substitute for proper application. The key, stylists say, is holding the spray nozzle at least one foot away from your hair while moving the can smoothly and keeping your tongue securely in your mouth. To tame a couple of particularly stubborn strands, try spritzing a bit of hairspray directly onto your hands and then smoothing out the kinks. Beyond haircare, hairspray’s tightly bonding polymers can also be useful for stopping a run in a pair of tights or getting rid of static cling.