Uncombable hair

People suffering from Uncombable Hair Syndrome have silvery hair that resists all attempts to comb, brush, or otherwise groom it.

Daderot, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

A couple of months ago I wrote about an 1845 German children’s book – Der Struwwelpeter – that set out to terrify children into good behaviour, for example by threatening to chop off the thumbs of thumb-suckers.

The title character of that book is Struwwelpeter, translated as Shock-Headed Peter or Shaggy Peter (or, in Mark Twain’s 1891 translation, Slovenly Peter). He does not pay attention to personal grooming, and his hair and fingernails grow wild and unmanageable. In the book it’s just another one of these threatening stories, but we now know that the untameable hair described in this book can be a symptom of a real genetic disorder: Uncombable Hair Syndrome.

People with a defect in one of three specific genes may manifest hair that is silvery white, frizzy, wiry, and resembling nothing so much as fine spun glass. It does not settle on one’s head but sticks out in all directions. Combing it or brushing it does nothing, because the problem is in the shape of the hair itself.

If you slice off a hair from someone with uncombable hair syndrome and look at the cross-section, it’s not round. Instead, the hair is either triangular or pinched in the middle like a kidney bean. These irregular shapes mean that the hair doesn’t lie flat, cannot in fact lie flat. No matter what you do, it just sticks out all over the place – and makes you the unfortunate target of ignorant 19th century German children’s book authors.

Fortunately, this problem mostly resolves itself by adulthood. I’ve seen people speculating online that Albert Einstein and UK prime minister Boris Johnson both suffer(ed) from Uncombable Hair Syndrome, but I haven’t read any actual proof for that rumour.

3 Replies to “Uncombable hair”

  1. Boris Johnson, no way. It has been documented that he messes up his hair intentionally before public appearances. Appearing to be a buffoon has its advantages. There are plenty of hits on an image search for “boris johnson combed hair”.

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