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Mar 262009

By Harriet Blake

The world’s first “green” hair bleach may sound like a product for the Wicked Witch, but in reality it’s an environmentally friendly way to lighten hair, not just on the head but other parts of the body as well.

In search of a better and milder bleaching agent, Kenzo Koike, Ph.D., and other scientists, have come up with a “green” hair bleach based on an enzyme from a fungus called Basidiomycete ceriporiopsis that has been used to clean up pollutants in soil. It naturally degrades melanin and has the added benefit of fighting the effects of free radicals (responsible for making hair brittle and dull).

Koike made the announcement about the discovery Tuesday at the National Meeting of the American Chemical Society in Salt Lake City. The Japanese scientist, who is with the Kao Corporation’s Beauty Research center in Tokyo, says his studies have focused on bleaching, not dyeing, hair.

“Dyeing hair can be done by various methods without hair damage,” Koike says in a statement. “But hair bleaching causes damage [to] everything, whether it’s a little or a lot. Our research has been about hair bleaching that doesn’t cause hair damage.”

Addressing the American Chemical Society, Koike explained that traditional hair bleaches rely on hydrogen peroxide. Peroxide breaks down, or oxidizes, melanin which is the pigment that gives hair a dark color, damaging the hair in the process. “Bleach usually has to be repeated once every three months in order to keep the satisfactory level of color because hair grows 1 centimeter each month,” he says, but this repeated use can leave hair brittle, strip its sheen and irritate the scalp.

This new enzyme, the first found that degrades melanin, could be added to hair bleaches to minimize hair damage and could lead to hair care products that use less hydrogen peroxide, he said. (Hydrogen peroxide, however, breaks down and degrades, unlike chlorine bleach, which is ecologically damaging.)

So, when should the blondes among us look for such products? “The new bleach is not on the market yet,” says Koike. “We tested melanin extracted from human hair, but, human hair, as it is, was not tested [yet].”

Koike says his immediate goal is to pin down how the enzyme affects melanin. “Although I expect it can degrade melanin by oxidation, we don’t know the mechanism of the reaction.” Koike is working on incorporating the enzyme into conventional peroxide hair bleaches. Because the enzyme needs hydrogen peroxide to complete the chemical reaction, a small amount of peroxide would be needed for a product to work. So far, according to the ACS, researchers have only had access to small amounts of the enzyme — a problem they expect to solve, and then will proceed with additional tests, including clinical trials on humans.

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