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Like most people confronted with the possibility that a nuclear weapon or dirty bomb could release radioactive fallout somewhere near me, I've become obsessed with how to best wash my hair after such a disaster. Escalating rhetoric between the US president and North Korea has caused many people to wonder how they could survive a nuclear blast. In the event of the unthinkable, knowing a bit about haircare could prove useful.
The federal government’s Ready.gov Nuclear Blast web page recommends that if you’re exposed to nuclear fallout, you should remove your outer clothes, then take a decontamination shower to wash your skin with soap and your hair with shampoo or soap and water — not, I repeat, not conditioner. It explains, “Do not use conditioner in your hair because it will bind radioactive material to your hair, keeping it from rinsing out easily.” It’s rare that the government makes haircare recommendations, so I needed to find out more.
I imagined post-blast radiation to function like an unholy ghost, but invisible radiation isn’t the biggest concern. Nuclear fallout is actual, visible stuff: It’s “a fine dust or sand-like material” that emits radiation — you need to get that off and take deep cover while it’s blowing around and burning through its wild, destructive infancy and adolescence.
After removing your outerwear, the next order of business is a decontamination shower. If a nuclear bomb or a dirty bomb goes off and you survive, experts say that you can easily shed 85-95 percent of the radiation on your body just through the removal of outer clothing and a decontamination shower. Yes, water from pipes will probably contain some radiation, but unless a specific warning is issued, use it for washing up anyway. This isn’t the time to blow bottled water on washing your face. Put down the micellar water, dry shampoo, and cleansing wipes and get in a real shower, unless you can’t reach one or getting wet means risking hypothermia.
While my first instinct would be to take a scalding hot shower and scrub down every inch of my body like a surgeon washing up before entering the operating room, that’s not recommended. After exposure to radiation, new skin nicks, cuts, and irritation caused by cleansing or shaving should be avoided. My old colleague Ran Zwigenberg, assistant professor of Asian studies, history, and Jewish studies at Pennsylvania State University (he’s the author of Hiroshima: The Origins of Global Memory Culture), said that the Japanese government recommended that people cut their hair after the Fukushima accident because it was believed to contain a large amount of radiation. But in most cases, it’s safer to just shampoo your hair rather than crop or shave it.
If you’ve ever compared shampoo and conditioner ingredient lists, you know that there’s sometimes overlap between what’s in each bottle. While the Ready.gov recommendations just mention avoiding hair conditioner, research on decontamination advises that one should use a mild shampoo, and it warns against protein-based conditioners and shampoos for decontamination showers. Another earlier article warns against using protein-based shampoos with conditioners in them. Yet another article simply advises one to avoid conditioner and shampoos that contain conditioner.
To find out why conditioner is a problem, I talked to cosmetic chemist Perry Romanowski, who specializes in haircare and serves as a host of the Beauty Brains podcast. He confirmed via email that conditioners are a problem for decontamination showers because “[c]onditioners are meant to stay behind on the hair whereas shampoos are meant to be washed away.” Ingredients such as “Cationic Surfactants (like cetrimonium chloride), silicone (like Dimethicone), and cationic polymers (like Guar Hydroxypropyltrimonium Chloride)” remain on the hair and can bind radiation to the strands.
The good news is that it’s okay to use things like hair conditioner and your favorite shampoo during your next shower, post-decontamination, according to Thomas F. O'Connell, an expert in radiation safety and the Health Physics Society’s homeland security and security screening editor. In fact, things like skincare for your face and body lotion are fine once you’re done decontaminating.
After learning about post-nuclear haircare, I was left wondering why conditioner warnings were emphasized in government recommendations, but shaving, which could result in cuts that weaken the skin barrier, was not. Hair is a great nest for stuff, as I’m sure you’ve discovered if you’ve painted a ceiling or walked under some asshole birds while on the way to an important meeting. But why not just tell people to wash their hair with bar soap while decontaminating, as the USSR did, and make this real simple and safe?
Since I started researching for this article, the page that warns people not to use conditioner on their hair after a nuclear blast has gone from standard text with a zoomed-out blast thumbnail to something resembling a MySpace homepage for a death metal band. The new presidential administration doesn’t have time for appointing government officials that would actually track down and dispose of stray nuclear material that could be fashioned into dirty bombs, but there’s always time for setting stock mushroom clouds as webpage backgrounds. Said cloud appears to be a Getty image used frequently around the web on apocalyptic articles such “We All May Be Dead in 2050,” and there’s a wolf face in there if you look at it after reaching caffeine saturation.
Wary of the bureaucracy, I filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to determine how the government came to the conclusion that nuclear blast warnings should mention hair conditioner. Shortly after filing my request, FEMA let me know that the information had come from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). I filed a FOIA with the CDC, but the agency closed the request and said that its information came from a fairly obscure report.
If you actually view the report, you’ll discover that the only section that mentions conditioner is credited to an earlier handbook, published in 2006. Had I not confirmed with outside experts, I don't know how I’d feel about getting my current disaster advice from people from 2006 who put emergency service vehicle cartoon clip art in radiation warning symbols — something about this doesn't feel very well thought-out.
A report I found on the CDC’s website called “Detonation of an Improvised Nuclear Device” details how the CDC and FEMA, in partnership with Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education (ORISE), tested media messages about what to do after the detonation of an improvised nuclear device (aka a dirty bomb, the kind meant to spread fallout and panic).
“In February 2011, six 90-minute focus groups were conducted” at market research facilities “to explore the relevance, comprehensibility, credibility, and effectiveness of selected messages” about what to do after the detonation of a dirty bomb. The focus groups responded positively to the advisement about hair conditioner and overall said that the messages helped them realize that dirty bombs are survivable, and that the advisements would help them feel calm in the event of an emergency.
While not perfect, the Ready.gov recommendations on your post-disaster haircare routine have been made after far more planning and deliberation than the recent statements that could lead to that haircare routine becoming a necessity.