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I know this must seem like a silly question for this forum but I'm actually serious. Why doesn't hair tangle?

Sure, hair does in fact tangle at times. (And dread locks are really tangles of hair.) But hair tangles much less often than I would expect it to.

Consider how easy it is to tangle an extension cord. Or consider how easy it is to tangle your headphones cord. Now compare that with hair:

  • Your head has millions(?) of hairs, not just one to tangle with.
  • The length-to-width ratio of hair makes it seem much more tangleable than the cord of a headphone.
  • Hair is not terribly stiff, you can easily tie it in a knot. One strand of hair could probably hold thousands of knots.
  • Hair, unlike extension cords or headphone cords, is covered with scales that seem like they would encourage tangling. (Actually the scales on wool play an important part in the process of felting!)

So given all of this, how is it possible that we are often able to keep such long hair without creating a tangled mess?

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  • $\begingroup$ It'd probably help to think about why hair like dread locks tangle while other types of hair don't so much $\endgroup$ – Zach Saucier Nov 2 '17 at 3:13
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    $\begingroup$ Good question. I think friction plays a role here: if there's more friction between (assuming flat) surfaces of any 2 strands (of anything), they're more likely to twirl into loops/knots and tangle. Strands with smooth surfaces won't be able to hold any initial twist because it'll keep slipping out. But I think there's more that could be said. $\endgroup$ – Avantgarde Nov 2 '17 at 3:50
  • $\begingroup$ You might be interested in this Veritasium video. It is not related to the question or answer but still interesting. $\endgroup$ – Apoorv Potnis Nov 2 '17 at 12:06
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Hair is stiff.

Contrary to what the question states, a strand of hair is rather stiff. The average hair thickness is about 75$\,\mu$m, and you can hold horizontally by one end a strand about a thousand times this value in length (~5$\,$cm). See Shape of a Ponytail and the Statistical Physics of Hair Fiber Bundles. That means that an equally stiff earbud cord, which has a diameter of about 2$\,$mm at least, would be able to withstand its own weight in a horizontal position at a length of about one meter.

Also, as Geoffrey's answer points out, differently from earbuds, one end of the hair strand is fixed, attached to the head, which is an important constraint.

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First of all, long hair certainly does get tangled. If you've ever had long hair, you'll know that combing out knots can be a real pain and will often result in serious fraying, tearing, and split ends.

That said,there are two major distinguishing factors between your hair and your head phones: length and number of ends.

First, your hair is much shorter. Even people with very long hair will usually have nowhere near the length of a pair of earbuds. The longer a collection of strands is, the more freedom the strands have to bend and twist around one another. And, like with the phonebook effect, at a certain point there will be such a significant area of contact that friction will begin to bind the strands.

Second, your standard pair of earbuds has 2 or three free ends (depending on whether or not they are unplugged). But your hair only ever has one free end. This constraint on your hair strongly limits its configuration space. There are many fewer configurations that your hair can take since it only has one free end with which to attempt to develop knots. This means that until the hair gets very long, there is a very small chance that it will knot itself.

For your hair to form a knot (more or less) spontaneously, it needs to double back on itself twice - once to make the loop and once to thread itself through the loop. This means that hair will not knot until it has some certain minimum length related to its stiffness and bulk friction. Moreover, a long headphone wire is much more likely to knot itself since it has two (or three) free ends which can twist independently around one another to spontaneously form a knot.

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