KNOTTY PROBLEM

Teasing, not tearing, is the secret of good-looking tresses. This week, our panel tangles with hairbrushes
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The Independent Culture
Brushing your hair is not merely an attempt to create a semblance of order on your head; it also massages the scalp, increasing blood supply to the roots, and spreads the natural oils along each strand of hair, so that the cuticles lie flat, reflecting the light, and protecting the hair against pollution. But hairbrushes vary in form as much as hair lengths and textures, resulting in a bewildering range of shapes, widths, textures (whether of pins or bristles) and base materials used.

In general, brushes made with bristle should exhibit an uneven surface "to achieve penetration", as hairdressers say; those with pins should have a cushioned or flexible base, since the pins must give way before tangles. Teasing, not tearing, is the order of the day for good looking hair. "The worst possible sort of hairbrush," advises Richard Thompson, one of our panellists, "is one with fairly rigid pins in a hard plastic base." Bargain hunters beware.

THE PANEL

Richard Thompson, director of the salon Mahogany in London, acted as expert witness in our test. Other panellists included Anna Nicholas (very curly, short hair), Anna MacLellan (long, thick hair), Annabel Kennedy- Scott (short, fine hair), Shelley Grobler (long, unruly, layered hair) and myself (long, thick hair).

THE TEST

We tried out the brushes on both wet and dry hair, in our static-filled offices and at home. We were interested in comfort as much as results, but did pay attention to any special promises made by the brushes' designers, such as "volume" and "curling". Looks were also considered important for an item likely to be left lying on the dressing table.

***DENMAN FREEFLOW VOLUME STYLING BRUSH

pounds 4.25

Described by Anna MacLellan as "the Volvo of hairbrushes" due to its solid handle and cushioned base, this good value brush from Denman has widely spaced pins to help you put volume into your hair when blow-drying. It does seen to work - to the extent that volume can be achieved by artificial means (after all, as anyone with fine hair knows all too well, unless you fix the style with gel or spray, the most towering edifice just collapses again like a subsiding meringue).

One tester said astutely, "This is the sort of sensible brush your hairdresser would recommend," and Richard Thompson did; this is the kind of hairbrush that he uses in his salon. But Shelley Grobler "found the brush slightly cumbersome" and Annabel Kennedy spoke up for several people who tried it on fine or thinning hair, declaring it "painfully spiky on the scalp". Anna Nicholas did manage to get it through her barbed-wire curls, reporting that "Appearance-wise it's a bit unpleasant - the raw pink surface [of the pad] looks like a skinned scalp."

****BOOTS SALON SYSTEM ANTI-STATIC HAIRBRUSH

pounds 5.99

Unfathomably - despite some odd looking carpet tufts on sides - this plain looking, plastic and rubber brush really does cut out static and penetrates thick hair, "albeit rather roughly". "This is marvellous hairbrush," opined Anna MacLellan. "It is reasonably priced, nicely weighted and does exactly what it says it will do. The best way to test it is to use the Kent bristle brush until you look as if you have stuck your fingers in an electric socket and then try the Boots brush. As if by magic, no more static." Half the panel was very excited by this, the other half found it somewhat run-of-the-mill, but a good value product nonetheless.

*****AVEDA PADDLE BRUSH

pounds 15

This exceptionally wide, flat, pale wooden backed brush has no fewer than thirteen rows of pins - unlucky for some, I thought, as a colleague demonstrated its all-encompassing, divide-and-rule action on my hair. Surely this was a motorway, where a country lane was all that's needed? Richard Thompson disagreed; "It's not for short hair, but you get control of long hair with this sort of brush," he insisted, pointing out that the paddle shape blocks some of the air flow when blow-drying.

The Aveda, which comes in a muslin bag and was deemed by Anna Nicholas to be an adornment "for a naturalist's dressing table", was also described by testers as "wonderfully smooth and tactile to hold", if "a little too large and unwieldy." In a pinch, Shelley Grobler suggested, it could double as a very effective weapon, "or at least a ping-pong bat". In a debate fraught with disagreement, it won as the overall favourite simply because most hair types could use it.

****MASON PEARSON JUNIOR

pounds 22.25

Presented in a nostalgically illustrated box, complete with its own separate cleaning brush and corporate biography, this medium size paddle brush (halfway between large paddle and handbag sizes) represented one of the oldest established and most revered hairbrush companies around. All the testers were eager to get their hands on a Mason Pearson brush, but in the event gave mixed reviews.

"Feels good and looks good, but sadly didn't stand a chance with my woolly mop," sighed Anna Nicholas, while Anna MacLellan reported a major disappointment: "I've always wanted one of these, but now I see the natural bristles don't work on tangled hair - they only work on hair which is ready combed, to give you a luxurious head massage. This is a dressing table brush, not a hair taming device." The rest of us didn't have this problem, or perhaps were more sluttish in outlook; better for the grooming process to feel nice than to tease out every knot, we decided. Despite the price, we awarded a high score, due to testimonials from assorted friends and relatives, confirming that these sturdy brushes really do last a lifetime.

**THE BODY SHOP VENT BRUSH

pounds 1.95

This low cost, violent pink or turquoise plastic vent brush wouldn't be given house room in Richard Thompson's salon ("Just look at the colour!") but found favour with the panel as the sort of cheap and cheerful item "you could take to the beach."

The vents are not mere decoration; in sturdier versions they allow hot air from the hairdryer to reach the roots of short hair, for styling purposes. Unfortunately the Body Shop brush did not pass Thompson's simple test - holding a hairdryer close to the pins, they soon softened and bent and refused to stand up again, though that didn't really bother those of us whose hair is strictly drip-dry.

Anna Nicholas objected to the fly-away effect on her curly hair - "I nearly took off." And yet the brushing sensation is pleasant - not unlike pulling your hair across brambles, I thought, as favoured by Thomas Hardy's sensuous heroine in his novel The Return of the Native.

*KENT FULL RADIAL BRUSH

pounds 12.50

Kent are holders of a royal warrant and produce an excellent range of hairbrushes, but this isn't one of them. We wanted to test a full radial brush; this one has a cherrywood handle and natural bristles and is not quite so inclined to tangle as other radial brushes. As Shelley Grobler remarked, "The price is important: cheap ones will kill you, it's like brushing your hair with chewing gum."

But Anna MacLellan was not the only tester to relate a tale of woe, in which monstrous tangles was caused by another radial brush; "these are the Satan of all hairbrushes for people with long hair," she concluded. Richard Thompson says he never recommends people to use these at home, since attempts to curl the ends of the hair as they are wrapped around the brush results in burnt locks as well as getting the hair caught up. We all noticed increased static from this brush and Anna Nicholas complained of the lack of penetration: "It skimmed the surface of my hair like a surfer. Absolutely useless."

STOCKISTS

Aveda and Kent from Harvey Nichols, London SW1; Denman and Boots own brand from Boots branches nationwide; Mason and Pearson from department stores and their own shop on Bond Street, London W1; Body Shop from outlets nationwide.

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