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The Brush-Off

Booth Moore is a Times staff writer who covers the fashion and beauty industries.

If the adage is true that hair is the doorway to the ego, then how one chooses to brush it isn’t a decision to be made lightly. Whereas men worry about simply keeping their hair, women worry about keeping it lustrous and untangled, free from split ends. You rarely encounter a woman who is having a bad makeup day, but bad hair days are practically an epidemic. So maybe that’s why we’re willing to spend $150 on a clump of boar bristles jammed into a plastic paddle--for the elusive promise of beauty that nylon alone can’t be trusted to deliver.

At once the most personal and impersonal of beauty tools, the hairbrush conjures images of nurturing, having your tresses smoothed by your mother before school. But then, a hairbrush is not something a woman wants to get as a Christmas gift from her fiance, as one Los Angeles fashion publicist did. (Yes, after some debate, the wedding is still on.)

Women’s relationships to their hairbrushes are as complex and varied as their relationships to men. There’s the serial stroker, who is always looking to upgrade to the newest model, and is also likely to change hairstyles monthly; the closet coiffer, whose hair is always perfect because she has brushes stashed in her glove compartment, desk drawer, even her refrigerator; the public primper, who has been known to brush while stopped in traffic, after a meal in a restaurant, or whenever anyone is likely to be watching; the mane indifferent, who brushes with her fingers, or not at all; and finally the brush hog, who is fiercely loyal to one instrument, jealously letting no one, not even blood relatives, touch it.

“The issue comes up at least once every week, where someone is desperately looking for an old hairbrush and asks me to help,” says Jyl Klein, owner of the L.A.-based Web site www.adiscountbeauty.com. “It’s as if people are replacing a security blanket. They send an old brush wrapped in tissue, or a digital photo. There’s a real emotional attachment.”

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Brushes typically have bristles made of boar, nylon or a combination of both. Boar bristles have an exfoliating quality that helps clean the hair follicles of dust, dirt and oil, according to some experts, and they may give your brush more mileage. Others believe boar bristles are too harsh. But one thing everyone can agree on is that the 100-strokes-a-day business is nonsense. A holdover from the mercifully distant times when people shampooed once or twice a month, 100 daily strokes helped to prevent a grease slick by dispersing dirt and oil throughout the hair.

“The less brushing the better,” says Philip Kingsley, a world-renowned trichologist who since 1960 has been prescribing scalp tonics to clients such as Mick Jagger and Kate Winslet and is the author of “The Hair Bible: A Complete Guide to Health and Care” (Aurum Pr Ltd., 2003). “One has to have a brush to style the hair, but brushing shouldn’t be an exercise,” he says. “If you want to stimulate the scalp, massage or knead it.”

Whatever your stroke count, there are hundreds of brushes on the market, and just as many opinions about which is the best. For smoothing the hair, the top of the line comes from Britain’s G.B. Kent, which has had the Royal Warrant for brush-making for 226 years. One of the most expensive models, the $230 oval-style brush, takes 540 hours to make, including drying and hand-finishing of the satinwood handle.

Mason Pearson, also a British brush maker, has been in the business since 1885 and is known for inventing the “pneumatic” rubber-cushion design, which allows the brush to conform to the contours of the head. At Fred Segal Beauty in Santa Monica, the $105 Mason Pearson “Junior” is a top seller, with seven rings of nylon and boar bristles. Creative director Paul DeArmas calls it “the Ferrari of brushes.” Kiehl’s makes a similar cushion style for about $53, which features all-nylon bristles that have ball tips, making them less abrasive to the scalp.

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Choosing a styling brush depends on your hair length, according to Richard Marin, Goody Products creative director and a celebrity hairstylist who has worked with Jennifer Lopez, Britney Spears and Demi Moore. If you have long hair, a paddle-shaped brush is best. If your hair is shoulder length, a round brush will help you achieve maximum volume. For short styles, a vent brush is a good bet, he says.

A few years ago, straightening brushes, which worked in place of a flat iron, were the latest trend. But now, ceramic brushes are the talk in salon circles. “When the heat from your hairdryer hits the ceramic core of the brush, it is distributed evenly. It makes for a quicker blow-dry,” says the beauty Web site’s Klein.

Cesar Tejeda, buyer for the local Beauty Collection Apothecary chain of stores, recommends ceramic brushes by the Italian company Tek ($54 to $70), but warns: “You have to be careful, because some brushes are labeled ceramic and they aren’t. Some are just sprayed with ceramic.”

However, some experts favor brushes at the lower end of the price spectrum. Denman brushes are a favorite with Etienne Taenaka, director of Vidal Sassoon Beverly Hills, particularly the $12 nine-row model with nylon bristles that has a removable back for easy cleaning. “You don’t have to spend a lot of money to get a good brush,” Taenaka says.

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Kingsley, the trichologist, agrees. “When it comes to brushes, the cheaper the better,” he says. “Boar bristles can be dangerous, sharp and stiff. They tend to break the hair and could scratch the scalp. Cheap nylon bristles with balls on the end are the best.” He favors a Goody model that costs a mere $5.

So maybe the Goody brush I sang “Summer Nights” into as a teen was worth holding onto after all? Nah, this brush hog is a Mason Pearson loyalist. When you’re spending $400 for John Frieda highlights, the Yugo of hairbrushes just won’t do.


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