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Dermatologist Take on the “Gorilla Glue Girl”

Ep 20: Dermatologist Explains the “Gorilla Glue Girl” Incident

Dr. TWL: Hi guys, this is Dr. Teo Wan Lin, accredited dermatologist and welcome to my podcast Dermatologist Talks: Science of Beauty. This week we’re going to talk about the Gorilla Glue Girl hair incident that made headlines internationally. 

Chelsea: Yes! That story was all over social media and the news. There are so many beauty ‘dupes’ and ‘hacks’ that people will try out and document over social media. It’s scary to see one of these ‘hacks’ going so horribly wrong and lead to pretty severe consequences. 

For our listeners who might not be familiar with the incident, can you give us a short summary? 

Dr. TWL: So as the story goes, a lady by the name of Ms. Tessica Brown, now dubbed as “Gorilla Glue Girl”, inadvertently ran out of her favourite haircare product, known as Got2BeGlue. Instead, she grabbed the Gorilla Glue spray adhesive that was to smoothen out her hair for a sleek hairstyle. Thereafter, we learn that she endured a six week ordeal. This was documented via her TikTok video – of having the glue stuck in her hair.

“Gorilla Glue Girl” Tessica Brown Explains Why She Put Glue in Her Hair

Now, the after effects of using permanent industrial strength hair glue, is certainly not going to be pleasant. But what exactly happened in this case? From a chemical and medical perspective, what are the different take home points we can learn from this incident? Before she went to a local emergency department, she apparently spent weeks after that washing her hair and trying various at-home remedies. There, the nurses attempted to remove the glue from her hair with acetone. This was unsuccessful. Subsequently, she travelled to LA to undergo treatment by a plastic surgeon by the name of Dr Obeng. Under light to anesthesia, he used a homemade solvent to remove the rest of the adhesive.

Chelsea: I was following her story throughout the week through social media as well! I actually saw a video she posted of her slathering on some Pantene shampoo. It just sat on the surface of her hair and scalp, despite her vigorously scrubbing. The hair underneath was completely hardened and didn’t even budge.

That looks pretty dangerous to the hair and scalp, what are your thoughts as a dermatologist? 

Dr. TWL: So the good news is that apparently the glue did not damage her scalp. The affected hair that had been glued down for several weeks was cut off. We’re going to talk a little bit about what Gorilla Glue is and how we expect it to react with your skin and scalp. In this case, it certainly did glue her hair down for several weeks. Gorilla Glue is an industrial strength adhesive. Most adhesives used are actually from cyanoacrylate glues. Polyurethane was the predominant ingredient used in Gorilla Glue as a fixative. These are notoriously difficult to remove.

Some of the conventional methods that have been used to dissolve cyanoacrylate glues are fatty oil based products. Certain petroleum based ointments such as Vaseline can try to break down the glue. I think in this case, Miss Brown actually tried these methods, which did not work for her. Additionally, in the emergency room, the nurses actually applied acetone. Despite being unbearably uncomfortable for her at that time, this method wasn’t successful. Separately, acetone on skin and on the scalp presents the risk of irritant contact dermatitis or even an allergic reaction.

“Gorilla Glue Girl” Tessica Brown at the emergency room

Have you come across any cases like this in your dermatology practice? 

Dr. TWL: It is not uncommon for individuals to have accidents with strong glues like nail glue or superglue. Dermatologists have seen individuals who develop irritation or irritant contact dermatitis. In more unfortunate cases, chemical burns due to the use of these products. Acetone rubbing alcohol has been used as DIY home remedies.

It’s important to note that the solvents itself can cause irritant contact dermatitis to skin. The unique situation that Miss Brown, or the “Gorilla Glue Girl” was that she had really used a lot of the glue to try to put her hair together for a sleek, gelled down look. What we know so far is that she has undergone surgery, and that acetone was used to remove the glue. In addition, all her hair that has been glued down has since been cut off. Dr Obeng said that he created a solvent to dissolve polyurethane – the predominant active ingredient in Gorilla Glue adhesives.

Tessica Brown “Gorilla Glue Girl” aftermath at Dr. Obeng’s practice

It contains a medical grade adhesive remover, aloe vera – which is anti inflammatory and soothing with moisturising properties – olive oil, and a little bit of acetone. He had apparently tested the concoction on a skull outfitted with real hair and extensions that he had metted down with gorilla spray adhesive, and tested on it before using it on Miss Brown.

Lessons to learn

Thankfully, there appears to be minimal damage done to Miss Brown scalp. But let this serve as a cautionary real world tale about why we really shouldn’t be using random household products on our skin or hair. No matter how benign looking we think it is. It’s probably wise for us to really read the labels of what these products are for – just use it according to the products indications.

“Gorilla Glue Girl” New Hairstyle

Chelsea: Yeah, we all have a lesson to learn from this – don’t use random products on your skin and hair! Moving on, hair grooming and styling practices are commonplace in our daily routine.

Can you share with us how our hair care practices can affect how the hair grows? 

Dr. TWL: I’m going to talk a little bit about how exactly hair grows. If you have normal hair and scalp, you may take it for granted and not realise that when problems arise, it can be truly challenging. Even a basic function of daily living such as grooming your hair becomes difficult or problematic. Hair itself starts its life from the hair follicles and the follicles are nourished by the oil glands or sebaceous glands, which produce oil to lubricate the new hair that grows out.

There are also stem cells which initiate new growth in the hair follicle. The process of hair growth can be affected by inflammation. In this case, the amount of irritation that potentially can occur because of the industrial strength glue is possibly putting her at risk of a condition known as scarring alopecia.

The secondary issue, of course, is that the glue itself will undoubtedly damage the hair shaft. Your hair grooming practices are affected by the natural type of hair you have. So if you have fine hair, you may find that you want to have more volume.  You may also struggle with frizz or difficulties keeping your hair in a ponytail. For individuals with African American type of ethnic hair, sometimes there is a desire to try to keep the hair looking sleek as opposed to its natural, voluminous or curly texture. This is the same reason why salons perform procedures such as hair perming and relaxing the hair.

The dangers of certain hair treatments

It is true that a lot of women who find their curly hair difficult to manage. They relax their hair simply because it makes it easier for them to style and comb. All of these procedures actually damage the structure of the hair. In order to change the natural texture of hair, you need to destroy the pre existing bonds. In short, the problem really is that you are weakening the hair shaft. As a result, this can lead to chemical breakage, hair fragility, loss of shine, and elasticity.

What are the essential takeaway points about hair health that we can learn from this? 

Dr. TWL: I think what is a true learning point, in this case of the Gorilla Glue hair accident as well is also that there is a psychosocial impact that hair grooming practices has on the individual. In the field of dermatology, our focus has been on scalp health. The disorders of the scalp have traditionally been the major concerns that are treated medically. Hair shaft disorders and basic challenges with grooming have to do with the natural texture of hair.

For example, the health of the hair shaft and hair shaft cosmeceuticals, is an area of research which can allow us to strengthen the hair shaft, increase the elasticity of hair, and smoothen out the cuticle. When you have a healthy hair shaft, it’s much more likely that grooming becomes easier, and there is less need for these spray adhesives. Or at least we do not need to use so much of hair spray. In this case, we are not talking about using true adhesives, which is what happened in the Gorilla Glue case.

The hair cycle

The other thing of course is when you have hair that is growing out of your scalp, it is important to understand that this head is actually dead materials – known as keratin. The quality of the hair shaft depends both on the health of your scalp as well as hair grooming practices. If you have an inflammatory disease of the scalp, such as separate dermatitis, psoriasis, or eczema or scalp folliculitis, you may find that your hair cycle is imbalanced and that means you can have more hair falling out than growing.

Usually 70 to 90% of our hair is in the growing phase known as the anagen phase. Whilst, the remaining 5 to 10% is in the catagen or the telogen phase, which is the falling out phase. When the cycle is upset, for example, in the case of chronic inflammation, you can have an imbalance of the hair falling out versus the hair growing. You’d find that you can develop hair thinning. In terms of the health of the hair shaft. If you have a condition known as male or female pattern hair loss, which is genetically determined – it’s influenced by hormones – hair miniaturisation occurs. That means that the hair shaft that grows out of the hair follicle as you get older gets thinner and thinner and more miniature with time until the scalp itself becomes smooth and shiny.

What are some treatments for hair loss? 

Dr. TWL: If you suffer from these genetic causes of hair loss, you will benefit from using a hair regrowth serum or hair tonic. What has been proven to work is minoxidil at concentrations of 5 to 10%, but that actually causes some scalp irritation. Copper peptide is also used to stimulate hair regrowth and is a potent antioxidant. It can stimulate hair regrowth in the follicles using devices such as laser diodes and radio frequency. These are hair devices that’s been shown to stimulate the hair follicle in a way that also causes a phenomenon that we see in wound healing that’s ideal for hair regrowth. Additionally, it can help to strengthen the growth of the hair shaft.

The use of LED light therapy such as red light, yellow light also can encourage healthy hair follicle growth and healthy hair growth. It’s important to note that in terms of the health of the hair shaft, most hair conditioners are a combination of smootheners and silicones, which besides being toxic environmentally because of the runoff into our oceans, they actually form a coating on their hair without actually strengthening the hair shaft. This coating is removed whenever you wash it.

Hair shaft cosmeceuticals

Hair shaft cosmeceuticals on the other hand, while there’s limited research, some studies have shown certain hair oils derived from plants can directly regenerate and strengthen the hair shaft with improvement in hair elasticity, smoothness and softness. This can reduce the need for chemical rebonding or relaxing. For example, the Lipisilk, and Lipishine serum is a combination of sea buckthorn oil and safflower oil, which help to strengthen the hair shaft. Additionally, using proteins derived from silk, for example, can also help to strengthen the hair shaft.

Lastly, can you give us a few closing haircare tips on how we should maintain our hair health?

Dr. TWL: I think overall, this incident should lead us to reflect on a few issues. First, is the obvious health related dermatological complications we’ve discussed. Secondary concerns that might come out of this issue is really about how hair grooming practices are a huge part of our lives. In particular, ethnic hair may deserve special consideration. Basic hair grooming practices, such as using a wide tooth comb, or in my case, I like to use a wooden paddle brush to detangle hair when it’s wet, because it minimises static, as well as hair breakage. This is as opposed to using plastic combs. Apart from that, using a hair oil or a hair serum can certainly strengthen the hair. A good formula can do so without weighing hair down.

Hair oils, heat hair treatment

Options for hair shaft treatment can include the use of oils, rather than silicon-based masks, as the hair oils themselves have shown to be able to restore hair strength, elasticity and smoothness. Heat is something that can certainly be harnessed to increase the absorption of the product into hair, and can assist to manipulate the hair bonds. Similarly, to how using a hairdryer can help to straighten out unruly hair. The heat treatment itself, say with a heat cap, is a lot more protective than using a hair straightener, or salon perm or relaxing treatment, which actually really damages the hair bonds rather than repairing it.

Well that’s it for this week’s episode on Dermatologist Talks: Science of Beauty. You can follow Dr. Teo on instagram @drteowanlin where she posts updates on the latest podcast episodes, and remember to subscribe for the latest podcast updates.