Hot and bothered by static electric shocks

Hi Alice,

I have a question about static electricity. I constantly get shocked when I'm getting out of my car, touching people or even certain objects. The worst thing is I can't brush my hair because of static electricity. I actually have to rub a fabric softener sheet on my head and hair brushes. Please help me with this issue if you can.

— S

Dear S,

Static electricity may seem like a minor nuisance to some, but if you've ever shuffled across the bedroom carpet half-asleep in a bathrobe and slippers only to touch the bathroom door and get zapped so hard that your whole arm ached and your hair stood on end, then you know it can be a rude wake-up call. The best way to reduce your risk of experiencing annoying and painful shocks is to stand still. For example, if you're walking across a carpeted floor in slippers and can feel static electricity building, you can try to stand still for a few minutes. Fabrics moving together are what cause the charge buildup — without friction, the electrons can't move from one object to the other, allowing any accumulated charges to dissipate. (Un)shockingly, standing still for several minutes isn’t always an option when static electricity builds up.

Static electricity is a natural phenomenon that happens because of electrons — tiny negatively charged particles orbiting around the atoms of which all matter are comprised. When two objects rub against each other, such as a brush and your hair, electrons can be "stolen" from one object to the other. The object that loses electrons then has a positive charge and the object that takes the electrons will have a negative charge. The difference in charges not only allows a zap of static electricity to jump from one object to the other, it also tends to hold them close together like oppositely charged magnets. This is why pulling a sweater over your head can sometimes cause strands of hair to cling to your sweater — and even stand up straight over your head, particularly if you have long, straight, or dry hair. Your hair rubbing together creates a negative charge, repelling individual hairs from each other, while the sweater becomes positively charged, attracting your hair to the area of friction.

To reduce your risk of experiencing a spark, check out some of these tips, free of charge!

At home, you could try to:

  • Use a humidifier or ionizer. Humidifiers increase the humidity in your home, while an ionizer makes it harder for electrons to move about freely. Static electricity can be more problematic in the winter or in arid climates because dry air and materials help facilitate the transfer of electrons. You may also use indoor plants and keep up with watering them to increase humidity.
  • Moisturize dry skin. Use lotion when you get out of the shower or bath. You can even try an anti-static hand lotion (available for the electronics industry).
  • Change clothes. Since certain fabrics (usually artificial fibers such as polyester or nylon) have a greater tendency to build up small electric charges, you may want to change your choice in clothing to a material with more natural fibers.
  • Spray it away. Try using an antistatic spray, which can be applied to walls, ceilings, carpets, clothes, and more, to render materials non-static generating.
  • Go barefoot. This can help to reduce static buildup between your shoes and the carpet, and so can wearing aluminum foil to cover your shoes (though this might give people another kind of shock). You could also try searching for special conductive shoes made for people that work in the electronics industry if you’re willing to make a new fashion statement.
  • Wear a bracelet. Engineers or technicians who spend lots of time working inside computers (whose inner electronics systems could be damaged by a wayward spark of electricity) typically wear grounding straps on their wrists to make sure that they're not frying the computer they're supposed to be fixing. Grounding straps are usually sold in computer supply stores, and while they may not land someone on the pages of the latest fashion magazine, they'll help beat the shocks to your system. If a bracelet's not for you, you can also keep a coin or thimble on hand to help conduct electricity better when touching metal objects.


For the car, you may:

  • Ground yourself. Try touching metal objects with another metal object, such as a key, rather than your hand. The key acts as a mini-lightning rod, allowing the charge of static electricity to go into it rather than into your finger. This would work well when getting into your car and may also help with household objects such as doorknobs.
  • Keep using fabric softener sheets. Give your car seats a rub down with a dryer sheet every so often to reduce static electric shocks. Dryer sheets are effective because they contain fabric softener, which spreads positive ions across surfaces and balances out the negative charges that build up when fabrics rub together. You can also rub dryer sheets on objects in your home to spread some positive energy (ions) on surfaces to reduce your risk of shocks (they also work great as dusters!).
  • Grab the handle first. Before you slide across a seat to exit a car, touch the metal door handle first so that a charge won’t build up.


For your hair specifically:

  • Brush it out. Try spraying hairspray or a leave-in conditioner into a hairbrush before combing your hair. If you’ve been using hairbrushes made of synthetic materials, try switching to one made of a natural material such as boar bristles.
  • Change your hats. Fabrics such as cotton and acrylic create more friction on your head, leading to frizziness and greater risk of static shock. Using a smoother material such as silk prevents your hair from rubbing together and accumulating a negative charge.
  • Keep your hair moisturized. Try using leave-in conditioner or lotion, or shampoo your hair with shampoo that contains argan oil or aloe vera gel to reduce dryness that contributes to static shock.


Hopefully none of these tips are too much of a shock for you. Good luck on your journey to conquer static electricity!

Last updated Jan 22, 2021
Originally published Feb 28, 2003

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