Being negative is hotter than ever - if you're trying to sell ionic household products and beautyware.
Fuzzy science and savvy marketing have produced a range of merchandise trying to convince you that ions - those tiny, charged particles - will change your life.
Whether it's a fridge that sprays negative ions at food or rock salt candle holders that release negative ions to fend off bad, positive ions emitted by electronics, products are being hawked that claim to cure everything from bad hair to asthma.
Say bye-bye to those aches and pains by wearing an ionized bracelet. Breathe in fresh, clean air thanks to ionic room purifiers. Never freak out again about bad hair days with an ionic hair dryer.
But before you rush out this season and flood your friends and family with ionized gifts, experts suggest caution.
"I would be very suspicious," said Stephen Barrett, a retired psychiatrist who runs a Web site called Quackwatch.org and serves as vice president of the National Council Against Health Fraud. "There is no evidence that negative ions have health benefits. Some of these products are preying on people who are overly trusting and desperate."
For those who are a little rusty on their high school science, an atom has an equal number of electrons and protons. A positive ion is created when an atom loses an electron and has an overall positive charge. Likewise, whenever an atom acquires an extra electron, it becomes a negative ion and has a negative charge.
Think static electricity, which is the imbalance of negative and positive charges. When you take off a wool hat, it rubs against your hair. As the electrons move from your hair to the hat, each of the hairs is left with the same positive charge. Things with the same charge repel each other.
Depending on who you believe, these electrically charged particles can affect your health and well-being. Positive ions are said to cause physical and emotional problems. Negative ions are said to alleviate depression and stress, and even cure asthma and chronic pain.
Interest in the health effects of ions dates back hundreds of years. Ionic products, such as air purifiers, first started popping up in the 1950s. In the last several years, though, ionic products ranging in price from $30 to hundreds of dollars, are cropping up everywhere.
In its fall fashion edition, People Extra magazine listed a $200 ionic hair dryer used by Britney Spears, Tyra Banks and Debra Messing.
Hecht's at Towson Town Center is carrying a large display of ionic products that include hair rollers, hair dryers and air purifiers.
And a New York company known for its pricey facial creams is selling a $90 bottle of liquid that claims to use negative ions to reinvigorate skin.
"This is all simplified to the point where it's nonsense," said Michael Doyle, professor and chair of the chemistry department at the University of Maryland, College Park. "Unfortunately, you can't have a positive ion without a negative ion or else you violate one of the fundamental laws of nature. They balance each other out."
That's not to say there can't be an excess of negative or positive ions in nature, Doyle added. As a result of normal molecular activity, there are always ions present in any material. But to move ions around in ways that some products claim - such as from a bracelet into your body - is absurd, experts say.
One such product, the Q-Ray Ionized Bracelet, which costs between $50 to $250, purported to restore the ionic balance or flow of electromagnetic energy in a person's body. By doing so, the bracelet claims to restore health, relieve cancer pain, improve muscle flexibility, improve sports performance and restore energy.
"Solid objects cannot be ionized," Barrett said, labeling the bracelet's advertising claims "preposterous."
The Federal Trade Commission thought so, too. The agency charged various manufacturers of the bracelet with false advertising in 2003 and 2004.
Experts said consumers should be wary of any products that make remarkable claims. Buyers should also do research to see if products have been tested by a consumer publication or advocacy group.
Even then, the results can vary. Among the most ubiquitous ionic products on the market are hair dryers that boast about infusing negative ions into your follicles.
"Well, they can't shoot negative ions through air," Doyle said. "You'd die. That's like a ray gun from Flash Gordon or something."
"In things that are related to beautification and health," Doyle added, "consumers will trust many things."
Ditto for claims by hair dryers that say negative ions created by ceramic heat will break water molecules, dry hair faster and make hair shinier and silkier.
Unfortunately, experts say there is no conclusive evidence to prove whether ions hurt or help you.
But in an unscientific test using a Conair Double Ionic Turbo Styler - which retails for about $30 but was on sale for $18 with a coupon - test subjects said there was no noticeable difference between a regular hair dryer and an ionic dryer.
Steve Poynter, a stylist at Shear Magic beauty salon in Annapolis, used the Conair recently to blow dry half of Ana Cruz's long brown hair. On the other half of Cruz's hair, he used a $90 BaByliss PRO Dual Turbo with no ionizer. Both dryers were set on medium heat at the highest air flow setting.
While ionic dryers claim to dry hair faster, the Conair took 13 minutes, a full two minutes longer than the BaByliss, to dry Cruz's hair. The shine factor on both sides was determined to be negligible. And save for slightly less static on the Conair side, the difference was minimal, said Poynter, who's been styling hair for more than 20 years.
Said Poynter, "There may be a small amount of truth to the less static claim, but changing the structure of your hair? I'm doubtful of that."
"I can't tell the difference," said Cruz, who has also been styling hair for 13 years.
Conair, which also owns the BaByliss line, did not return phone calls for comment about its ionic hair dryer.
Betsy Kirkpatrick-Howat, an Edgewater systems analyst, said she thought her short hair felt exactly the same after her ionic blow.
"If it were comparable in price to a regular hair dryer - I pay about $20 to $25 for those - I'd try it," she said, pointing to the ionic hair dryer. "But if you could shoot that thing at your hips and reduce them, I'd definitely pick one up."
Tips for consumers about buying ionic products:
Be cautious: There is no conclusive evidence that positive or negative ions are beneficial to your health.
Look out for remarkable claims. It's unlikely any ionic product will cure your pains and illnesses.
Check for product reviews online at sites like Quackwatch.org and in magazines like Consumer Reports or Good Housekeeping.
Be aware of high prices: Just because it's more expensive doesn't mean that it works any differently.
"People believe that the government has some type of program out there preventing false advertising and that it will protect them," said Stephen Barrett, who runs Quackwatch. "The truth is, that is not the case. Be suspicious."