Cornell Cooperative Extension

January 6, 2014

Annual hair-raising experience of winter

This is the time of year when my electrifying personality really comes out — not necessarily a good thing because I shock most everyone I touch.

Last week in the drugstore, the cashier glared at me accusingly when she got a shock while taking cash from my hand. Even my dog Ollie hesitates to come too close to me when he sees my hair standing on end. I’m leery of touching anything metal, including the doorknobs in my home and the filing cabinets in my office.

I am an innocent victim of static electricity. Rather, the people I touch are the victims.

We’ve all had the experience of forgetting to put a fabric softener sheet in the dryer, only to find our socks clinging to our shirts like we had dried them with a bottle of glue. As we peel them apart we hear a crackling noise that can be a bit disturbing. This is static electricity at work.

Static electricity is the result of the electrons and protons in the atoms of an object being out of balance. All objects are made of atoms, which are made of protons (with a positive charge), electrons (with a negative charge) and neutrons (neutral, or no charge). The protons and electrons are usually equal in number so atoms are usually neutral. When objects rub together, some of the electrons rub off one and onto another. The object that lost electrons now has a positive charge and the object that gained electrons has a negative charge.

Since opposites attract, these two objects are drawn to each other, like the socks and shirts in the dryer. The crackling noise you hear as you pull things apart results from the electrons jumping back onto the object they came from to restore neutrality. Not all the electrons make it back.

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