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All about combs

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A modern comb

A Punjabi wooden comb

A comb is a toothed device used for styling, cleaning and managing hair and scalp. Combs are among the oldest tools found by archaeologists, having been discovered in very refined forms from settlements dating back to 5,000 years ago in Persia.


Combs consist of a shaft and teeth that are placed at a perpendicular angle to the shaft. Combs can be made out of a number of materials, most commonly plastic, metal, cotton material or wood. Combs made from ivory and tortoiseshell were once common but concerns for the animals that produce them have reduced their usage. When made from wood, combs are largely made of boxwood, cherry wood or other fine-grained wood. Good quality wooden combs are usually handmade and polished.

Combs can vary in shape according to function. Hairdressing combs may have a thin, tapered handle for parting hair and close teeth. Common hair combs usually have wider teeth half way and finer teeth for the rest of the comb. You should use a comb while hair is wet as this helps prevent breakages occurring and resulting in spilt ends.

A hairbrush, which is larger than a comb, is also commonly used for shaping, styling and cleaning hair.


Local artisan cutting and filing animal horn to make combs in Alappuzha, Kerala

Indian metal comb for keeping hair in place, adorned with a pair of birds. After removing the central stopper, perfume can be poured into the opening in order to moisten the teeth of the comb and the hair of the wearer.

Combs can be used for many purposes. Historically, their main purpose was securing long hair in place; decorating the hair; matting sections of hair for locking; or keeping a kippah or skullcap in place. In Spain, a peineta is a large decorative comb to keep a mantilla in place.

In industry and craft, combs are used in separating cotton fibres from seeds and other debris (the cotton gin, a mechanized version of the comb, is one of the machines that ushered the Industrial Revolution). A comb is used to distribute colours in paper marbling to make the swirling colour patterns in comb-marbled paper.

Combs are also a favourite spot for police investigators to collect hair and dandruff samples that can be used in ascertaining dead or living persons' identities, as well as their state of health, toxicological profiles, and so forth.

Making music
Stringing a plant's leaf or a piece of paper over one side of the comb and humming with cropped lips on the opposite side dramatically increases the high-frequency harmonic content of the hum produced by the human voice box, and the resulting spread sound spectrum can be modulated by changing the resonating frequency of the oral cavity.

This was the inspiration for the kazoo. Moreover, the comb is also a lamellophone. Comb teeth have harmonic qualities of their own, determined by their shape, length, and material. A comb with teeth of unequal length, capable of producing different notes when picked, eventually evolved into the thumb piano and musical box.

Afro pick

Ashanti comb - an example of Afro pick

This type of comb has loose teeth and is usually used on kinky hair. It is sometimes worn in the hair.

Nit comb

A Stone Age nit comb

Specialized combs such as "flea combs" or "nit combs" can be used to remove macroscopic parasites and cause them damage by combing. A comb with teeth fine enough to remove nits is sometimes called a "fine-toothed comb", as in the metaphoric usage "go over [something] with a fine-toothed comb", meaning "search [something] closely and in detail". Sometimes in this meaning, "fine-toothed comb" has been reanalysed as "fine toothcomb" and then shortened to "toothcomb", or changed into forms such as "the finest of toothcombs".


Sharing combs is a common cause of parasitic infections, as one user can leave a comb with eggs or live parasites, facilitating the transmission of lice, fleas, mites, fungi, and other undesirables. Siblings are also more likely to pass on nits to each other if they share a comb so it is advisable to buy each separate child their own comb.

Unbreakable plastic comb
An unbreakable plastic comb is a comb that, despite being made of plastic rather than (more expensive) metal, does not shatter into multiple pieces if dropped on a hard surface such as bathroom tiles, a hardwood floor, or a pavement. Such combs were introduced in about 1960. Today most plastic combs are unbreakable.


Ancient Egyptian comb, c. 15th century BCE.

Etruscan comb, c. 7th century BCE.

Scythian comb, c. 400 BCE

Ancient Roman comb

A set of combs found on the 16th century ship Mary Rose

Ivory sculptured comb of the 16th century

Head louse comb

A liturgical comb, possibly made in Italy, 15th century

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