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Bad hair day? Experts explain curse of the cowlick

Cowlicks even strike vampires!
Cowlicks even strike vampires!Dan Steinberg / AP

Alfalfa from the "Our Gang" TV serial had a famous one that stuck straight up. So did Dennis the Menace of comic strip fame. Supermodel Claudia Schiffer reportedly has two on her front hairline. "Twilight" star Kristen Stewart has one in front. And in a recent tweet, The Pioneer Woman, Ree Drumond, the blogger turned Food Network TV star wrote, "My cowlick is fired." Channeling her inner-Donald Trump, she perfectly captures how this wayward whorl of hair can drive people crazy.

Cowlicks seem to have a mind of their own and like to go against the flow.

The hair on your head needs to go in three directions -- some needs to go forward, some backwards, and some to the sides.

"In a perfect world, there would be a line so hair would know which way to go," says Dr. Orr Barak, a dermatologist at Tufts Medical Center in Boston. A cowlick is the body's answer to this, by having a centralized location on your scalp -- a crossing point for hair to grow and lie in different directions.

But an unruly cowlick often selects its own direction -- and pops straight up -- or chooses an angle at odds with your preferred style. That's when the frustration and annoyance sets in.

A cowlick's spiral pattern is likely caused because hair gets confused about whether it needs to go forward, backward, or to the side, and some hairs get caught in between creating that characteristic whorl, explains Barak. Cowlicks were supposedly named for the swirling pattern made on hair when a cow licked its calves.

Virtually everybody has a cowlick or two, with the most visible one found at the crown of the head and a second less obvious one, perhaps at the neck or on the front hairline by the part.

They form early in life -- in utero -- and once you have a cowlick, you're stuck with it unless you lose your hair. Both men and women are equally affected by them, although it doesn't seem that way since they are more noticeable in guys because they typically have shorter hair. 

Longer styles often camouflages a cowlick because the weight of the hair covers it up. And it's more obvious in straighter hair compared to curly.

According to Barak, there are some interesting associations between cowlicks and their rotating patterns on your head. He says that noted geneticist Amar Klar has found a connection between handedness and the direction of hair whorls.

In people who are right handed, at least 90% of cowlicks have a clockwise rotation while about 10% go in a counterclockwise direction.

Klar's research has found that people who are not righties are more likely to have a counterclockwise cowlick. In one experiment, he found that 50% of folks who are lefties or ambidextrous have a counterclockwise whorl pattern, suggesting that hand preference and cowlick rotation may develop from a common genetic mechanism.

Interestingly, in a study published in 2004 on nearly 600 men, Klar found that roughly 30% of gay men had a counterclockwise rotation on their scalp hair whorl compared to just 9 percent seen in the population at large.

No matter how your cowlick swirls, most people would be happy to know how to tame it. Although Barak is a doctor and not a hair stylist, he recommends keeping your hair long or going with the grain of the cowlick. Of course, the right cut and styling products can also do the trick.

Readers, what seems to work for your cowlicks?