But it also brings a big rise in the number of static shocks — those harmless but painful jolts when we touch a metal door handle, a woolly jumper or even another person.
A shock occurs when static that has built up on your body is discharged all at once. ‘This often happens when we walk across a carpet or floor and a small charge is transferred to the soles of our shoes,’ says Dr Jeremy Smallwood, who runs a consultancy, Electrostatic Solutions, that helps to prevent potentially harmful static in industry.
UK experts Dr Jeremy Smallwood and Dr Alton Horsfall revealed why static shocks tend to increase during winter and how to discharge them (file image)
Next, you have to touch something that is a good conductor, meaning it can carry the charge away from your body. Metals are the most common electrical conductors. ‘If the charge doesn’t have anywhere to go, it produces a build-up of potential energy on your body. Then you touch something and it causes a shock,’ says Dr Smallwood.
In warm weather we don’t suffer many shocks because moisture in the air forms a very thin layer on the surface of objects around us, which conducts the static away when we touch anything. But in the dry, cold air of winter, the charge remains on us.
Today, most footwear is not leather but plastic or rubber — materials that block the charge from leaching away into the ground. Hospitals in the U.S. have even banned staff from wearing rubber sandals such as Crocs because of fears that static build-up could interfere with electronic equipment.
Then there are your clothes. Natural fibres such as wool, cotton and linen generally produce less static than synthetic ones such as polyester.
‘Artificial fabrics tend to be terrible electrical conductors because they don’t contain much moisture, so more static builds up,’ says Dr Alton Horsfall, a reader in semiconductor technology at Newcastle University.
The risk is heightened when the air and our skin are dry, so experts recommend slathering on moisturiser. Some people find spritzing jumpers with a fine mist of water reduces static.
Dr Smallwood advises holding a key and touching something metal to discharge static before touching other things (file image)
You are also at risk of a shock when hopping out of your car after a long journey, when you touch the metal door. Why? Because static electricity is caused by two different materials coming into contact.
‘But when two materials are in contact,’ Dr Horsfall explains, ‘some electrons (negatively charged particles) move from one material to the other.’
While you’re sitting in the car, static charges build up on your body as your clothing rubs against the material of the seat. When you get out, you take the charge that has built up with you. Then you touch the metal car door and get a shock.
‘This can often be avoided by holding on to a metal part of the door frame as you leave the seat, or touching the glass window before you touch the metal door,’ Dr Smallwood says.
Other daily situations can prove hazardous, too. At the supermarket, the wheels of your trolley can build up an electrostatic charge, while carpeted floors in shops can also cause static build-up.
‘Try holding a key and touching something metal with it to discharge static before you touch other things,’ says Dr Smallwood.
There are also anti-static sprays available, including Static Guard Static Cling Spray (8.50, amazon.co.uk) and Eddingtons Anti Static Spray (£5, johnlewis.com), which leave an invisible conducting layer on surfaces. Or try rubbing chairs with fabric softener sheets or spraying them with diluted fabric conditioner.
Perhaps the simplest solution, though, is a humidifier. These range in price from £39.99 for a Miniland Ultrasonic Minidrop (Argos) to £499.99 for a Dyson Humidifier Fan (dyson.co.uk).
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