Last Updated on December 2, 2022 by Verna Meachum
Confused about proteins for hair? Seen a lot of blog posts on social media about proteins that seem contradictory? Worry not, we’re here to give you the facts and clear up the misunderstanding!
If you’ve ever read the ingredients list on a hair care product, you’ve probably seen the word “protein.”
But what does that mean for your hair? And more importantly, is it necessary to include protein in your hair care routine?
In this blog post, we’ll explore the facts and misunderstandings about proteins in hair care. So settle in, grab a cup of coffee, and let’s get started!
Hair proteins are often misunderstood in hair care products and regimens. In fact, many people believe that proteins for hair are only for people with damaged hair, or that they will make your hair feel stiff.
However, hair proteins can actually be beneficial for all hair types. Here are some facts about hair proteins that will help clear up any misunderstandings.
Protein and protein derivatives are often used in hair and skincare formulations. Hair proteins are composed of amino acids, which are the building blocks of hair.
When the hair structure is damaged, the cuticle scales that protect the hair shaft can become raised, exposing the underlying cortex and causing the hair to become weak and brittle.
Hair protein treatments help to smooth the cuticle and repair hair damage by filling in gaps in the cuticle layer. This can help to temporarily improve the appearance of damaged hair and prevent further damage from occurring.
Crude protein is the protein material obtained and used without any purification, modification, or processing.
For example, egg yolk is crude protein. It’s a natural protein and if applied directly as is, it would not be very effective for the hair.
But, when crude protein is hydrolyzed, or converted to small molecular units (polypeptide or amino acids), it can be more easily absorbed by the hair, and is beneficial because of the smaller molecular size.
This is why you’ll often see hair proteins that have been hydrolyzed on the ingredients list.
Hydrolyzed hair proteins are more effective than crude protein because they can penetrate the hair shaft more easily.
Because of the higher molecular size and weight of crude proteins, they are not utilized. Furthermore, the use of crude proteins have not shown any beneficial impact on improving hair quality.
The protein factors that boost hair quality
Today, a range of protein ingredients are available to formulators and a wealth of literature about how they can improve or boost hair quality.
These proteins are known to improve hair water content (moisture content), provide conditioning, and cuticle alignment, and boost hair shine.
Certain proteins can also penetrate hair fiber and enhance fiber mechanical strength.
The protein’s type, origin, hydrolysis processing, and active concentration level all have a significant impact on the effectiveness of increasing or boosting hair quality. These factors define the proteins and their application in hair care formulations.
Proteins for Hair: Facts
In hair care formulations, all protein(s) listed in the ingredient listing, are not the same.
They have different chemical structures, and compositions and thus have different levels of affinity for hair fiber.
Furthermore, their origin matters a lot. Plant or nature-derived proteins have different performances compared to synthetic man-made proteins.
Things get even more complicated by varying the hydrolysis and isolation or extraction processing.
For example, hydrolyzed wheat protein is completely different from quaternized wheat protein, though both are derived from the same origin.
So the facts are;
- All proteins are not the same
- Proteins from different origins or sources are completely different
- Only hydrolyzed proteins are used in personal care formulations
- Hydrolysis process, isolation, and processing can affect the protein molecular structure and molecular size
- Synthetic, man-made, or chemically modified protein derivatives are also available and used in hair care products. They are not natural proteins.
Natural Proteins vs Synthetic Proteins
Natural proteins are “proteins obtained or extracted from a natural source” and have only been isolated and hydrolyzed.
However, synthetic proteins are man-made versions where various components of protein structure have been modified chemically, or certain new chemical groups have been attached to protein structure.
The two classes are different and provide different results. Over the years, various protein ingredients have been developed and are now added to hair care products.
Some examples of nature-derived and synthetic proteins are listed below:
- Hydrolyzed wheat protein or hydrolyzed wheat amino acids
- Hydrolyzed soy protein
- Hydrolyzed milk protein
- Hydrolyzed silk amino acids
- Hydrolyzed collagen
- Collagen amino acids
- Hydrolyzed keratin
- Hydrolyzed Wheat Protein PG-Propyl Silanetriol (A silicone-containing protein where silicone chain is attached to protein backbone)
- Cystine Bis-PG-Propyl Silanetriol (another example of silicone modified protein)
- Cocodimonium Hydroxypropyl Hydrolyzed Milk Protein (quaternized milk protein)
- Laurdimonium Hydroxypropyl Hydrolyzed Collagen quaternized collagen)
- Hydrolyzed Wheat Protein/PVP Crosspolymer (PVP modified version)
The chemical names for the above synthetic protein reveal the BIG chemical modifications made. The original structure has been changed, and thus the hair care performance is expected to differ.
The hair care benefits of both natural and synthetic proteins have been proven by hair fiber studies.
The bottom line is that all hair care products do not work the same, as they are not formulated with the same ingredients.
The hair care product that you are using may or may not contain protein. If it does, be sure to check the ingredient listing to see what type of protein it contains.
Natural proteins are reacted with different reactive groups, e.g. silicones or nitrogen groups to make them quaternized proteins.
The purpose of these modifications are to boost protein deposition, penetration, and cementing potential to improve hair quality.
Positive and Negative Effects of Protein on Hair
Proteins are added into hair care formulations for their multi-functional benefits.
· Proteins and amino acids are humectants. They attract water molecules and their deposits on hair or inside hair attract water molecules and boost hair moisture level.
· Coat or penetrate: Different proteins work differently. Smaller-sized proteins penetrate, while larger protein molecules tend to stay on the surface. Both give slightly different results.
· Small-sized protein fragments penetrate and fill the empty spaces inside the hair fiber. They cement the damaged structure inside, leading to improved mechanical strength of hair fibers.
· Large proteins align cuticles. Their deposits on the surface form a uniform coating the surface, this eases the fiber surface friction and makes it easy to comb and brush.
· Damage control for excessively damaged hair because of improved mechanical strength.
· Proteins improve hair and offers a natural healthy look.
· Excessive use of proteins causes build up at the hair surface, known as Protein overload. This makes hair dull, completely coated, blocks penetration of other active ingredients, and most importantly makes it difficult to manage and style. Build-up is the major issue with proteins.
· Even though proteins are humectants, over use can block water absorption, making the hair dry.
· Using a protein treatment in high humidity and rain may cause casting on hair. Proteins work as a humectant and under high humidity conditions may impart a large amount of water on hair fiber which makes it frizzy, dry, brittle, and dull.
Frequency of use
Does your hair need protein?
Proteins treatments are exceptionally good for extremely damaged and fragile hair. However, they should ONLY be used once in a while.
Regular rinse-off conditioners having proteins are good for hair, however, they should also not be used every single day.
Protein Treatment vs Regular Protein Conditioner
Proteins treatments are different from regular hair treatments or protein conditioners.
The protein treatments contain proteins listed at the beginning of the list describing the high concentration of proteins present in the formulation.
Consumers are advised to apply and leave it on for 10-15 minutes and subsequently rinse it off.
Regular protein conditioners also contain proteins, however, these proteins are listed towards the bottom of the list highlighting their low concentration present in the formulation.
Proteins for Hair: Takeaway
Proteins are excellent hair conditioning agents and their affinity or binding improves hair quality.
They improve cuticle alignment, reduce the combing force required and make it easy to manage and style.
However, just like the natural rule, Excess of everything is bad, and protein overload is common and causes build up. This makes hair dull, brittle, and dry.
Concentrated protein treatments are only designed for extremely damaged hair and should only be used once a week.
A clarifying shampoo is a must to control the build up.
1. Schueller, R.; Romanowski, P., Conditioning Agents for Hair and Skin. Taylor & Francis: 1999.
2. Zviak, C., The Science of Hair Care. Taylor & Francis: 2005.