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See How Easily You Can Identify Protein and Moisturizing Ingredients

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Verna Meachum

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Protein treatments are popular among consumers because of their high affinity to hair fibers. Protein ingredients have been in use in hair care products for years. Scientists have worked out new sources of proteins and have developed new modified versions of proteins to boost their performance and efficacy. Today, almost every hair product contains proteins. Let’s learn some basics of protein and moisturizing products and especially what we need to check for in these products.

Why There are Proteins in Hair Care Products

The hair itself is made up of a protein called keratin and is responsible for the physical, chemical, and morphological properties of hair. The total protein content of hair is important because it adds to the hair’s mechanical strength. Hair may lose its proteins as a result of chemical treatments (bleaching, dyeing, perms, straightening, etc.) or by prolonged exposure to solar radiation (photo-damage).  Hair becomes porous, fragile, and may even break, and as a result, we need remedies to restore hair’s mechanical strength and make the hair strong again. Scientists have identified various solutions to this problem, and adding protein ingredients to hair care products is one of these.

Protein treatments were one of the first remedies launched in the hair care market. These protein ingredients of amino acids can form a film on the hair, providing a fine coating at the surface. They interact strongly with protein residues of the cuticles to build a strong bond. Recent advancement in protein technology has developed hydrophobic (oil or silicone) modified proteins that impart shine, reduces combing force and thus makes hair more healthy looking. Hydrolyzed vegetal proteins obtained from wheat, soy, and oat are more frequently found in present day hair care products.

What to Check For in Protein Products

There are generally two classes of protein-containing products. First are the products that are labeled as “Protein Treatment,” while second is general products (shampoo, conditioner, leave-in, or even hair color) still having proteins.

“Protein Treatments” are more concentrated and may contain protein levels of 5 – 25%. They are designed for damaged hair to restore their strength, cuticular alignment, smoothness, and shine. Those who have had chemical treatments are usually more in need of these concentrated protein products. They should be used once a while; otherwise, it may cause build-up and protein sensitivity.

The second category is general consumer hair care products such as shampoo, everyday conditioner, or leave-in, which has some protein listed in its ingredient listing. The protein concentration may vary from 0.25 – 1.0%, as we usually find protein listing towards the end of ingredient listing on the label. These proteins are mostly large molecular fragments that work synergistically with other ingredients of the formulation.

The type of protein used in hair care products will often give you a clue about the protein strength or protein richness of the product. Most proteins are unable to penetrate the fiber and are largely surface-acting. Modern protein-rich deep conditioners often contain partially hydrolyzed proteins; this means they have been broken down into low molecular weight amino acids that are more likely to bind strongly to the hair fiber. These smaller molecules of hydrolyzed proteins are superior and deliver long-lasting effects on the hair fiber.

Hair Care Product Ingredients List

The ingredient placement in the list on the label gives us a good idea about its concentration in the product. The general understanding is, the ingredient listed first is the most abundant in the composition, and the concentration level decreases as we go down the list. So the last ingredient listed is potentially lowest in concentration (usually, last ingredients are preservatives or fragrances). So, if we see protein (amino acids or peptides) in the first 3-5 ingredients of the list, it suggests that the product is rich in protein.

However, please keep in mind, this is an empirical rule and may not stand for all products

Common Proteins in Hair Care Products

The INCI names for commonly used proteins you may find on the back of your product may be written as:

  • Hydrolyzed (wheat, oat, soy) protein

  • Hydrolyzed Vegetable Protein

  • Hydrolyzed keratin

  • Hydrolyzed collagen

  • Amino acids (Silk, milk, wheat, etc.)

  • Cystine Bis-PG-Propyl Silanetriol (Derivative of keratin protein)

  • Hydrolyzed Wheat Protein PG-Propyl Silanetriol (Silicone modified wheat protein)

  • Cocodimonium Hydroxypropyl Hydrolyzed Wheat Protein (Quaternized wheat protein)

What to Check For in Moisturizing Products

Water is a universal solvent that means it can dissolve most of the substances in it. In most hair care products, water is used as a solvent base to deliver active ingredients to hair fibers. For example, in regular shampoo, water is almost 60-70% of the total mass, while in a conditioner (emulsion products), it may be even higher up to 80-90%. This suggests that the quality of water used to manufacture these products is immensely important. Hard water can cause problems with the quality of the product as well as the quality of the hair, for example, by causing metal build-up on the hair.

As we know, hair absorbs moisture, and its water content depends upon its porosity and outside humidity conditions. Excessive combing, grooming, and application of chemical treatments leave hair dried, frizzy, and rough. This is due to an increase in pore size, which flushes out water molecules. This is a common problem, and a large number of consumers suffer from dry hair. That’s why we encounter many hair products titled “Moisturizing” or “Hydrating.” These products are targeted to attract consumers with dry hair with a promise to make their hair hydrated with balanced moisture along with surrounding environmental humidity levels.

How to Add Moisture to Hair?

Generally, there are two ways to keep and maintain hair hydration and moisturization. First is by incorporating water molecules from outside (products or environment) into the hair shaft. The second way is by preserving the existing water molecules of hair by preventing their escape from the hair.

Let’s study more about both strategies…

Adding more water molecules into hair can be done by using humectants that have a natural tendency to absorb moisture from the surrounding environment and deliver these water molecules to hair. Glycerin is an excellent humectant and commonly found in hair care products. The concentration level generally used in conditioning products is 2.0-5.0%, which are sufficient levels to attract water from the outside environment. Various humectants are available today to a formulator, and their efficacy varies depending upon their water solubility and molecular structure. Other examples are:

  • Propylene glycol

  • Butylene glycol

  • Hexylene glycol

  • Urea

  • Sorbitol

  • Sodium PCA

  • Zinc PCA

  • Alpha hydroxy acids (lactic acid)

  • Sodium lactate

  • Sugar (glucose, lactose)

  • Betaine

Preserving existing water content can be done by forming an impermeable coating at the hair’s surface. This coating prevents existing water molecules from escaping the hair’s surface, which is commonly termed as “emollients.” Petrolatum or mineral oil is a primary choice for this purpose. The two ingredients have been used for years as popular moisturizing agents. In recent times, however, consumer groups have advocated for more sustainable and green chemicals. Therefore,  oils and butter are replacing petrolatum and mineral oil in product formulations. A big list of such butter and oil available to the formulator to choose are:

  • Plant butter (Shea, Cocoa, mango, etc.)

  • Waxes (Bees waxes, carnauba wax, etc.)

  • Plant sources oils (coconut oil, sunflower oil, castor oil, olive oil, etc.)

  • Hydrocarbon based ingredients also offer the same results, and they are

  • C12-C15 alkyl benzoate

  • Cetyl lactate

  • Cetyl palmitate

  • Cetyl alcohol

  • Cetearyl alcohol

  • Squalene

Some animal source ingredients are also commonly used, which are lanolin and its derivatives.

Generally, a hair care formulation aiming to hydrate hair fibers is a combination of humectants and emollients, which are designed to employ strategies to accelerate hair moisturization.


Protein ingredients and moisturizers are common in hair care products. Proteins are mostly found in hair care treatments to restore the hair’s mechanical strength. They make hair health and give a shiny and smooth look. However, excessive and repeated use may cause protein sensitivity and build-up.

Hair moisture content is essential and dry hair can look dull and lifeless. Dry hair problems can be addressed by applying hydrating and moisturizing products. These products contain humectants and butter/oils in specific concentrations and thereby balancing the moisture content of hair.

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