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See How Easily You Can Identify Protein and Moisturizing Ingredients

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Table of Contents

If you've been trying to figure out what ingredients to search for in protein hair products or moisturizing hair products, look no further.

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Ever felt overwhelmed staring at a curly hair product label? You’re not alone. Deciphering ingredients can feel like decoding a foreign language, especially when you’re trying to distinguish between proteins and moisturizing agents.

Protein and moisturizing ingredients in curly hair products are vital components that help strengthen and condition the hair, respectively. Proteins rebuild and fortify hair strands, while conditioners ensure the hair remains soft, supple, and well-moisturized.

If you’ve ever found yourself lost in the haircare aisle, puzzled by terms on the labels, this article is for you.

Together with my friend, a hair scientist who also holds a PhD in Chemistry, we’ll explain how to effortlessly recognize these essential ingredients. This will empower you to make informed decisions about the products you buy.

Why Are Proteins in Hair Care Products?

Today, the majority of hair products feature protein in various forms. Although protein treatments have gained popularity among users, hair care products have incorporated protein ingredients for many years.

Scientists have developed new sources of protein and modified protein ingredients to boost their performance and efficacy.1

The hair itself is made up of a protein called keratin and is responsible for the physical, chemical, and morphological properties of hair.2

Hair may lose its protein as a result of:

  • Chemical treatments (bleaching, dyeing, perms, straightening, etc.)
  • Prolonged exposure to solar radiation (photo-damage)

As a result, your hair strands become porous, fragile, and may even break, leading to hair loss and hindering hair growth. Therefore, we need remedies to restore hair’s mechanical strength and rejuvenate its robustness.

Hair that has lost its protein

These protein ingredients can form a film on the hair providing a fine coating on the surface or can even penetrate the hair shaft, depending on the size of the molecule. They interact strongly with the protein residues of the hair cuticles to build a strong bond.1

Recent advancements in protein technology have led to the development of proteins modified with hydrophobic (oil or silicone) properties.

These enhanced proteins not only promote healthy hair but also impart a shine, reduce the force needed for combing, and give it a visibly healthier appearance.

What to Check For in Protein Products

If you are searching for the right products with protein for your hair, there are generally two classes of protein-containing products to consider.

The first class of products is labeled as “Protein Treatment,” while the second class of products is general products (shampoo, conditioner, leave-in, or even hair color) still having proteins.

Protein Treatments

Protein Treatments” are more concentrated, with protein levels ranging from 5 – 25%. They are formulated to restore strength, cuticular alignment, smoothness, and shine to damaged hair.

A cuticle treated with protein


Hair that has undergone chemical treatments, such as bleaching or relaxers, is more susceptible to hair breakage and often needs to incorporate protein through these concentrated protein products.

However, they should be used sparingly. Excessive use can result in protein buildup and the potential for protein overload, leading to what some refer to as “protein sensitivity.”

General Hair Care Products

The second class is general consumer hair care products such as shampoo, everyday conditioner, leave-in conditioner, or deep conditioner (hair mask), which has some protein listed in its ingredient listing.

The amount of protein in the haircare product will vary based on the formula, but it is most often between 0.25 and 1 percent. On the label, we usually find a protein listed towards the end of the ingredient list.

Many of the proteins that make up this formulation are big molecular fragments that function together with other components in the mix.

The type of protein used in hair care products can often indicate the protein strength or protein richness of the product. Most proteins are unable to penetrate the fiber and are largely surface-acting.

Protein-rich deep conditioners frequently include partially hydrolyzed proteins, which 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.3

Hair Care Product Ingredients List

Image of the ingredients label of a protein treatment.

The placement of an ingredient on the product labels, specifically in the list, provides insight into the concentration of that ingredient.

The general understanding is, that the ingredient listed first is the most abundant in the composition, and the concentration level decreases as we go down the list.

The last ingredient, according to the information provided, is most likely to be the lowest in concentration (usually, the 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 implies that the product is rich in protein.

However, please keep in mind, that this is an empirical rule and may not apply to every product.

Note: Before fully applying any protein treatment, it’s recommended to conduct a patch test, especially for those with sensitive skin.

Common Proteins in Hair Care Products

The INCI names for the most 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
  • 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)

Water is the Ultimate Moisturizer for Hair

Water is the number one moisturizer for hair. It hydrates the strands and keeps them healthy. When your hair is hydrated, it is less likely to frizz and become unmanageable.

If you have curly hair, it is essential to use a moisturizer to keep your curls defined and frizz-free.

Water is a universal solvent, which means that it can dissolve most substances in it. In most hair care products, water is used as a solvent base to deliver active ingredients to hair fibers.

Curly haired woman adding water to hydrate hair

For example, water makes up almost 60-70% of the total weight in regular shampoo, whereas it may be as high as 80-90% in conditioner (emulsion products). The quality of water used to manufacture these products is critically important.

Water with high mineral content, such as hard water, can cause problems with the quality of the product as well as the hair itself by causing metal buildup.4

Porosity

Image of hair cuticle showing low porosity, medium porosity, and high porosity.

As we all know, hair absorbs moisture based on its porosity, with low porosity hair and high porosity hair having different absorption rates, as well as outside humidity conditions.5

Excess brushing, grooming, and chemical treatments cause hair to become dry, frizzy, and rough. The pores get larger, as a result, so water molecules are lost more quickly.

A protein-based product offers the best protection from moisture loss, as protein is needed.

Dry hair is a common problem and a large number of consumers suffer from it. That’s why so many hair treatments are labeled or marketed as “Moisturizing” or “Hydrating.”

These products are intended to entice consumers with dry hair by promising to make their hair hydrated with balanced moisture along with surrounding environmental humidity levels.

How to Add Moisture to Hair?

There is no one-size-fits-all answer to this question, as the amount of moisture you need to add to your hair will depend on its porosity, protein and moisture content, the climate you live in, and specific hair types.

For the best results in keeping and maintaining hair hydration and moisturization, the two most common methods are:

  • The first method is by adding water molecules from outside (products or environment) into the hair shaft.
  • The second method for maintaining hair hydration is to prevent the escape of water molecules from the hair shaft by using sealants or emollients.

Let’s study more about both methods…

Adding More Water Molecules to Hair

When you want to hydrate your hair, the goal is to add a lot of water molecules into each strand, which can be done by using humectants.

Humectants have a natural tendency to absorb moisture from the surrounding environment and deliver these water molecules to hair.6

Glycerin is an excellent humectant and is commonly found in hair care products.7 The concentration level generally used in conditioning products is 2.0-5.0%, sufficient to attract water from the outside environment.

Today’s formulators have a plethora of humectants to choose from and their efficacy varies depending upon their water solubility and molecular structure.7

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 the Existing Water Content in Hair

Preserving the existing moisture level in hair can be done by forming an impermeable coating at the hair’s surface. This prevents existing water molecules from escaping the hair’s surface. These ingredients are commonly termed as “emollients.”

The two primary ingredients used as moisturizing agents were petrolatum and mineral oil.

However, consumer organizations have recently pushed for greater use of sustainable and green chemicals.

As a result, petrolatum and mineral oil were phased out of many personal care products and were replaced with plant-based oils and butter.

Examples of emollients that are used in hair care products are

  • Natural ingredients, such as plant butter (shea, cocoa, mango, etc.)
  • Waxes (bees waxes, carnauba wax, etc.)
  • Plant-sourced natural 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

Note: 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.

Summary

We hope this blog post has given you some ideas for how to approach your hair care routine. Protein is used in most treatments to restore the mechanical strength of the hair, but excessive and repeated use can lead to buildup.

Moisturizers work to prevent water molecules from escaping the shaft of the hair, which helps keep it hydrated.

We hope this blog post has helped to answer some of the questions you may have about protein and moisturizers in haircare products and how to identify them.


References

  1. Tinoco, A., Martins, M., Cavaco-Paulo, A., & Ribeiro, A. (2022). Biotechnology of functional proteins and peptides for hair cosmetic formulationsTrends in Biotechnology40(5), 591-605.
    ↩︎
  2. Dawber RPR, Messenger AG. Hair follicle structure, keratinization and the physical properties of hair. In: R Dawber, ed. Diseases of the Hair and Scalp, 3rd edn. Oxford: Blackwell Science; 1997: pp. 23–50. ↩︎
  3.  ecchi, G. (2008). Role of protein in cosmeticsClinics in dermatology26(4), 321-325. ↩︎
  4.  Evans, A. O., Marsh, J. M., & Wickett, R. R. (2011). The uptake of water hardness metals by human hairJournal of Cosmetic Science62(4), 383-391. ↩︎
  5.  Robbins, C. R., & Robbins, C. R. (2012). Chemical and physical behavior of human hair (Vol. 4). Berlin: Springer. ↩︎
  6. Gesslein, B. W. (1999). Humectants in personal care formulation: a practical guide. In Conditioning agents for hair and skin (pp. 95-96). Marcel Dekker. ↩︎
  7. Mast, R. (2018). Glycerine in Creams, Lotions, and Hair Care Products. In Glycerine (pp. 345-379). CRC Press. ↩︎

HI,I'M VERNA

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