Most people know that conditioning is important for hair health, but few may know the real importance of incorporating protein into their regimen. That’s where hydrolyzed keratin comes into play. A large protein molecule that penetrates the hair shaft to strengthen hair, reduce frizz, and increase elasticity, this multifunctional ingredient can temporarily turn back the clock on damage and fortify hair—but don't just take our word for it. We tapped experts Cybele Fishman and Isfahan Chambers-Harris to dish all on this buzzy hair care ingredient.
Meet the Expert
Read on to learn more about the benefits of hydrolyzed keratin for hair.
What Is Hydrolyzed Keratin?
Hydrolyzed keratin is essentially a large protein molecule that has gone through a chemical process that is broken down in a way that allows it to penetrate the hair cuticle. It is most popularly derived from wool protein, silk protein, or vegan wheat protein.
- Type of ingredient: Strengthener
- Main benefits: Reduces breakage, minimizes damage, and increases elasticity and shine
- Who should use it: Curly, kinky, and dry/damaged hair
- How often can you use it: Every six to eight weeks
- Works well with: Your average shampoo and conditioner
- Don’t use with: Products also containing keratin since there’s a chance for protein overload.
Benefits of Hydrolyzed Keratin for Hair
Simply put, hydrolyzed keratin protein gets the job done. "Because it has a low molecular weight... it can penetrate the hair cuticle," explains Fishman. This helps it to take effect with more potency than say, something that merely sits on top of the hair. Here's what we mean:
- Strengthens and protects: When hydrolyzed keratin is used topically on the hair, it helps fill the minor gaps throughout the hair shaft, including its three layers known as the cuticle, cortex, and medulla. Filling these microscopic gaps with broken-down protein helps to strengthen hair's structure, thereby improving its overall elasticity.
- Reduces damage: Hydrolyzed keratin minimizes the damaging effects of sun exposure, heat styling, chemical treatments, and combing hair—tangled tresses, especially.
- Fights frizz: Studies show that hydrolyzed keratin can improve hair's texture so that it looks and feels smoother. In other words, it's a frizz-fighting machine.
- Softens hair: After chemical treatments that use hydrolyzed keratin, hair will feel softer and bouncier.
- Moisturizes: According to Fishman, hydrolyzed keratin "acts as a humectant, which draws moisture into the hair."
- Increases density: It also helps to rebuild the natural protective layer of hair from the inside by replacing lost protein and increasing each strand’s diameter, which gives it a fuller appearance.
Hair Type Considerations
Hydrolyzed keratin is beneficial for most hair types, but will have more benefits for people with curly, kinky, dry, or damaged hair. "High porosity hair types that have been weakened from chemical processes like color treatments, chemical relaxers, or sun damage benefit from keratin treatments," says Chambers-Harris. "The hydrolyzed keratin will fill the gaps in the hair strands that are weak." However, it’s a powerful ingredient, so it shouldn’t be applied as often as, say, a moisturizing deep conditioner.
In fact, being excessive with protein can cause more harm than good and deliver the very opposite results of what you want. Hair that is overloaded with protein will usually feel brittle and snap when stretched because it was strengthened too much—kind of like what happens to dry pasta. To reverse protein overload, you’ll need to bring moisture back to your hair. It's a protein-moisture balancing act, for sure.
Since hydrolyzed keratin and other proteins are used in so many products, it can be easy to have a buildup of said ingredients in your hair already. To prevent the overuse of protein, make sure to read product labels.
How to Use Hydrolyzed Keratin for Hair
Hydrolyzed keratin is typically found in store-bought protein treatments, or if you're feeling like you're ready for a bit of DIY action, you can also whip up a treatment yourself. Fair warning though, the DIY route can be a tad complicated; but the upside is that you can control what type of product you want to combine with your hydrolyzed keratin for the perfect bespoke hair cocktail.
- Use a store-bought option: Store-bought hydrolyzed keratin and protein treatments are the more convenient way to go. They usually have moisturizing ingredients blended into the formulation, so the treatment can be applied to hair in a straightforward process. Follow the instructions printed on the packaging or label carefully so hair will not be over-processed. Some treatments may require a processing cap or hooded dryer, so make sure you have all the items you will need for your treatment. Do not exceed the recommended measurements or time duration.
- Create a customized treatment: If you want to use hydrolyzed keratin in a DIY treatment, you'll want to follow these steps:
- Your choice of hydrolyzed keratin
- A baking scale
- A shampoo, conditioner, or deep moisturizing treatment
- Determine whether you will be using hydrolyzed keratin or one of its protein alternatives if you’re vegetarian, vegan, or environmentally conscious.
- Determine which type of hair product you will be adding protein to—this can include shampoo, conditioner, a deep moisturizing treatment, or all of the above.
- Once your chosen hair product is determined, measure the amount of product you will be using, and calculate the amount of protein you will need to add, based on the recommended concentration. For example, 8.5 ounces of conditioner would require approximately 0.09 to 0.43 ounces of hydrolyzed keratin. Using hydrolyzed silk protein would require 0.04 to 0.85 ounces, while hydrolyzed wheat protein would require 0.04 to 0.43 ounces.
- Once your portion sizes are established and measured out with the proper tools, you can pour them into the container you desire and mix until the contents are blended.
- Apply the mixture to your strands evenly, but try to avoid the scalp as much as possible to minimize the possibility of clogged pores. If you’re using the protein as a deep conditioner, a processing cap and heat may be used for up to 30 minutes for enhanced results. Hair should then be rinsed thoroughly, moisturized, and styled. Protein that is added to shampoo or conditioner can be used as normal.
The Best Products With Hydrolyzed Keratin
ICYMI: We wrote about this intensive weekly treatment when we covered our favorite Briogeo products of all time. But if you need a refresher: The deep conditioning mask is chock full of nourishing ingredients—rosehip and almond oils, algae extract, and of course, hydrolyzed keratin—to bring damaged tresses back to life.
Every time we find ourselves perusing the bath and body care aisle of our local drugstore, we can't help but check out what OGX has on offer. There's just something about the brand's simple, ingredient-first packaging that grabs our attention—and keeps us coming back for more. At this point, we've tried nearly all of its collections, but this Brazilian Keratin Therapy is hands-down one of our all-time faves.
If you've got high-porosity hair, chances are you're no stranger to dry, damaged locks (le sigh). But lucky for you, this leave-in conditioner restores hair to its tiptop shape—with the help of hydrolyzed keratin, peptides, and bond enhancing technology, that is. Sure, it doesn't come cheap but such is the price we pay (literally) for silky-smooth strands.
A nourishing quick-fix treatment for those in a hurry, this styling hairspray is designed to help maintain straightening treatments. How, pray tell? Well, by replacing lost protein with hydrolyzed keratin, of course—plus sunflower seed extract and aloe leaf juice, too.
On your next wash day, consider this duo of volumizing shampoo and conditioner. It works on all hair types but those with fine, thin, tresses may reap the most benefits. Formulated with hydrolyzed vegetable keratin protein, vitamin B5, and a blend of plant extracts, it strengthens and moisturizes hair, all with the added bonus of va-va-volume.
Does hydrolyzed keratin straighten hair?
How much does hydrolyzed keratin cost?
Hydrolyzed silk protein is more expensive than hydrolyzed wheat protein and a 2-ounce bottle can sell for around $15 and $20, respectively. Meanwhile, common hair care products featuring the ingredient can range anywhere from $10 to $50.
How long does a protein treatment last?
Typically four to eight weeks, depending on your hair type. Damaged or high porosity hair will need more frequent treatments, while low porosity hair will require fewer.
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Gavazzoni Dias MF. Hair cosmetics: an overview. Int J Trichology. 2015;7(1):2-15. doi:10.4103/0974-7753.153450