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: This multifunctional ingredient can temporarily turn back the clock on damage and fortify hair.
Read on to learn more about hydrolyzed keratin—the go-to strengthening ingredient that is used in countless hair products.
What Is Hydrolyzed Keratin?
First and foremost, hair is made out of keratin. This tough protein chain is formed through the locking of various amino acids and combines with water, lipids, minerals and melanin. Although keratin is what makes hair strands strong, it can also be prone to damage, whether it be through extreme conditions or everyday wear and tear. For this reason, hydrolyzed keratin is implemented into numerous haircare formulations to supplement what may have been weakened.
Hydrolyzed keratin is essentially a large protein molecule that has gone through a chemical process that is broken down in such a way that allows it to penetrate the hair cuticle. Proteins that do not go through this process simply sit on top of the hair, and therefore do not deliver substantial benefits to the hair’s structural integrity. It is sourced from a larger keratin molecule and goes through a process called enzymatic hydrolysis. The keratin is broken down by splitting its bond with the addition of hydrogen and hydroxide (water). At the end of the chemical process, the keratin is reduced into smaller fragments that can be absorbed by the hair thanks to their lower molecular weight.
What It Does
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 gives hair a temporary strength boost that minimizes the damaging effects of sun exposure, heat styling, chemical treatments, and mechanical manipulation (or hair combing).
Hydrolyzed keratin also provides a smoothing element since it essentially acts like pouring cement into a crack. Other benefits include reduced breakage, shedding, and frizz, as well as increased elasticity, shine, and moisture-binding. It 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. After chemical treatments, hair will feel softer and bouncier with the use of the ingredient.
One thing not to confuse: Hydrolyzed keratin does not have straightening properties like Brazilian Keratin treatments since it is meant to build up bonds rather than break them.
Here is a breakdown of the most popularly derived sources of hydrolyzed keratin and its protein alternatives:
- Hydrolyzed Keratin (Wool Protein): Although it is hardly ever referred to as such on products, the majority of hydrolyzed keratin is derived from sheep's wool. It is commonly used because wool contains alpha-keratin, which has a high sulfur content and source of the amino acid cysteine, according to gene research from Molecular Diversity Preservation International. When soft wool keratin is hydrolyzed, it provides a thin consistency that can easily be mixed with water or water-based hair care products at concentrations ranging between 1 to 5 percent of the total product volume. Bottles of liquid hydrolyzed keratin are a transparent amber hue and have a mild odor.
- Hydrolyzed Silk Protein: This sometimes vegetarian-friendly (but not vegan) version of hydrolyzed keratin comes from silk—which is obtained from the natural silk fibers found in silkworm cocoons. Threads are isolated and go through a degumming and hydrolysis process to access the silk’s high keratin content via protein fibroin, according to the online journal Open Biology. Typically, silk is not soluble, but after the proteins are processed, it becomes water-soluble and can be added to hair care products at concentrations ranging between 0.5 to 10 percent. Bottles of liquid hydrolyzed silk protein are also a transparent amber shade but have the faintest odor out of the three previously mentioned.
- Hydrolyzed Wheat Protein: The vegan-approved version of hydrolyzed keratin doesn’t have any actual keratin in it at all since it is derived from a non-animal byproduct (and it is most often derived from soft wheat). There are a number of proteins found in wheat, but the most common that are known and used are gluten and glutamine. When these wheat proteins go through hydrolysis, they are broken down into particles that have a low-molecular weight and are small enough to pass through the cuticle and bind with hair keratin, according to a study from online journal Royal Society Open Science. They are water-soluble and can be used in hair products at a concentration ranging between 0.5 to 5 percent. Bottles of hydrolyzed wheat protein are a solid amber color and have a mild odor.
Generally, hydrolyzed keratin is an affordable purchase whether it is bought as a solo ingredient or as a product within hair care. Beauty enthusiasts that enjoy putting together DIY treatments can get liquid hydrolyzed keratin for a few dollars. However, this price can scale up drastically depending on how many ounces are needed. For example, Making Cosmetics offers a two-ounce bottle of hydrolyzed keratin for $8.08 while a whole gallon is $203. Conversely, hydrolyzed silk protein is more expensive while hydrolyzed wheat protein is cheapest out of all the options.
The folks who prioritize convenience over all else can get their hydrolyzed keratin fix with common hair care products that are available in local drug and beauty supply stores or departments. These products can range from shampoo and conditioners to masks, serums, and sprays. Price and quality are variable depending on whether a person going for a value or prestige brand—but it’s all dependent on preference. Products that contain hydrolyzed keratin can be fewer than $10 or upwards of $50.
How to Use It: Store-Bought vs. DIY Treatment
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–for this reason, make sure you’ve read closely and have all the items you will need for your treatment. Do not exceed the recommended measurements or time duration.
- 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. Use of 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 measure out with the proper tools, you can pour them in the container you desire and mix until the contents are blended.
- Apply the mixture to your stands evenly but try to avoid the scalp as much as possible to minimize the possibility of clogged pores. If used 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.
Beware of Protein Overload
Hydrolyzed keratin is a powerful ingredient, so it shouldn’t be applied as a treatment as often as you would apply a moisturizing deep conditioner. The protein aficionados at professional hair care brand ApHogee say most hair can endure a treatment approximately every six weeks. Depending on a person’s hair condition, some may be able to get away with four or five weeks while others may need to spread out their treatment up to three months. Generally, damaged or high porosity hair will need more frequent treatments while low porosity hair can have fewer.
Being excessive with protein can cause more harm than good by delivering the very opposite results 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 before it is softened with hot water. Similarly, to reverse protein overload, you’ll need to bring moisture back to hair (minus the boiling temperatures, though).
Another way to minimize this result will have to involve reading product labels. 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. Paying attention and knowing what your hair can handle is the best way to prevent overuse of protein.
Keep scrolling to shop our favorite products with hydrolyzed keratin.
An intensive weekly treatment designed to restore hydration and strengthen its resilience, Briogeo Don’t Despair, Repair! Deep Conditioning Mask is fortified with hydrolyzed keratin, rosehip and almond oil, algae extract, and vitamin B.
The OGX Ever Straight Brazilian Keratin Therapy Conditioner is a sulfate-free conditioner that gently cleanses and moisturizes hair with hydrolyzed keratin, Brazilian cocoa nut oil and seed butter, aloe leaf juice, coconut, and avocado oil.
Alterna Haircare Caviar Anti-Aging Restructuring Bond Repair Leave-In Protein Cream is a leave-in conditioner that treats coarse and porous hair types as well as general damage with hydrolyzed keratin, peptides, algae extract, caviar extract, and bond enhancing technology.
A nourishing quick-fix styling hairspray, It’s A 10 Miracle Leave-In Plus Keratin is designed to help maintain straightening treatments by replacing lost protein with hydrolyzed keratin, silk, and keratin amino acids, as well as sunflower seed extract and aloe leaf juice.
Verb Volume Duo Kit is a two-part system of “hydrolyzed vegetable keratin protein” shampoo and conditioner that strengthens and volumizes hair while also minimizing dryness with vitamin B5, rosemary leaf extract, and camellia leaf extract.
The System Professional Repair Perfect Hair is a leave-in foam that is designed to be a professional heat protectant that strengthens hair fiber with hydrolyzed keratin and amino acids, citrus extracts, and moisturizing fatty alcohols.
Gong H, Zhou H, Forrest RH, et al. Wool Keratin-Associated Protein Genes in Sheep-A Review. Genes (Basel). 2016;7(6) doi:10.3390/genes7060024
Abascal NC, Regan L. The past, present and future of protein-based materials. Open Biol. 2018;8(10) doi:10.1098/rsob.180113
Wang S, Meng D, Wang S, Zhang Z, Yang R, Zhao W. Modification of wheat gluten for improvement of binding capacity with keratin in hair. R Soc Open Sci. 2018;5(2):171216. doi:10.1098/rsos.171216