Sunday, July 3, 2016

Shampoos Which Remove: Product Build-Up

This is essentially a recycled and updated post from 2011. Recycling is good, right!?

Build-up from hair products is usually 2 things:

- Oily residues like actual oils and butters, creamy ingredients like Cetyl alcohol and other emollient ingredients
- Cationic ingredients that bond to the hair. When they're good, they're very good and when there is too much, you feel "build-up."

Here I’m referring to 2 classes of chemicals: Quaternary cationic surfactants and cationic polymers. First off, cationic means something has a net positive charge (+). Hair has a net negative charge at the pH environment in which it usually exists (somewhere between pH 4.5 and 5 is average). Opposites attract (positive and negative) when it comes to hair and conditioner. More-damaged hair (the ends, heat-styled, sun-damaged, chemically relaxed, permed, highlighted) has more negative bonds and will bond with or "adsorb" more cationic ingredients. But it also loses them more quickly.

Low porosity hair has fewer negative charges to adsorb conditioners and cationic ingredients. It is also more likely for the owner of low-porosity hair to notice / experience "product build-up."

Quaternary cationic surfactants (and cationic polymers) are the real “conditioners” in hair and skin products. They bond to hair (and skin). Cationic polymers in styling products (Polyquaternium-4, for example) also bond to hair to form a film that provides hold and humidity resistance.

Build-up tends to look like you'd rubbed your hair with a balloon (static-y, flyaway, self-repellant). Or it can look sticky and stringy. Or dull and matted. Wavy, curly or coily hair might not pull together in it's proper curl pattern when you have build-up. Straight hair might get stringy or increase in volume (not necessarily in a good way).

Quaternary Cationic Surfactants:©Science-y Hair Blog 2013

Quaternary cationic surfactants include ingredients such as:

Behentrimonium chloride, Behentrimonium methosulfate, Cetrimonium bromide, Cetrimonium chloride, Stearalkonium chloride, Dicetyldimonium chloride, Guar hydroxypropyltrimonium chloride.

Most of these are not water soluble, but water-solubility doesn’t much matter because they’re bonding to your hair. Imagine magnets – the positive end of the quaternary cationic surfactant bonds to the negative hair. The thing is, it’s a pretty tight grip. Think giant magnets. Electromagnets that are used in scrap metal yards. This is known as “substantivity” in cosmetics chemistry.©Science-y Hair Blog 2013

Having these ingredients on your hair is not a problem in itself. Not unless you experience symptoms of build-up. Shampooing is not always a solution because most shampoos are based on anionic (negatively charged) surfactants. And now you’re saying, wait, that should mean that it should remove the cationic stuff because it has a negative charge and opposites attract. Yes! But the hair holds the cationics too tightly. The shampoo (anionic) may not be a big enough “magnet” to remove the cationic (conditioner or polymer).©Science-y Hair Blog 2013

Cationic Polymers:

Cationic Polymers include polyquaterniums (Polyquaternium-4, Polyquaternium-10, Polyquaternium-11, for example). These ingredients are very often water-soluble, but that’s not terribly relevant because they also get a tight grip on hair and so they don’t rinse off. Polyquaterniums are used in shampoos and conditioners to provide lightweight conditioning and frizz-prevention and used in hair styling products because they form stiff films over the hair to provide firm hold. They can add body to fine hair because of their hold/fixative-providing and film-forming behavior.©Science-y Hair Blog 2013

Polyquaternium 4 gives strong hold and may be easier to remove than Polyquaternium 10 or 11, in other words, it is more possible to pry it off with water and a detergent. Certain proteins and quaternary cationic surfactants can bond more firmly with hair than does polyquat-4. There are many other Polyquaterniums (with other numbers following them -7, 37, 44, 67…), all of which will bond more or less tenaciously to hair. Polyquaternium 10 may also be easier to remove than some of the others, there is even a “low residue” version of this polymer available, although it is doubtful that this distinction would be revealed in an ingredient list.

Concentration is important. The more polymer there is, the more the possibility for build up. If you are looking at a product with 20 ingredients and a Polyquaternium is ingredient #15 or #30, there isn’t much in there. But if it is ingredient number 3 or 4, there is more present. And even that is misleading because the actual percentage could be pretty low. So it’s best to judge by whether or not you get consistently good results from a product.©Science-y Hair Blog 201

How to Deal With Build-Up

There are 2 ingredients to look for in a shampoo to remove cationic build up most effectively:

Alkyl sulfates or alkyl sulfonates are anionic, but are better at removing cationic soils than other “sulfate” detergents (this has been demonstrated through controlled testing).

Look for C14-16 olefin sulfonate. These are deep-cleaning detergents, but can be diluted with water for a milder product. However - this is not an especially mild detergent, it's a good de-greaser. Formulation matters!!! When there is more detergent (higher concentration), the product will be more "stripping." When there are fewer mildness-increasers like humectants, or ingredients to make the product look pearly and translucent, the formula will feel less pleasant to use.

Also look for Sodium polystyrene sulfonate. This ingredient helps remove 25% more cationic soil than rinsing alone or shampooing (even with a “sulfate” shampoo). It is not a detergent.

Shampoos with the ingredients mentioned:

Chi Infra Moisture Therapy Shampoo

Pure & Basic Clarifying Citrus Shampoo (C 14-16 olefin sulfonate and Sodium polystyrene sulfonate)
Nexxus Phyto Organics Kelate Purifying Shampoo (Sodium polystyrene sulfonate)

Pureology Safeguard Your Color Purify Shampoo (Sodium polystyrene sulfonate)

Pureology Pure Volume Shampoo (Sodium polystyrene sulfonate)

Ouidad Superfruit Renewal Clarifying Shampoo (C 14-16 olefin sulfonate and Sodium polystyrene sulfonate)
Warren Tricomi Style Smoothing Shampoo (Sodium polystyrene sulfonate)

Kinky Curly Come Clean (C 14-16 olefin sulfonate)

Kenra Volumizing Shampoo (C 14-16 olefin sulfonate)

Trader Joe's Refresh (Body Wash), (C 14-16 olefin sulfonate)

Trader Joe's Tea Tree Tingle Shampoo (C 14-16 olefin sulfonate)


J. Soc.Cosmetic Chem.,43, 259-273 (September/Octobber 1992)

J. Soc.Cosmetic Cthem.,40, 205-214 (July/Augus 1989)

Removal of Cationic Buildup From Keratin Surfaces By Sodium Polystyrene Sulfonate

Presented at PCIA Shanghai - March 2002

Monday, May 30, 2016

Detergents Which Remove: Silicones

If you're not already aware of it, and I assume you are if you're reading this, some people avoid silicone-based ingredients in hair care products for various reasons. Some people get a slick, fake-hair feeling in their hair, or a heavy, limp feeling. Silicone build-up's feel (if your hair gets any at all) depends on which silicone you've been using. If you don't use shampoo - you wash your hair with conditioner for example - your hair is more likely to accumulate silicones because you are not washing them off with detergent between applications. If you used them very rarely though - would it matter?

Don't avoid silicones if they don't cause problems for you. For real. Silicones are reversible. They wash out. You'd think they were permanent, based on some of the bad press they get. They can even be removed with non-detergent ingredients if you dare not let a single bubble near your hair (blog post about that is coming up soon).

"Silicones" refers to a group of synthetic emollients that are used in products for their lubrication (in wet and dry hair), shine, and increased flexibility. Silicone ingredients do not soak in to the hair because they're too large, so they stay there on the surface, doing their job, adding shine and lubrication.

Lubrication prevents friction and tangles and help hairs line up neatly with their neighbors - an effect that also increases sheen (shine).

You can find a list of silicones in this post. Dimethicone is a common silicone in conditioners, anti-frizz serums and shampoos, for example.

If you're usually a silicone-avoider but want to use them occasionally, or you just love them, but your hair needs to start with a clean slate occasionally, this post is for you. As emollients (synthetic oils), silicones need a detergent to remove them, should you want or need to do that.

Some detergents are better at "de-greasing" than others, so they'll do a much better job at removing silicones. Anionic detergents typically are the better de-greasers. Anionic detergents make lots of foam. The polar end of the detergent is negatively charged, that's where the name "anionic" comes from.

Look for these detergents in a shampoo to remove silicone accumulation. Keep in mind that if you have some build-up in your hair that you attribute to "silicones" - it may be more complicated than you realize. You may have hard water residue in your hair. Or conditioner build up as well, or residue from a styling product. Stay tuned for a post about what to use to remove those as well!

Anionic detergents common in shampoos: These detergents remove silicones alone or (for the milder ones) in combination with others.
  • Sodium laureth sulfate (milder of the sulfates - milder than "lauryl sulfate")
  • Sodium lauryl sulfate
  • Ammonium laureth sulfate (milder of the sulfates - milder than "lauryl sulfate")
  • Ammonium lauryl sulfate
  • Sodium coco sulfate
  • Sodium lauryl sulfate
  • C14-16 Olefin sulfonate or Sodium C14-16 Olefin sulfonate
  • Sodium carboxylate (soap)
  • Sodium cocoyl isethionate (mild)
  • Sodium lauryl sulfoacetate (mild)
  • Disodium laureth sulfosuccinate (mild)
  • Sodium methyl cocoyl taurate (mild)
  • Sodium lauroyl glutamate (mild)
  • Sodium cocoyl glutamate (mild)
  • Sodium lauroyl Sarcosinate
  • Sodium lauryl glucose carboxylate
  • Sodium methyl cocoyl taurate (mild)

Amphoteric detergents common in shampoos: These likely help remove silicones, especially in combination with anionic surfactants but may work alone or with non-ionic detergents also. These detergents tend to make a formula milder.
  • Cocamidopropyl betaine
  • Coco betaine
  • Cocamidopropyl hydroxysultaine
  • Lauryl hydroxysultaine
  • Sodium cocoamphoacetate
  • Sodium Lauroamphoacetate

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Vegetarian-Friendly Protein Treatments for Hair

The only vegetarian protein recipe treatment I have listed on this blog is for beer, which you can find here along with an explanation of why it works. I like that treatment because it gives you a very noticeable result with one treatment, whether you leave it in or rinse it out - no conditioners. The products in the list below may or may not meet your preferences for natural or organic or any particular ingredients or manufacturing practices you wish to avoid, but the protein sources are plant-based.

How to make a protein-containing product (of any kind) MORE strong/intense:
1) Leave it on for more time (5, 15, or 30 minutes - if your hair really loves protein, maybe 60 minutes). More time allows small, penetrating-size proteins to soak in, medium-size proteins more time to bond with hair.
2) Use heat. Heat causes wet hair to swell slightly - creating more surface for proteins to bond with and allows more "soaking in" of small proteins

How to make a protein-containing product (of any kind) LESS strong/intense:
1) Leave it on for less time
2) Don't use heat

How do I know how strong these are?
  • Protein treatment: Product with a higher concentration of protein, will be more "strong" in any method of application.
  • Protein-containing conditioner: A conditioner which has protein added in a lower concentration than a protein treatment. Includes protein-containing deep conditioners which aren't labeled "protein treatments," "protein packs," or "intensive strengthening."
  • If protein is in the first 5 or 6 ingredients listed, it's a strong treatment.
  • Refer to this post to find out whether the protein is large or small - combinations of several large proteins can be more problematic than combinations of small and medium proteins. I don't have molecular weight for all the vegetable proteins. Corn and soy tend to be medium, hydrating and conditioning. Oat, wheat, and quinoa proteins tend to be large and supportive (there are some smaller wheat proteins out there) - good in styling products. Amino acids are small and hydrating. "Vegetable protein" - anybody's guess!
Now that's all out of the way, the list:

  • Nutress Hair Moisturizing Protein Pack - Vegetable protein (quaternized to make it extra conditioning)
  • Nutress Stop Break (spray) - Wheat or vegetable protein (ingredient lists are difficult to come by)
  • Garnier Fructis Damage Eraser Conditioner - Corn, soy and wheat proteins
  • Garnier Fructis Damage Eraser Shampoo - Corn, soy and wheat proteins
  • Garnier Fructis Damage Eraser Reconstructing Strength Butter - Corn, soy and wheat proteins
  • Hydratherma Naturals Amino Plus Protein Deep Conditioning Treatment - Soy, silk amino acids, rice, corn + 8 individual amino acids
  • Hydratherma Naturals Moisture Boosting Deep Conditioning Treatment - Wheat protein
  • Giovanni Smooth as Silk Xtreme Protein Hair Infusion - Soy protein
  • Giovanni Smooth as Silk Deeper Moisture Conditioner - Soy protein
  • Hugo Naturals Volumizing Shampoo and Conditioner, Vanilla and Sweet Orange - Rice protein
  • Mane N Tail Deep Moisturizing Conditioner  - Wheat protein
  • Mill Creek Fantastic Silver Conditioner - Soy protein
  • Nature's Gate Conditioners: 
    • Awapuhi - Soy, Vegetable proteins
    • Lemongrass and Clary Sage Volumizing - Wheat protein
    • Pomegranate Sunflower Hair Defense - Soy, Vegetable proteins
    • Chamomile Repleneshing Conditioner - Soy, Vegetable proteins
  • Nature's Gate Shampoos: 
    • Awapuhi Volumizing Shampoo Soy protein
    • Biotin Strengthening Shampoo - Soy, Vegetable proteins 
    • Lemongrass and Clary Sage Volumizing Shampoo - Wheat protein
  • Ouidad Botanical Boost spray  - Corn, wheat proteins
  • Shea Moisture Noni & Monoi Smoothing and Repair Masque - Vegetable protein

Monday, March 21, 2016

Hard Water and Your Hair

Do you have hard water? The best way to find out if you have municipal water is to check your annual water report, where hardness is frequently reported. Your water treatment facility may also have water quality data online. If you cannot find hardness, give them a call and ask - but not just about hardness - ask about the pH of the water also! Why? Read on.
©Science-y Hair Blog 2016
If you use well water, find your location and hardness on this map from the United States Geological Survey (or your state or country may have its own maps) or consult a "water hardness map" for your country or region. 

Calcium and magnesium ions (an ion is a mineral with an electric charge) are the most common minerals in water. It is minerals that give water its hardness. Those minerals come from aquifers - porous stones through which water flows - or are picked up in streams and rivers.

I did some digging into a 2011 article published in the Journal of Cosmetic Science1 to find this information for you - I hope you'll be able to put it to good use.©Science-y Hair Blog 2016

Quick summary: Hard water minerals bond to hair in the same way that conditioner does. It also finds its way beneath the surface layers. The more damaged the hair (heat, highlighting, permanent color, relaxer, permanent wave, mechanical damage in very long hair), the more minerals will bond to it, but minerals bond to little-damaged hair too. Hard water minerals can create stiffness, inflexibility, brittleness and breakage, dullness and friction in hair. For low-porosity hair, hard water can exacerbate the low porosity behavior and make hair even more intolerant of conditioners and oils.

How does hard water interact with hair?
The short story is that hard water ions have a positive charge - they are cations. Elsewhere in this blog, I refer to conditioners that bond to the hair as "cationic" because they, too have a positive charge. Hair tends to have a negative charge along cuticle edges and in damaged areas. Because positive and negative charges attract - those mineral cations from hard water can bind to your hair!

Is it damaging? Possibly. Minerals that make your hair feel more stiff might reduce elasticity or at least flexibility and increase friction in your hair. Less-flexible hair is a cosmetic problem and makes hair products behave unpredictably. But friction in hair is something that can increase porosity as hairs rub against each other, breaking off cuticles and creating tangles.

Where do the mineral ions go?
They are found on the cuticles (the outside) but also in the cortex (beneath the cuticles) and in the medulla (the inner portion of hair).©Science-y Hair Blog 2016

What does "hard water build-up" feel like or look like?
That depends upon a lot of things. The pH of your water, the width of your individual hairs, the products you use in your hair, and whether or not your hair is chemically-treated (highlighted, dyed, relaxed, permanent waved). Hard water build up tends to make hair feel dry, rough, stiff or less soft (more rigid). It may cause hair to look dull and frizzy. Some hair may get a brassy or reddish discoloration or grayish. If there is a substantial amount of iron in your water, orange shades tend to appear, especially in lighter-colored hair. Some people's hair will not grow past a certain length (i.e. shoulder-length) when their water is very hard because hair may become brittle with hard water accumulation.

Limitations of this study:
This study was done with "Caucasian" hair (non-Asian, non-African) hair. We also don't know the width of the individual hairs - probably between 80 and 90 microns.©Science-y Hair Blog 2016

What was done:
The hair was divided into study groups of un-treated (virgin) hair, lightly damaged hair (bleached a little), and heavily damaged hair (bleached a lot). The bleaching was done by the researchers to control the amount of damage. It was subjected to 6 washes in clarifying shampoo with water of different hardness (soft, moderately hard, hard and very hard) and varying pH. After that, they extracted the minerals from the hair to find out how much of the minerals from the water the hair had "taken up" during those treatments.©Science-y Hair Blog 2016

Results for hardness:

  • More-damaged hair binds up the most minerals, having lost it's water-and-cation-repelling 18-methyleicosanoic acid (18-MEA) layer, revealing an ideal surface full of negative charges to bond with the positively charged mineral cations. 
  • Lightly damaged and virgin (chemically untreated) hair also takes up mineral cations from hard water, but somewhat less than more-damaged hair.
  • The harder the water, the more minerals bonded with all hair - more damaged hair still takes up more mineral cations.

So the more damaged your hair (lightened, and by extension - permanent waves, chemically relaxed), the more minerals it will pick up from hard water. But even low porosity, virgin hair will bond with hard water minerals.©Science-y Hair Blog 2016

Hardness in relation to pH and your hair:

The higher the pH of your water, the more minerals will bind to your hair from the hard water. In pH 7 water (neutral) both bleached and unbleached hair took up lesser amounts of mineral cations than in pH 8 and pH 9 water. 

As the pH of your water goes up, so does the amount of minerals that will bind to or find their way into your hair. Damaged hair still takes up more minerals - but pH makes a significant difference. My tap water is a whopping pH 9.5, so my moderately hard water probably deposits minerals on my hair like very hard water - especially the sun-damaged parts of my hair.

If you want to know your water's pH, call the municipal treatment facility. If you have well water or want to test on your own, pH test strips can be notoriously inaccurate for tap water, even though they perform well for other applications. Get good-quality test strips or a pH meter for more accurate testing.

Manage hard water build-up:
To remove mineral build-up from your hair, you need an ingredient which can pull minerals away from their bond with your hair - a chelating ingredient. For commercial products, a chelating shampoo is what you want to look for. Most will be labeled as "hard water shampoo" or hard water treatment, or as chelating shampoos. They will contain Disodium EDTA (Ethylamine Diamine Tetraacetic Acid) or Tetrasodium EDTA at 0.5% to 1% - you'll find it around where preservatives are listed, near the end of the ingredient list. Just because a product contains EDTA doesn't mean it is a chelating product - better to choose from products made for hard water or that say "chelating" or "removes minerals" which contains EDTA.
Note: I've listed "Sulfate-free" products. Sulfate free does not mean the product is non-drying, read reviews online and buy samples whenever possible if you are concerned about over-drying your hair.

Examples are: 

DIY: Citric acid is also a chelating ingredient, but in most shampoos or conditioners, it is used to adjust pH and may have no impact on minerals on your hair. You can make a rinse with citric acid powder or crystals: 1/16 teaspoon (0.3 ml) citric acid in 1 cup (230 ml) distilled water if you know your hair is okay with acidic treatments - or 1/16th to 1/8 (0.3 to 0.6 ml) teaspoon per 1 1/2 to 2 cups (350 to 475 ml) if you're not sure. Leave it on your clean, wet hair for a few minutes with some heat, then rinse well and condition. The pH of this is quite low, so it is best to try it on a small test-strand before applying to all your hair to make sure this works with your hair.

Lemon juice can be mixed with distilled water, lemon juice contains citric acid. Start with 1 part lemon juice and 4 parts water and use it with heat as for the citric acid rinse. You might try mixing lemon juice with conditioner if you're a conditioner-only sort of person.

Diagnose hard water build-up:
If you have only slightly hard water with a pH around 7 and low porosity hair or only mildly damaged hair, you may not have issues with hard water. Try doing an entire wash with distilled water. There are no minerals in distilled water and the pH is around 6. If you find your hair shows little difference, you may not have a problem with hard water. If you notice that your hair is softer or more flexible after a distilled water wash, you may have problems with hard water.

Detergents: In really hard water, most detergents won't create foam. I say most detergents - anionic detergents in particular. The anionic (negatively charged) end of the detergent interacts with the positively charged minerals to prevent formation of foam. It also means that the combination of detergent + minerals may form "scum" on your shower - and your hair. Soap (real soap - fats reacted with a strong base like lye) is the worst offender because of the fats in the soap. But it's worth trying other shampoos to see if they alter your hair's mineral "load."
The non-ionic detergents and cationic (or amphoteric/zwitterionic) detergents are less affected by hard water. So if your shampoo contained only non-ionic surfactants like Decyl glucoside (and/or Lauryl glucoside), at least the shampoo would not be contributing to the accumulation of minerals nor be rendered less effective by them. Amphoteric/zwitterionic detergents like Cocamidopropyl Betaine, Disodium Lauroamphodiacetate, Sodium Cocoamphoacetate (a.k.a. Disodium Cocoamphodiacetate) won't interact with minerals in water either.

How often to use chelating treatments and other miscellany: 
Use a chelating treatment again when the effects of the last one have worn off. Some of the products recommend weekly use, but that may or may not be practical or necessary depending on how often you wash your hair.

Some fine-haired or thin-haired people don't mind a little bit of hard water build-up - it adds some volume and "grip" to hair.

If you use soap - real soap, (some ingredient lists try to pass soap off as sodium carboxylate, which is what it is, but doesn't let the customer know that soap scum may occur). You will accumulate hard water build up more readily due to interaction between minerals and the fats in the soap.

I have no information about chelating ingredients in conditioners. My thoughts are mixed, though I think it may work and I hope I'll bear from blog readers about their experiences with EDTA in conditioners - chelating conditioners. Or mixing lemon juice with conditioner.

Most filters you can put on your shower will NOT soften water, even if they try to indicate that they do. You cannot soften water without a resin chamber which needs regular recharge with salt. The only shower-based water softener I know of is "Showersticks" brand.

1A.O. Evans, J.M. March, R.R. Wickett, 2011. The Uptake of Water Hardness Metals By Human Hair. Journal of Cosmetics Science 62, p. 383-391

Saturday, December 26, 2015

Hair Loss Posts

I'm "herding" together some posts about various common causes of excess hair shedding because it had been on my mind (and my scalp) lately.

Firstly, I updated the "Friction and Shedding" post, which could also be titled, "Are your hair products ripping out your hair?" Too graphic?

Secondly, The post about iron, vitamin D and hair loss - these are common deficiencies and common causes of hair loss.

Thirdly, bringing back the post about seasonal shedding. Not everybody notices this. And if you have the other two causes of shedding (above) this one might be more noticeable.

This is not to leave out the other causes of hair loss that are significant (illness, medication, severe stress, scalp disease). But other sources have more information than I do on those things.

Thursday, November 26, 2015

Ferritin (Iron), Vitamin D and Hair Shedding

I provide my sources via in-text citations and in the references at the end. This information does not replace medical consultation or blood tests. Consultation with a doctor or nurse practitioner or pharmacist should be sought for diagnosing and treating nutrient deficiencies. If you have no health insurance or your insurance does not cover diagnostic testing (which includes testing for nutrient deficiencies), ask at your local clinic or pharmacy about on-demand testing or independent lab testing, but please plan supplements with the guidance of a qualified physician or pharmacist.


In pre-menopausal women, low serum (blood) ferritin is one of the more common causes of hair thinning or pattern hair loss. ©Science-y Hair Blog 2015

When you get a typical blood test - the iron test is often for hemoglobin. That is the form of iron in your blood that can carry oxygen to your tissues. If it is low, you are anemic. If you are anemic - your hair may be thinning. But recently, researchers have questioned how low is truly a"low" level for ferritin in relation to syndromes like thinning hair and female pattern hair loss and restless legs syndrome. Ferritin is a form of iron that is stored in your liver - like a "bank" of iron from which your body makes withdrawals when it needs iron. We use iron for a lot of processes in our bodies. If you think of your body like a machine made from lots of different materials - including metals - then naturally there's going to be some iron here and there and in a lot of places, playing a lot of roles. Carrying oxygen is only one of iron's roles in your body.

If your ferritin is low, you don't have the back-up supply or iron you need. You can shuttle oxygen around, but other functions suffer. Like hair growth.

How much ferritin is enough? The level that will be flagged as low on a blood test is around 10 ug/l  (that's micrograms per liter). But studies of hair loss or thinning indicate that ferritin levels need to be above 40-50 ug/l (Rasheed et al.) or up to 70 ug/l (Rushton, Song et al.) to prevent iron-related hair loss. For women, ferritin levels up to 300 ug/l are still within the normal range, so 70 ug/l doesn't appear to be an excessive target.

What does that mean for you? If you see a doctor for hair loss, ask to have your ferritin tested as well. If it is lower than 40-70 ug/l, discuss a reasonable strategy for getting your ferritin level up above 40-70 ug/l. Closer to 70 seems to be indicated at the cut-off point above which hair loss can't be called iron-related (people without hair loss have levels that high or higher, but more women with hair loss have low ferritin levels).©Science-y Hair Blog 2015

Iron supplements are the usual treatment, but they can be dangerous, even deadly, so a blood test is necessary and so is follow-up re-testing to see how the supplement is working. Iron supplements can also be difficult to take, with common side effects being nausea, stomach pain, and constipation. To avoid nausea, take the supplement with food. To avoid constipation, magnesium citrate supplements or stool softeners are common remedies. Taking iron with vitamin C can increase your absorption of iron up to 100%. 250 mg of vitamin C provides the greatest boost in iron absorption (Cook and Reddy).©Science-y Hair Blog 2015

Coffee, high-calcium foods (dairy products) and foods high in phytate (beans, whole grains) all interfere with iron absorption - avoid eating/drinking those at the same time as you take an iron supplement if possible.©Science-y Hair Blog 2015


Low vitamin D levels have also recently been associated with thinning hair and female pattern hair loss. Low vitamin D is becoming more common as people spend less time outdoors, and wear sunscreen and protective clothing. A study by Rasheed et al found a vitamin D level below 30 nmol/liter (nanomoles per liter) which is the same as 12 ng/l (nanograms per liter) was associated with thinning hair or female pattern hair loss. This level is also considered a serious deficiency in vitamin D.

Vitamin D levels need to be above 67 nmol/l (27 ng/ml) to no longer be associated with thinning hair. The National Institute of Health (NIH) indicates that a level of 50 nmol/l or greater (20 ng/ml) is adequate for most healthy adults, so that seems a reasonable target for women with hair thinning or hair loss.©Science-y Hair Blog 2015

Vitamin D comes from the sun, getting enough sunlight on your face and arms or legs or back a few times per week can be all it takes to get enough - it takes only a few minutes. In many quite Northern (or Southern in the Southern Hemisphere) latitudes, you really don't get vitamin D from the sun in winter, even if you are a fan of bikini ice fishing (I sincerely hope that's not a real thing). If you can correlate your latitude in line with any of these cities, you can calculate your UV exposure to get enough vitamin D:

There are many food sources of vitamin D also, see this page for sources - this is from the Skin Cancer Foundation, who don't want us over-exposed to the sun:

Vitamin D can also can and should be checked by a blood test, especially if you plan to take supplements because vitamin D supplements can also be toxic in too-large doses over time.  For people taking supplements, talk with a pharmacist  about a safe amount to supplement (stop in when they're not too busy - they're very knowledgeable). It is possible to over-supplement with natural vitamin D sources like cod liver oil, so it's best to plan supplementation carefully if you use natural sources also.©Science-y Hair Blog 2015

People over the age of 50 cannot synthesize vitamin D from the sun as well as before age 50 and may need supplements to stay in the "normal" zone - which is important in maintaining muscle and bone health and preventing falls.

Bottom line:
To prevent iron-related hair thinning, have blood ferritin levels tested and maintain a level around 70 ug/l, assuming you are healthy. This is higher than the level that a laboratory will label as a deficiency which is 10 ug/l or below.  The clinical "low" it too low for hair-maintaining purposes.©Science-y Hair Blog 2015

If you donate blood regularly- get your ferritin checked! You lose a lot of iron with every blood donation. Women also lose large amounts of iron during childbirth.

To prevent vitamin D deficiency-related hair thinning, keep vitamin D levels well in the normal range for healthy adults, 20-50 ng/ml (~50-70 nmol/l), though the study cited indicates that hair loss is less likely toward the higher end of that range.


Decreased Serum Ferritin and Alopecia in Women. Journal of Investigative Dermatology 2003
D Hugh Rushton

Effect of ascorbic acid intake on nonheme-iron absorption from a complete diet. American Society for Clinical Nutrition 2001, 93-98
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Iron Plays a Certain Role in Patterned Hair Loss. Journal of Korean Medical Science 2013, 934-938
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Serum ferritin and vitamin d in female hair loss: do they play a role? Skin Pharmacology and Physiology 2013, 101-107
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Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Protein 101 - Lots of Basic Information About Using Protein in Hair Products

I have some more in-depth information about using hydrolyzed protein in your hair on this blog - like here and here.

But as one blog reader pointed out - I don't have a summary for people who are just beginning to dip their toes into the hair care pool. I have loaded a lot of information into each sub-heading, so even if you don't see a sub-heading that fits what you're looking for - that information may be there. ©Science-y Hair Blog 2015
Hydrolyzed proteins have been used in hair products for decades. Even in small amounts (0.5% to 1%) hydrolyzed proteins can create a noticeable difference in hair care products. You can tell how much protein is in the product by where it is listed on the ingredient list. If there is protein in the first 5 or 6 ingredients listed, this is a higher-protein product or a protein treatment. If it is near the bottom with fragrances, it is a lower-protein product. High-protein, protein treatments might be in the 5-6% protein range.©Science-y Hair Blog 2015

Hydrolyzed proteins are not whole, intact proteins like those in foods. They have been broken into smaller pieces - smaller molecules - through treatment with acids or fermentation. Large proteins like those in foods are not very beneficial to hair. But hydrolyzed proteins can do a variety of things like form a clear, flexible film over your hair that slows water loss. Some protein penetrate below the outermost cuticles to keep hair hydrated at slightly deeper layers. Protein in products can also add a little extra support to hair - which is great if your hair is fine or medium, but can lead to rigidity and breakage if your hair is quite coarse and you use protein too often.

On a porous hair, the blue color
shows where protein would go
both to fill in gaps created by broken cuticles
(drawn only on edge of the
hair) and forms a film over
the hair.

On a lower-porosity hair, protein (blue color)
mostly coats the surface and fills in a few
gaps from broken cuticles.

Why use protein?
Protein is used for strength, for shine, for hydration and to reduce breakage. Protein helps temporarily repair damaged areas in hair by filling in gaps in the cuticle. Protein keeps hair hydrated by slowing the loss of water from hair.

Protein words
Look for these words to spot proteins in an ingredient list: Hydrolyzed ______ protein, amino acids, peptides. These are all proteins. Cocodimonium Hydroxypropyl Hydrolyzed (protein source - wheat, keratin, etc.) and Lauryldimonium Hydroxypropyl Hydrolyzed (protein source) are proteins which have been modified to be better hair conditioners and bond to hair better, add more softness. Yeast extract is a protein.

Whose hair needs protein?
  • Damaged hair/porous hair: sun-bleached, pool-damaged, highlighted, relaxed, permanent waved, and permanent-dyed or semi-permanent-dyed hair usually needs more protein. Hair with lots of high-heat styling tends to need extra protein because it has lost some of the protective layers that hold moisture in and lost some native proteins. If you use baking soda or soap bars (alkaline treatments), your hair probably needs protein as a result of those things. If you brush your hair vigorously and the ends are thinner than the middle and look lighter in color, your hair may need protein - especially on the ends. Protein balances out porosity in damaged hair.
  • Dry hair - if you have tried deep conditioning, oil treatments (with coconut, palm, sunflower, avocado or olive oil - left on for 4-8 or 12 hours) and those things aren't working, your hair's dryness may indicate a need for protein rather than-or in addition to emollients.
  • Fine and medium hair: Protein also provides support for fine and medium hair because it adds just a little extra rigidity - protein is support for your hair. Coarse haired people tend to find that using protein too often makes their hair feel stiff or brittle, dry or tangly or possibly too soft and limp.
  • Before coloring or lightening, relaxing or perming hair or after a lot of sun exposure or dry wind exposure hair can benefit from hydrolyzed proteins in products.
  • Breakage in your hair. Seeing or hearing lots of breakage? If you have already tried deep conditioning or a long oil treatment, it's time to try some protein. Because protein helps keep hair hydrated (it slows water loss!), it can help reduce breakage in dehydrated hair by increasing hydration. Hair is less likely to break when it is flexible and hair is most flexible when it is well hydrated.

How to use protein in your hair: ©Science-y Hair Blog 2015

Look for shampoos or conditioners which contain hydrolyzed protein. Until you know how well your hair handles protein, you don't need protein in both shampoo and conditioner - but only in one or the other. 

Styling products with protein and leave-in conditioners with protein can be great for damaged or porous hair or for fine and medium hair, but ease into using them - try them once or twice, see how it works and then give the protein-containing products a break. Maybe your hair can use them daily - or maybe it can only use them occasionally. Watch your hair and see how it responds.

Try the product as the label suggests initially.

Protein treatment or products that contain protein - which to use?
Protein treatments have a lot of protein. They're usually marketed for damaged hair - as "repairing" products or strengthening products. If your hair is breaking a lot and oils and conditioners aren't working or you know some or all of your hair is fine (like toddler hair), you might go right to strong treatments. You're safer using a product in a creamy base - one that also has conditioners in it. If you are new to protein, you might prefer to use a conditioner with protein to get to know how your hair responds to protein first.

How to tailor protein use: ©Science-y Hair Blog 2015
Choose smaller proteins (any amino acids, any peptides or hydrolyzed: silk, keratin, collagen) if you're new to protein or have coarse hair. Larger proteins (oat, wheat, soy, vegetable, quinoa) tend to work well for fine and medium hair and even coarse hair occasionally.

Deep condition after using protein?: After using a product which contains protein or a protein treatment, some people find their hair feels tangly or stiff. This is sometimes a sign of having used too much protein, used protein too often, or having used the wrong protein. But before making that conclusion - try either 1) applying extra conditioner and leaving it on for a few minutes, or 2) apply a deep conditioner (an intense conditioner) and leaving it on for at least a few minutes with some heat. If that brings your hair back to a flexible, less-tangly condition, you need to follow up protein use with extra (or deep) conditioning. 

How to time protein use: If you get a result you like from a product containing protein, there are 2 paths to take. 
1) Push the protein. If you really loved what protein did for your hair, see how often you can use it before you experience one of the signs of having used too much protein. BUT - limit the number of products you use that contain protein. If you're using protein in shampoo, conditioner and leave-on products, you may get a false "reading" on how much protein your hair can tolerate. Limit protein to just a conditioner, or just a protein treatment at first.
2) Protein with caution: Don't repeat protein use until the beneficial effects of the previous use begin to fade. This is the careful approach. Good for people with coarse hair, or if your hair has has a bad experience with protein, if your hair is lower porosity or tends to accumulate build-up. If you use henna, this might be a better approach - for some people henna also adds rigidity to hair that magnifies protein's strengthening, supportive effect.

Signs of too much protein: Using protein too often, or using a protein-containing product that is too concentrated for your hair, or using the wrong protein for your hair can cause negative effects that almost seem to contradict each other:
  • Hair can become stiff, tangly, sticky, brittle, curl pattern can be affected, it can feel dry and have too much volume
  • Hair can become overly soft, limp, flat and lose its wave or curl. Or overly smooth.
Doesn't that sound contradictory? It's true - and the same person could have both negative results under different conditions. 

Protein-moisture balance?  Think of it as a strength and stiffness vs. softness balance. Strength/stiffness comes from protein, softness from oils and conditioners - collectively called "emollients." If your hair needs strength and support, protein might be a good choice. If you use too much protein and your hair becomes too strong or stiff, then you need more emollients to balance out the stiffness with softness. If you have used oils and conditioners too much in hair that needs protein, it may become too soft and need some strength from protein. But don't forget that overly-soft hair can also happen when you use too much protein.

Signs hair needs protein: ©Science-y Hair Blog 2015
When wet, hair that needs protein tends to feel mushy and not dense - like an old cotton/poly blend undershirt instead of a substance composed of individual fibers. Once you add enough protein - the hair feels like fibers again and you learn that mushy, thin feeling means you need protein.

  • Hair that loses its bounce may need protein.
  • Hair that just won't behave though you have tried deep conditioning or using oils probably needs protein.
  • Hair that is snapping off though you are using plenty of good (protein-free) conditioner probably needs protein.
  • Hair that remains dry despite using oils and conditioners may need protein for hydration.

How often to use protein:©Science-y Hair Blog 2015
Porous hair that is not coarse might do well with protein every wash-day in a conditioner or in a leave-in product - the protein is needed to manage hydration and porosity. Or weekly protein treatments and occasional protein in between. Normal porosity hair that is fine or medium width may be able to use a similar schedule. Low porosity hair that is fine and medium may do fine with weekly protein in a conditioner or a protein treatment for the support and hydration. Narrower hairs or people with thinner (lower density hair), lower porosity may be able to use protein between weekly treatments also for support and hydration.
Coarse-haired people (wider hairs) that is porous (dry, damaged or chemically treated) may be able to use protein occasionally - maybe once per week (damaging chemical treatments, smaller proteins) or every 2-3 weeks; but low-porosity, coarse hair may need protein only every 1-2 months in a conditioner, perhaps if you are out in the sun a lot or your hair is wet for a long time.

How to personalize protein-containing products:
1) Choose proteins based on size. 
  • Amino acids and peptides are smallest and will likely agree with the widest variety of hair types - fine, medium and coarse, porous, normal porosity and even low porosity. 
  • Hydrolyzed silk, keratin and collagen are smaller and may agree with a wide range of hair types - fine, medium and coarse and low to high porosity.
  • Gelatin is between medium and large - better for porous or very damaged/brittle hair or fine/medium hair. 
  • Hydrolyzed wheat, oat, quinoa, corn, soy, lupine and other plant or vegetable proteins tend to have components that are medium to large and may be tolerated best by porous hair, fine and medium hair, damaged hair, chemically treated hair. Infrequent use recommended for coarse or lower porosity hair.
2) Select the timing, intensity and make a good assessment of the results
  • Leave protein-containing products or protein treatment on for more time to allow more protein to bond (temporarily) to your hair for better hydration. This makes the treatment more intense.
  • Use heat with a protein-containing product or protein treatment to encourage the hair to swell gently and slightly, to improve bonding of protein to the hair and increase the area that proteins can bond with. This makes the treatment more intense.
  • Leave protein-containing products on for less time or without heat for a less intense treatment - for example, for coarse hair or medium-coarse hair, for frequent protein users, or for lower porosity hair. 
  • Hair feels tangly and rough after using protein? Rinse very, very well. Apply a lot of rinse-out conditioner or a deep (intense) conditioner and leave it on for 3 or 5 to 15 or 30 minutes (with or without heat). If that rough feeling doesn't go away with this post-protein deep conditioning, then you 1) left the protein on for too long, 2) the protein was the wrong protein for your hair, 3) your hair didn't need protein now or 4) the protein was too concentrated (too strong), Either chose a lower-protein product or dilute the product you have with water or conditioner to make it less concentrated next time.

Frequent protein faux pas:

  • Protein is in every product you use or almost every product. Limit protein to only some products so it will be easy to add protein only when your hair needs it, and you'll avoid over-doing protein inadvertently.
  • You bought a product that combines several large proteins (oat, soy, corn, wheat) and maybe some smaller ones and used it every time you washed your hair. Unless you're very experienced with protein, try to stick with 1-2 protein sources in a product so you don't get a bad impression of a product because it was a very high-protein product or a bad protein combination for your hair.
  • This protein-product works in everybody else's hair, but not mine - my hair must be protein-intolerant. Maybe - but maybe it just doesn't work in your hair and your hair would tolerate a different product with a different protein (or less time or no heat, or more heat) just fine.
  • I only use natural products with lots of herbal extracts - my hair gets stiff with any protein. Try a product with protein but no herbal extracts or vitamins before you write off protein forever. Sometimes plant extracts can actually leave a stiff feeling in hair and so can some vitamins like biotin.
  • You want to try protein, so you use it daily. There's a good chance that will be too often. Or you might have a negative effect from another product that you attribute to the protein. 
  • You automatically deep condition following protein, whether your hair needs it or not. If you were using protein for strength and your hair doesn't feel too rough or stiff, use enough conditioner to detangle and so hair feels smooth and wait until your hair dries to determine whether it needed more softness or weight from conditioner. On the other hand, if your hair feels very rough and tangly after using protein - go for the deep conditioning.