KERATIN in products

by jennifer atieh on February 07, 2022

With the popularity and amazing results of salon keratin treatments, keratin is being included in more at-home hair products. Here, we have answered the most frequently asked questions about keratin.


What is keratin?


Keratin is a protein naturally occurring in the body. Due to its strength, it is less prone to scratching or tearing than other proteins. It serves protective and structural functions in the skin, nails, and hair. 

Why is keratin important for my hair?

Keratin is the structural building block of hair, comprising 65-95% of the hair fibre itself. It is 19 amino acids long, one of which is cysteine. Cysteine amino acids contain sulphur, capable of forming double bonds with the sulphur in other cysteine amino acids. This is what gives keratin its strength. Fun fact: sulphur is also the reason hair smells so bad when it’s burned.

Keratin is not a super protein though! Much like our skin, hair follicles are subject to aging. The production of keratin decreases with age, leading to loss of strength and elasticity. Keratin is also damaged by repeated exposure to external factors such as heat, sun, salt, dye, and dust. When this happens, the overlapping cells of the cuticle, the exterior layer of the hair fibre, can lift, exposing the next layer, the cortex. When the cortex is exposed, keratin damage can leave holes in its structure. This makes hair weaker, prone to tearing, frizz, and split ends. Keratin damage leads to a loss of smoothness and shine.

What do keratin hair care products do?

Keratin is often an ingredient in hair care products said to improve the health of dry or damaged hair. Restoring keratin strengthens the cuticle and cortex, making hair more resilient. This brings back the smoothness and shine that is lusted after. Keratin is used in shampoos, conditioners, and serums, which are safer alternatives to keratin salon treatments used to smooth and straighten hair.

When should I use keratin products?

Keratin hair products are recommended when your hair is weak or damaged, or if you regularly heat style or colour your hair or swim in chlorine or salt. Basically, it’s never a bad idea.

Can too much keratin be bad for your hair?

Your hair can only use so much keratin. Once the damaged keratin is restored, there is no room for extra. Think of a sponge. It can only absorb water to a certain point; the rest isn’t absorbed. The same is true for keratin. Some products use a low quality keratin that cannot penetrate the hair fibre, causing it to accumulate on the surface. This doesn’t damage your hair, but can leave it feeling dry and brittle. Unfortunately, it’s impossible to tell which brands use low quality keratin, so it’s important to find a good balance.

A note on salon keratin treatments …

A traditional keratin treatment straightens out the texture of your hair by acting on the cuticle. It cuts your blow dry time in half and leaves your hair smooth and silky, resistant to the effects of light rain and humidity. No two treatments are alike, so a stylist will determine which chemicals and what quantity are right to achieve the effect on your hair type without damaging your it. The process consists of three steps. First, a formaldehyde solution is applied to hair to break those strong double bonds and hair is blow dried straight. Next, your hair must be kept dry for several days as the chemicals set. Upon return to the salon, it’s all washed out and a second treatment is applied to reform the double bonds, keeping hair straight. The effects last until your hair starts to grow out.

The downside of this miracle treatment is the use of formaldehyde, which was classified as a potentially cancer-causing chemical by the US Environmental Protection Agency in 1987. Formaldehyde exposure can irritate the skin and eyes. Repeated exposure, like the type stylists performing the treatment are exposed to, can lead to nose bleeds and throat cancers. Some treatments claim to be formaldehyde-free, but it is still released in a reaction that occurs when heat is used to straighten the hair. This is part of the reason home-based products have become so popular. They offer a safer and less expensive alternative.

Do keratin shampoos and conditioners really work?

The short answer is yes. They don’t have the straightening effects of keratin salon treatments, but can make hair smoother and easier to manage with repeated use. 

There is some debate over the effectiveness of keratin shampoos. The primary purpose of a shampoo is to cleanse the hair and scalp. Some have all sorts of good ingredients that claim to have additional functions, but usually shampoos are washed out before any of these benefits can begin to work.

Conditioners, on the other hand, coat the cuticle, reducing friction between strands to detangle hair. Sealing the cuticle also locks in moisture, improving hair’s strength and shine. Leave-in conditioners have the added benefit of protecting hair from heat styling and humidity. It fills in gaps in the cuticle layer, preventing humidity from seeping in and raising the shingle-like cells. The effects are cumulative too. Repeated use can make thin or flat hair appear thicker and bouncier.

Where does the keratin in shampoos and conditioners come from?

The best form of keratin to restore life to your hair comes from human hair. However, many countries ban the use of human ingredients in products, so keratin must be derived from the wool, horns, or feather of animals. Plants are unable to produce keratin. 

Sometimes it may be listed in products as “hydrolyzed keratin” or
“keratin amino acids”. This means the keratin protein is broken down into smaller segments, which can penetrate the cuticle to restore the structure of the cortex in severely damaged hair. The smaller molecules also bond with keratin in the cuticle, flattening out those overlapping cells and restoring hair’s shine.

Are there other protein options I can use?

Yes, other proteins can help repair hair’s structure and lock in moisture. Milk protein and hydrolyzed silk protein are both options. Whey and casein are both proteins in milk that can contribute to the health of the hair shaft and follicle. Milk protein can benefit hair from the inside, through drinking milk, and from the outside in hair care products. Silk protein is derived from the saliva of silk worms, which may not sound appealing, but it is able to hold 10,000 times its weight in water. Now that’s strength!

Are there vegan options?

YES! At NIUCOCO, we love vegan options. We like rice protein and quinoa protein to name a few and you can find these in our Smoothing Conditioner and Renewing Hair Serum. Bonus: they are gluten free! Why did we choose them? Well, rice is abundant in cysteine, an amino acid also found in keratin. The cysteine amino acids form disulphide bonds, which are responsible for the strength keratin gives to hair. Both these proteins are also able to fill pores in hair, helping to keep the moisture in and increasing the smoothness of the cuticle. They also have the added benefit of being lysine-rich. Lysine is an essential amino acid, meaning our bodies can’t produce it and we have to get it from the environment. Lysine can aid in the delivery and retention of colour and promote hair growth.

So what do we think overall?

Keratin is the basic building block of your hair. If your hair is feeling limp and dry, a keratin conditioner will probably be your best bet for restoring its health and safeguarding against future damage, but as with all good things, moderation is key.