We talk about a healthy diet. We talk about weight loss. We talk about skincare. We talk about hair loss. Now, let's talk about keeping your hair healthy.
Haircare is part of the everyday beauty routine practiced by millions of people around the world. Yet there are as many different treatments, supplements, chemicals, and masks for hair as there are people treating their hair. It's a huge and widely varied topic, so it can be hard to figure out what is and isn't valuable.
One buzzword you might have encountered over the last few years is keratin. Keratin oil or keratin-infused shampoos come up time and again, and have stood as a prominent option long after many other fad ingredients have had their day in the sun and faded like last month's dye. So what is it, and should you be concerned when using it?
What is Keratin?
Keratin itself is a protein, but not in the same way that flesh or meat is a protein. It's a fibrous "structural protein" called a scleroprotein.
You're familiar with keratin, even if you don't know it. It's the protein that makes up the structure of a lot of the "tough" parts of humans and animals, other than bone. Keratin is the structure of hair and nails. It's also the protein that makes up horns, claws, hooves, and even part of the outer layer of skin on vertebrate animals. It's everywhere, and it's very important to the body.
But wait, if keratin is in your skin, why isn't your skin hard like the scales of a lizard? That's because, in order for the keratin to become hard, it needs to undergo a process called cornification. No, it has nothing to do with corn, sorry. Cornification means a cell is completely filled with keratin protein, which is then taken over and loses nuclei, organelles, and metabolism. It becomes hard and is then used in some way or another.
And, indeed, your skin can become hard; we call it a callus. Areas of your body where your skin is repeatedly rubbed will thicken and form a protective callus; that's the keratin taking over outer layers of your skin in that area.
The biology of keratin is actually quite fascinating, but we're only concerned with one thing at the moment: how it impacts your hair.
What is Keratin Oil?
You can't just take hardened skin or other hair and rub it over your head and call that a hair treatment. It's not going to do anything. Instead, you need a kind of keratin that has been isolated and suspended in a mixture that can be applied to your hair.
Enter keratin oil. Keratin oil is an oil derived from wool, feathers, or horns, and purified into oil that you can use as part of shampoo, or in a pure form. Keratin oil is produced by breaking down a keratin substance, like feathers or wool, using a combination of a bacteria and a yeast extract. This produces a keratin hydrolysate, which is what is used to produce keratin oil.
Yes, that means keratin oil is an animal product. Since keratin is only produced in animals – there is no plant-based or synthetic version of keratin – it will always be an animal byproduct.
For those concerned about the ethics of keratin oil production, don't worry. Much like wool, keratin-rich base materials (like hair and feathers) can be harvested from an animal without harming the animal in any way. Consider when you brush your hair, the stray hairs that stay on the brush; it didn't harm you to shed those hairs, did it? It's the same with animal keratin sources.
Using Keratin Oil
How do you make use of keratin oil? There are a few different ways.
The first time keratin oil hit the scene was with salon treatments originating in Brazil, generally called a Brazilian keratin treatment. This intensive treatment takes several days. First, a formaldehyde cream is applied to the hair to dry it and open it up to further treatment. This treatment is left in the hair for several days, during which the hair must remain dry. Then you return to the salon, where the chemicals are rinsed out and a keratin oil is applied and set. This treatment is meant primarily to straighten hair, more than infuse it with keratin oil, however. Ideally, it lasts around 12 weeks before a reapplication is necessary.
More common is the use of keratin oil in a serum, shampoo, or conditioner. These products are either close to pure keratin oil or use keratin oil as an ingredient in a shampoo or conditioner that includes other chemicals, like coconut oil, glycerin, and collagen.
Unlike a salon treatment, a keratin oil shampoo can be used daily. The keratin oil, along with the other ingredients, will have a range of beneficial effects on the hair it is applied to directly.
The Benefits of Using Keratin Oil
Now let's talk about the benefits of using a keratin oil shampoo or another regular treatment. We're leaving out salon treatments here because they're inconsistent and have a goal other than healthy hair, such as straightening. So what are the benefits you can get out of a keratin shampoo?
Stronger hair. Hair is made of keratin, and as it gets longer and older, the outer shell of the hair tends to crack and separate. Since keratin is essentially "dead" cells, it can't heal, so this damage builds up. Eventually, the hair will break, which is what leads to things like split ends and broken strands.
A keratin shampoo will infuse your hair with keratin directly, filling in those holes and "healing" the hair in an artificial way. It helps to insulate the hair from further damage and makes it less likely to break.
Smoother hair. Keratin oil infusions do wonders for adding a smooth coating to the outer layers of your hair. This coating makes it "slippery" and easier to manage. You can brush or comb it much more easily, and it won't tangle up nearly as much. Knots and mats can still happen, of course, but they'll be smaller and easier to remove without damaging your hair overall.
Damage repair. Keratin oil helps get in the cracks and smooth out your hair, while also leaving a thin coating on each strand. This helps repair existing damage and prevents future damage because things like heat and UV rays will damage the keratin coating rather than the hair beneath.
Style maintenance. One of the reasons keratin oil is used during salon treatments is because it helps "lock in" hair the way it was when it was applied. If treatments are applied to straighten or curl your hair, the keratin oil will help lock the hair in its new form. It can make dyes last longer, straightening treatments last longer, and overall resists damage that undoes a salon treatment.
It's worth mentioning that keratin has been studied as a way to protect hair, and found to be a promising treatment. A lot of research still needs to be done before it can be declared truly beneficial, but the initial results are promising.
Properly Using Keratin Shampoo
A keratin-infused shampoo is the easiest way to get keratin oil in your hair in one easy treatment. Using a serum requires using it before or after a shampoo, and since it's stronger, it likely requires careful protection.
One thing you need to ask yourself before you use keratin oil is whether or not it will benefit you. Keratin oil works best on hair that is generally kind of dry, thin, lacking in volume, crinkly, or damaged. Conversely, it doesn't work as well on voluminous or oily hair. It can still work, but you'll need to do something to strip the oils already there before you can replace them with keratin oil.
There are a few things to watch out for. When you use keratin shampoos, you need to make sure not to use too much of it, otherwise, it can accumulate and cause your hair to feel sticky. Make sure to follow the instructions on the bottle, and if they say not to use the keratin shampoo more than once or twice per week, don't over-use it. Over-use is possibly the biggest problem with keratin shampoos and conditioners.
Can Keratin Oil Dry Out Hair?
One of the biggest concerns with using keratin oil is that it could potentially dry out your hair. Is that a reasonable risk? Is it something known to happen? There are certainly a lot of rumors about it, but we have yet to see proof that keratin infusion dries out hair.
It's possible that there's some confusion between using keratin oil as a treatment and getting a salon treatment that involves keratin oil. A salon treatment is likely going to use heat, straighteners, blow-drying, and other techniques that dry out and damage hair, and then use keratin oil to repair it. When done improperly, this can leave your hair damaged, brittle, and dry.
There are also different "grades" of keratin oil. Low-quality keratin oil tends to be "stickier", for lack of a better term. It accumulates on the hair well after it has provided whatever benefit it provides and leaves hair feeling dry and crinkly. The hair underneath is perfectly fine, but the oil is giving it a dry feeling. Usually, this can be alleviated by using a higher quality keratin oil, or by using keratin oil a little less often and rinsing out the excess after using it.
One thing, as mentioned above, is that excessive keratin oil can make your hair feel sticky. A small amount of keratin oil builds up a protective layer around the outside of the hair itself, but too much of it can build up unevenly and make hair thick and uneven, which makes it seem to grip itself and other surfaces. It's not too hard to avoid this, though; just use less keratin if you feel it happening, and it will go away.
Are There Other Risks to Using Keratin Oil?
Not really! The only risk of keratin oil is in-salon treatments that use formaldehyde, and it's not a risk to you, it's a risk to your stylist, who has to be exposed to the formaldehyde in much greater quantities than you. There's no such risk to using a keratin oil-infused shampoo.
There's also no real risk to the environment in the production of keratin oil, nor is there any risk to animals. Keratin base materials, like feathers and wool, can be harvested painlessly and do not harm the animal to be removed. In fact, it's often more harmful to leave the excess in place, in the case of wool anyways. The production of hydrolysates is eco-friendly and is basically a controlled form of decomposition more than anything. In other words, it's environmentally safe.
Can You Get Keratin Other Ways?
There are two ways beyond the topical application of keratin oil that you might be able to get keratin. The first is benefiting from it indirectly with your nutrition. Foods that are rich in protein, sulfur, biotin, vitamin A, and collagen can all help stimulate the production of keratin in your own body.
The second is by eating keratin directly. There exist keratin supplements, that are ground up keratin in powder form. However, keratin is extremely resistant to digestive acids and is consequently very difficult to digest and absorb. Keratin doesn't provide much nutrition and it isn't used by the body because it's not something we typically consume. Other animals are the same; think about cats, who "consume" hair regularly in grooming. They can't digest it, so they expel it in the form of a hairball. This is why keratin supplements are a small niche product, not a big health supplement; it's mostly worthless to eat the stuff directly.