Expert's Opinion

Proteins: The Good, the Bad and the Best

By Philip Pelusi, Internationally recognized stylist and product artist | November 27, 2012

Protein-based ingredients are key for hair care, according to Pelusi.

My philosophy has always been to think of hair as a fine garment and to teach my clients to treat their hair like the finest garment they own. A fine garment and hair have a lot in common. Just like an expensive cashmere sweater, hair is also an investment. Clients invest in their hair when they visit their salon for haircuts, color and texture services. It is the one “garment” they wear most frequently as my clients wear their hair every day. In similar fashion to the fibers that make up that fine cashmere sweater, hair fibers are a complex structure based primarily on keratin, the protein present in hair’s cortex and cuticle. And just like any kind of fabric, with more wear the more those fibers are weakened or lost. The questions are, how we maintain our hair’s keratin structures to keep it strong and shiny and how do we preserve the fabric and ultimately how do we protect our color and texture investments?

When we are born and as our hair grows during our youth as with our skin, hair is perfect and exists in its maximum quality known as the alpha-keratin state. Hair is perfect at this point and performs perfectly.But as we age or as we prematurely age our hair with color, chemical services, heat damage such as blow drying, flat ironing, and even regular cleansing and styling, the state of our keratin protein degrades, making hair dull, weak and prone to breakage. Aged hair never performs as well as when it is in its youthful state. So as a hair product creator, my goal is create as close to perfect a hair fabric for the client so they will be happy with their hair design every day. To achieve this, I use the most advanced scientific principles and the best ingredients available to help keep the hair fabric at as close to its alpha state as possible.

When creating a product containing protein, I first go “shopping” for ingredients. I consider shopping for protein-based ingredients just like shopping for anything else—you get what you pay for. I only work with the plant-based ingredient suppliers with commitments similar to mine. I do not use any animal-derived protein sources, not only because of the demands of today’s marketplace but also because I find plant-sourced proteins simply work better in the hair. There is a difference between plant and animal “proteins.” In nature, the primary animal proteins exist as biopolymers that are comprised of amino acids and combined in a straight chain.

Collagen, keratin and elastin are the three most common animal-based proteins still used in personal care today. With few exceptions such as soluble animal collagen, native proteins are not usable in their native state and must be broken down into smaller molecules such as polypeptides, peptides or into their constituent amino acids to be useful in personal care products. Enzymes are employed for the task of creating highly specific versions called collagen or keratin hydrolysates or break them down completely into their constituent amino acids.

As with animal proteins, plant-based or vegetable proteins are also comprised of amino acids. But the amino acid content is different and thus cannot legitimately be called “plant collagen or keratin” unless the amino acid content is altered to match that of animal-based proteins. Several suppliers on my shopping list have performed this transformation with amino acid-balanced blends of corn, wheat and soy amino acids, creating bioidentical plant based equivalents to their animal counterparts. Pseudo-collagen and pseudokeratin are two examples that perform on par with both animal based collagen and keratin hydrolysates or with animal collagen and keratin amino acids.

Along with my team of chemists, I employ the principle of substantivity in which by varying the amount of positive charge of the protein causes these proteins to adhere to the negatively charged damaged keratin sites in the hair. Because they are made up of amino acids, both acidic and alkaline regions exist in the protein. pH plays an important role in that there is a pH at which the acid and alkaline features are balanced. This point is the isoionic point. Keratin has an isoionic point of around 5.5 in its alpha keratin state. As damage increases, the keratin is converted to other forms and the isoionic point increases. Keratin and especially keratin amino acids may be delivered to damaged hair under slightly more acidic pH with a reduced isoionic point and enhanced ability to bond to damaged hair, neutralizing damage and returning hair to an alpha state in which the acid and alkaline function are balanced.

Hair being compromised primarily of keratin has an isoionic point of around 5.5. Damaged hair is slightly higher. In the simplest case, amino acids may be made more positively charged by slightly lowering the product’s pH, thus becoming more substantive to damaged hair. This tactic works well with plant “proteins” because they are usually made up of amino acid combinations that will readily bond to the damaged sites on hair.

Substantivity means simply when you choose the correct type and molecular size of protein for a treatment and apply it at its ideal pH, it will naturally be attracted to a damaged keratin site in the hair. By literally saturating hair with these protein molecules, hair will absorb what it can, holding on to those molecules, and operate more like a healthy hair strand.It will have more shine, hold color better and be more resilient to mechanical and heat damage. Although this is not a permanent bond, as normal cleansing will remove some of the protein, when the protein molecules are continually applied to the hair thru subsequent applications, hair acts and performs like healthy hair.

Another way to improve substantivity is to chemically modify the protein with a positively charged, or cationic, functionality. Wheat and soy-based “quaternized proteins” are available to the formulator. These protein derivatives add softness, combability and shine to products because the quaternizing agent usually contains a fatty acid function. But these derivatives are generally surface treatments that do not penetrate deeply into the hair structure to reverse significant damage. Recently, vegetable proteins have been reacted with “silianes” that combine the protein’s substantivity at slightly acidic pH with the “silane’s” ability to cross link with itself when heated. This means that blow drying or even hot iron styling can actually be beneficial to the hair, as these protein derivatives penetrate and react within the hair, strengthening it from the inside out. However, it must be said that when you chemically modify a protein, the most valuable aspect of protein to damaged hair that of binding critically important moisture in and on the hair shaft, is diminished by such derivatizations.

Molecular size is also critical. The ingredient needs to be perfected for best penetration. A protein ingredient can be on a label and actually in the bottle but unless it is made the correct molecular size, it’s just marketing fluff with no action in the hair. Too large a protein molecule literally flows out of the bottle, past the hair and down the drain. Hair cannot benefit from the ingredient because it’s too big to be absorbed into the hair. Instead, we use an advanced scientific process called Micro Emulsion Technology in which our ideal-sized proteins and all of our ingredients are able to penetrate deepest for longest lasting effectiveness. This means real results. Hair not only feels better to the consumer but results last longer, making hair stronger with noticeably better performance. The trick is to obtain the right protein and treat it with the right science and then create a great product to meet the demands of today’s client. And we must not forget that this all must come with today’s consumer getting a good value by delivering it with attention to detail and quality in our formulas.

Both I and my team of scientists are constantly perusing new and better ways to enhance the hair from the inside out. We are not interested in temporary coatings but instead of real substantive hair strengthening thru proteins. One of our latest creations, the Hydro-Charged Pelusi Ceramide Complex, Patent Pending, is a plant-based protein complex that we now have in all of our shampoos, conditioners and specialty treatment styling products. Not that there is anything wrong with a historically tried-and-true protein such as hydrolyzed wheat protein, as we do still continue to find great value in it. But our mentality is to think of our formulas much in the same way Apple thinks of its IPhone—we will never stop developing, improving and growing.

More info:

About the Author Philip Pelusi is an internationally recognized stylist, photographer and product artist. Having gone from one salon to 13 locations as well as a magnificent industry centerpiece in New York City, Pelusi has created a philosophy, 2 product lines, P2 by Philip Pelusi and Tela Beauty Organics by Philip Pelusi and systems for success. Philip created and trademarked, within the industry, the phrase “A Cut Above The Rest” to coincide with his creation of the registered Volumetric haircutting technique around which he built his empire.

Related End-User Markets:

Related Raw Materials: