Hair Care with Hydrolysates

Get ready for some science!  This weekend's post is about shampoo and hair care, and who doesn't want nice hair?  We will also examine what gluten has to do with that.

You might ask, why am I talking about it on a Gluten Free blog? First, there's continuing debate about whether gluten ingredients cause reactions in Celiacs or NCGSs (non celiac gluten sensitives).  And second, if you've ever used a hair tonic, or "reconstructor" you've seen hydrolyzed wheat protein as an ingredient (at least in some of them).  Third, it's impossible to test for gluten in something hydrolyzed.  For the same reason, you can't fully trust gluten removed beer, but it might be a good hair product!  So let's examine the lighter side of gluten free and delve into the hydrolyzed proteins in hair care products!


Photo and markup by author.

 First, let's get the background articles listed:

  1. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23414102    "Feather keratin hydrolysates obtained from microbial keratinases: effect on hair fiber."  This one is about how the hydrolysates are made, in this case, by fermentation.  (Free full text - meaning you can read the whole thing online without being required to pay...  often expressed as "no pay wall")
  2. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/29515840    "Modification of wheat gluten for improvement of binding capacity with keratin in hair."   This one is newer so it isn't free full text, but the gist is, a new process for modifying how wheat gluten binds to your hair. The goal is to bind it better so you get more benefits from it.

 If you've read the online flame wars about whether or not hair and body care products should be gluten free, and should have labeling to match, I hope it's obvious that those flame wars are being fueled by marketing.  But not so much because they want to charge you more for GF shampoo, instead the manufacturers are afraid of the label law being extended to include them.  Yet there are already certified gluten free labels on some shampoos and others are already claiming gluten free without certification.

Why use gluten in shampoo or body care anyway?  


Simply put, because the proteins bind to the hair and during this process, water / hydration is added to the hair.  Sometimes you will come across an outdated claim that "more protein means less moisture."  But now we have science showing us that's not true. When talking about hydration, you might have heard about Na-PCA and wondered what it was.  It's a salt of an amino acid.  Remember your chemistry:  salts are formed when an acid and a base react and neutralize each other.  The pH scale?  And proteins are made of amino ACIDS.  This is a sodium salt of proline.

Proline is tricky.  Part of the current definition of gluten is that it's high in glutamine and proline.  Na-PCA is made from "vegetables and grasses."  And that should instantly raise a red flag for the possibility of gluten grains.  Grains are the seeds of grasses, and only grains are "glutens" in the current definition.  Watch out for anything containing Na-PCA for this reason. A better way to rehydrate your hair safely is available, more on this later.

Who cares if wheat or gluten gets into your shampoo?

 Science shows that hydrolyzed wheat glutens (and other proteins) in hair and body care products, bind to your hair and any keratin, which includes your skin.  That's the intended effect, not a side effect, or an accident.  The most obvious potential problem, is that Celiac has at least 20 skin conditions associated with it, and some of them are a direct result of the body attacking gluten that ends up in the skin after you eat it (dermatitis herpetiformis, or DH). Another problem is that you just got a bunch of gluten bonded to your fingers while you were washing your hair, and will you remember that before you eat any finger foods?

But not all hydrolyzed protein is unsafe, nor should we avoid all of it. Some hydrolysates are perfectly safe.

What does this tell us about good hair care that's safe for Celiacs and NCGSs?

The structure of hair is basically protein with a small amount of fat.  I would add, there is also glycoprotein in the matrix, which bridges the gap between protein and carbohydrate by being  connective tissue. Fat may be "yucky" but it's essential to hair that isn't dried out.  When you get too much sun and chlorine at the pool, the next day's "scarecrow" look is because that tiny amount of fat is now gone, and it will take a while to get more into the hair.  Hence, validation for the "100 brush strokes" theory because you are redistributing the oils.

This touches on why it's bad to have simethicone, dimethicone, and other "cones" in hair products.   You may have heard of this and wondered what it was all about.   This is not a new idea.  I've been reading this forum since the late 1990s and they have always been dead set against what they call "cones."  It's a very respected community on hair care partly because they don't swoon over every product that comes out, and give good reasons (usually) for what they recommend. That said, it's better to have cones if you aren't intensively maintaining you hair because of old age or if your hair is short and will get cut off in three weeks anyway.  It's just less fussy.  I'm talking about DIVINE hair care.

The take away message in all the jargon is that if you are using hydrolyzed protein (of any type), and you follow that with heat, it helps your hair to hold moisture and that means nicer hair that's more resistant to damage.  So, in this case, heat is good.  How many times have you heard that blow drying, heat treatment, etc...  are "damaging"?  This is basically another marketing half truth designed to sell repair products.  But now we know that only some of the repair products are worth it. The only really helpful products have hydrolyzed protein of a safe type, and products with actual oils in them, not "cones" which mask the dehydration.  

In the recent past I became so debilitated that I could not regularly wash my hair like before.  During that time, my hair became brittle and unhealthy like it never was before.  My scalp itched, and I came close to cutting it all off (honestly I'm always within an inch of cutting off my hair).  When I recovered, I started washing it every day, and drying it.  In about four days of that treatment, it was tamed and beautiful again.  So don't believe the hype, heat and daily washing is good for hair.

The same goes for flatiron use, especially when combined with hydrolyzed protein.  The protein doesn't need to be wheat or any gluten grain.  It could be silk protein, or chicken feather protein, or anything else gluten free and not allergenic to you.  Strictly speaking, they only tested heat application with a flatiron, and there might have been some effect from the "ions" those things advertise (not all ads are lies).  Restoration of your youthful locks could be as simple as mixing some reconstructor into your shampoo, and blow drying every day.

Beauty concerns are not frivolous, they are closely related to health and can give a woman confidence.  I'm a huge fan of vanity.  It's a harmless way to make yourself feel good.  And that goes for men too!

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