Size matters : Protein Conditioning (part 1 of 2)

Ok I cannot march on and ignore the chorus! There has been a steady flurry of emails and comments about protein conditioners so I give in and I will answer those questions first.
1. Avril asks: 'What do protein treatments really do for your hair, in particular eggs? What is it in ApHogee 2 step protein treatment that makes the hair so hard, and how do we benefit from it?'
2. Kelly asks: 'I thought natural hair was undamaged, do we really need to use protein conditioners?'
Jan asks: 'Can I add amino acids to my hair conditioner to make a protein conditioner?'
Let me start by describing proteins. Proteins are made up from single units known as amino acids (see the diagram below). These amino acids (approximately 20 different types) are arranged joined together through peptide bonds. For simplicity I have drawn just 4. The order and number of amino acids that make up a protein is determined genetically (DNA is wonderful!!). Each protein is made up several hundred to a few thousand amino acids. Again for simplicity I have drawn just a few amino acids.
Whole Proteins are generally TOO LARGE to be useful. By breaking the protein up into smaller fragments (known as hydrolysed or hydrolyzed protein). Amino acids on the other hand are TOO SMALL.

 So why is hydrolysed protein the correct size?
This is because to be useful, the protein has to adsorb (yep with a D) to hair. Adsorb means the protein sticks to and forms temporary bonds with the hair. Very large protein simply can't form these bonds reliably. Amino acids on the other hand tend to be very soluble in water so you can expect that you will remove majority of whatever you put on once you rinse your hair. With damaged hair, very small hydrolysed protein (known as peptide fragments) can also be absorbed - yes this can penetrate through to the cortex and be deposited in the hair shaft (Journal of Cosmetic Science, pg69-87, 1993).

Size Matters
Just before moving on, let me just say that even hydrolysed protein has an ideal size for use:

-For collagen hydrosylates for example, this is a molecular weight of 2000 (Book reference - Conditioning agents for hair and skin By Randy Schueller, Perry Romanowski).
-For wheat hydrosylates this is around 5000-10000 ( Book reference -Principles of Polymer Science and Technology in Cosmetics and Personal Care By Errol Desmond Goddard, James V. Gruber).

The problem is that I have not seen a single protein conditioner actually state the molecular weight. The protein part of eggs (egg white/egg albumin) has a molecular weight of approximately 33000- 40000 (The Journal of Biological Chemistry, pg 189-193, 1939). I can't find a reference for hydrolysed egg albumin size but I would strongly suspect that the molecular weight of the whole egg protein may be too large to be beneficial.

In part 2 tomorrow, I will describe (with diagrams!) exactly how protein can help hair and attempt to answer the question on aphogee (hint - think about egg white and heat)!!


  1. i would be willing to bet that the larger hydrolyzed proteins are in the really intense protein conditioners. if the hair is that damaged to require such intense treatment, then it can probably adsorb those larger proteins. whereas for routine protein use, smaller proteins are sufficient.

    my hair hearts proteins. they really help define my various textures.

    and the aphogee is like a meringue, huh? that's a great analogy, Jc. i think i'll leave the meringue on my pie, though lol.

  2. lol Keisha!! I wasn't thinking about a meringue more like a fried egg but have to say a meringue sounds more appropriate lol. Ok I have to stop laughing!

    I actually don't think aphogee is bad, it could even be useful. I'll post more tomorrow

  3. wow this is good stuff-- thanks for sharing :)

  4. WOW, this is really interesting

  5. Larger proteins are not used for more intense conditioners. It is a marketing gimmick to call something an intense conditioner. Typically, they are just a thickened version of a regular conditioner. Often the formula isn't much different at all.

  6. Thanks for contributing Left Brain - I love love love thebeautybrains!!

  7. Jc, what do you think of gelatin as a protein treatment? Since it's purely hydrolyzed collagen it seems like it might work. Any research on it?

  8. Hi Anon - Huge delay in replying! Gelatin is hydrolysed collagen but you can get it in different molecular weights even as large as 50000. From the reference above 2000 is the ideal. If you are buying from a lab supplier you can specify the size but if you are just getting gelatin leaf from a bakery then you never know what size it is.

  9. Hi Jc, you have me on a quest to understand protein. I would like a little more clarification about amino acid, if it too small then what is the benefit of it in a product, ex. silk amino acid? Also should I expect the protein not to be hydrolyzed if it doesn't say it? I have a shampoo that says nourishing wheat complex and oat protein, but the ingredients doesn't say hydrolyzed

  10. Maybe the reason why some people receive benefits from using eggs in their is because of the nutritional value in eggs. Rich in cholesterol, and every vitamin except vitamin C, egg is a good ingredient to use in the hair!

  11. maximising potential - Wouldn't it be better to eat them then?

    celeste . amino acids in a leave in product may be somewhat better because they would not be washed out by water. I cannot tell you if the protein is hydrolysed or not if the bottle does not say it. I would suspect that it is but that is no guarantee.

  12. Here is an odd question. I starting to hear about quaternized proteins are better for skin and hair application beauty brains because it adheres better than hydrolyed protein. Which is better for protein treatments quaternized proteins or hydrolyzed protein?

  13. Hello,

    I understand that this is an old article but based on my understanding of the article, eggs, mayo and all those home made protein treatments are do not ADsorb into hair and are most likely useless. The portent we need are hydrolyzed proteins as they get into the cortex. Is that accurate? Where does one get this type of protein - store bought or can it be made at home.

    Excuse my ignorance. I just want to figure out how to get the right protein treatment that actually works as opposed to fooling myself and putting all sort of ingredients in my hair. I know you do not endorse products but is there a hydrolyzed protein treatment in the market? If so what are they and how do we identify them if you do not want to give out brand names? THank you.

  14. Dear Anon, from Anon!

    I'm sure JC will have a better answer. But in the meantime I would look for products with hydrolyzed proteins listed in the ingredients. Eg. hydrolyzed soy/quinoa/vegetable/collagen/keratin/silk/rice/wheat protein. Many many brands, natural or not, high end or drugstore, have these in most of their products. So if you look around at ingredients of the products you usually see online or in shops it should start to become clear. Some conditioners focused on moisture will have a small number of protein ingredients near the lower end of the list. Some condtioners will have more protein ingredients, and perhaps higher up, mixing with moisture ingredients but giving you some protein. A protein treatment will contain plenty of protein, maybe high in the list, and might need to be followed by a moisture product if the PT doesn't have enough moisture. If you google a few well known lines it should become clearer if you look on a website which shows ingredients.

  15. All of the products in the Joico line state the molecular weight of proteins on the packaging.


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