By Jc of The Natural Haven Bloom
In a word yes, heat protectants do work. As temperatures start rising and the warmer spring and summer months come, some naturals look to heat style their hair and protect in the process. Heat styling is not for everyone and certainly if your hair is fine (individual strands) and/or very kinky, you may actually benefit from avoiding heat altogether. However, for those who can or who want to heat style, the role of heat protectants is to reduce (not eliminate) both chemical and physical damage to hair during the application of heat.
Protection from Chemical Damage
Applying heat to hair will always lead to some chemical damage because heat degrades amino acids in hair — do remember that hair is a protein composed of amino acids. One specific amino acid that can be traced quite well during this process is tryptophan and it will decrease when heat is applied to hair. However applying a heat protectant generally corresponds to less degradation of tryptophan. This is because heat protectants prevent full heat transfer to the cortex of hair and therefore reduce the heat induced degradation of the protein.
Protection from Physical Damage
Physically, the surface of the hair fibre (i.e the cuticle) can suffer breaks and chips. This damage can also lead to physical breakage of the hair during combing after heat styling. Heat protectants coat hair and prevent direct contact between the heat implement and the hair fibre. This action helps to reduce physical damage to the hair and in turn breakage during heat styling.
Choosing a Heat Protectant
Any heat protectant is better than none at all. If you are looking to advance your knowledge however, a recent study from the University of Manchester highlighted that it may be beneficial to avoid water based heat protectants and opt instead for ‘dry’ ingredients (oils and solvents including ethanol). Water free protectants performed better than those with water. Many heat protectants contain ingredients such as silicones and polymers (including acrylates, polyquarteniums and copolymers). Although synthesised, these are some of the most well researched protectants.
In the search for natural alternatives, grape seed oil is often quoted as a good heat protectant because it has a high smoke point (i.e the point where the oil breaks down and starts to smoke — around 400F/200°C for grape seed oil). The smoke point of an oil does not really tell us if it is a good heat protectant though. A good protectant needs to be able to reduce transfer of heat to the cortex, an oil with a high smoke point simply will not degrade itself when heat is applied (good for coating and reducing physical damage) but on the flip side, if it stays hot and transfers heat to the cortex then it would not help towards the physical damage. In other words, the jury is still out on grape seed oil. Many other natural oils which are refined (not raw or virgin) also have similar high smoke points including olive oil, coconut oil and sunflower oil.
Ladies, what do you use as a heat protectant? And do you use heat in your hair?
J Cosmet Sci, pp 265–282, 2011
J Cosmet Sci, pp 15–27, 2011