The Benefits of Antioxidants for Your Hair, According to a Curl Chemist

Most of us have heard we should eat our vegetables, drink green juice, take vitamins, and slather on expensive skin creams loaded with these nebulous molecules. We’ve been told these antioxidants will help us appear young, beautiful, active and healthy. Right? But what are the benefits of antioxidants when it comes to your hair?

When you learn to care for your curly hair, you learn about the potential damage that can be caused by using certain ingredients, cleansing too often, chemical processes, and over-manipulating the hair.

Why does curly hair get damaged more easily?

Our hair is constantly bombarded by reactive species of molecules that slowly tear apart the complicated structure of each strand. Without adequate protection, damage grows continually worse until it becomes evident:

  1. Color fades quickly.
  2. The surface becomes rough and porous.
  3. Tangles, breakage, and frizz become the norm.

Curly hair is even more susceptible to this type of degradation. Fortunately, it has been found that some botanical oils, vitamin E, vitamin C, and beta carotene do indeed provide some protection against these environmental sources of free radicals. They also provide emollient properties and other benefits to the hair, and thus seem to be good additions to products for curly hair. They are not substitutes for wearing a hat and treating your hair kindly though, so protect those tresses!

With claims like these, it seems inevitable that hair care products showcasing these ingredients would make their debut on the shelves of hair salons, health food stores, and drug stores, and of course, in the natural hair market sector.

Do we really need antioxidants in our hair products?

Are antioxidants beneficial when used in topically applied hair care products, or are they another clever marketing strategy? A consumer armed with knowledge of what oxidative damage is, how it occurs, and what can be used to protect against it has the advantage when evaluating product claims and making purchases.

What is oxidative damage?

Oxidation is the process whereby a molecule loses an electron and is cleaved into its substituent atoms or groups. Some of these species are left having an unpaired electron in their outer shell, leaving them in a highly unstable and reactive state, as they are driven to complete their outer shells via pairing all electrons. These are called free radicals or reactive oxygen species (ROS).

What does oxidative damage do to hair?

Hair is not comprised of living cells, but its keratin-based structures are still susceptible to oxidative damage from a wide variety of sources. This damage leads to the following:

  • split ends
  • broken hairs
  • rough cuticles
  • frizz
  • tangling
  • lack of luster
  • diminished curl retention
  • loss of color, natural or artificial

Identification of free radical exposure can help a curly to reduce their overall risk of structural degradation.

In order to complete its outer shell of electrons, the free radical will attack adjacent molecules and abstract an electron from them, generating a new radical which is also unstable and seeks to “steal” an electron from its neighbors. This initiates a chain reaction, which is the basis of many polymerization reactions. It can also be destructive to living cells and systems.

Free radicals can attack cell lipid layers, DNA, proteins, and many other essential structures. This disrupts key biological processes and can result in aging, decreased function, and cancer.

How does ultraviolet (UV) exposure damage hair?

The sun’s rays penetrate the hair shaft and deplete of the natural melanin resident in the cortex, which will also alter the protein structures of both the cuticle and cortex.

The Benefits of Antioxidants for Your Hair, According to a Curl Chemist

Do chemical processes cause oxidative damage?

Chemical processing like bleaching and permanent dyeing are culprits in substantial oxidative damage. They attack both the lipids and the proteins in the cuticle structures. Exposure to ozone, pollutants, tobacco smoke, substances in our water–as well as radiation–all add to the continual exposure to free radicals and their damaging processes. Damage is pervasive and cumulative, and damaged hair becomes more porous and even more vulnerable to oxidative damage. For this reason, prevention and minimization are critical to preserve the health and beauty of hair.

Additionally, these processes contribute to formation of free radicals:

How do antioxidants prevent hair damage?

Antioxidants mitigate and prevent damage to cells and structures from free radical and reactive oxygen species by putting the brakes on the chain reaction that destroys everything around it. The mechanism by which they achieve this varies, depending upon the antioxidant, but generally it is accomplished via an electron or hydrogen donor process. These molecules are called free radical scavengers.

One common antioxidant is Vitamin E (α-Tocopherol), which donates an electron to an unstable free radical, rendering it stable, but becoming oxidized itself. However, rather than becoming a participant in the free radical chain reaction, the oxidized version of α-tocopherol is then either excreted or regenerated via reduction (hydrogen donation) by Vitamin C (ascorbic acid).

What are the benefits antioxidants for hair?

While it is well-established that antioxidants are highly efficacious both when taken internally and applied to the skin via cosmetic preparations, it is natural to speculate whether or not they have equal value when applied topically to the hair, which is not a living cellular structure.  Fortunately, the evidence indicates that there is plenty of benefit to be derived from the inclusion of antioxidants as components in formulations for rinse-off products, leave-in conditioners, and styling agents.

Check out: Curly products with antioxidants

Vitamin E, Vitamin C, and beta carotene have been found to have protective effects against environmental free radical assaults on hair.

In a manner similar to sunscreens, these materials form a sort of interactive molecular shield against the elements, at least temporarily. By preventing the destruction of melanin and synthetic dye molecules in residence in the cortex of the hair strand, free radical scavengers can be quite useful in improving color retention and maintaining the health and integrity of hair.  Experiments have also generated data that demonstrates the efficacy of topically applied antioxidants in mitigation of damage from both coloring and heat processes.

Oil soluble vitamins such as α-tocopherols and beta-carotene and vitamin A and lipophilic plant extracts are the more common antioxidants found in hair care preparations.  The reason for this is that due to exposure to air many reactive oxygen species are generated in the aqueous phase in the bottle of product, where water soluble vitamins such as ascorbic acid (Vitamin C) would be present.  The ascorbic acid is then rapidly depleted via oxidation reactions with the free radicals, and is thus comparatively short-lived in its availability to perform its preferred function on the hair.

One method chemists have used to circumvent this problem has been esterification of the ascorbic acid, which converts it to a lipophilic substance and increases its duration of efficacy.  However, this additive is more expensive and diminishes its potential to scavenge radicals in the aqueous phase when hair is wet, which is when it is needed.

Furthermore, it is the assertion of research chemists at Mibelle Biochemistry in Switzerland that the inclusion of both water soluble and oil soluble antioxidants provides the best range of protection. For this reason, they have been developing methods to include more stable water soluble antioxidants and blends (such as grape seed extracts + α-tocopherols) that provide highly effective protection of the cuticle and cortex, even in rinse-off products.  Another research team has taken the approach of encapsulating ascorbic acid in micelles comprised of a nonionic surfactant (Polysorbate 80) and mixed tocopherols.  This nanoemulsion is supplied as a gel-like aqueous solution that is easily mixed into a formula. The Vitamin C remains protected and active for a greater duration due to being in the interior of the micelle.

[1] F. Zülli, E. Belser, M. Neuenschwander & R. Muggli, Antioxidants from Grape Seeds Protect Hair Against Reactive Oxygen Species, Mibelle AG, Switzerland

[1] Behnam, Dariush (Rossdorf, DE), Aqueous solution of ascorbic acid and method for producing same, United States Patent 6774247, 2004, AquaNova German Solubilisate Technology (AGT) GmbH (Darmstadt, DE)

This article has been updated for clarity.

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