Spreading Clean Beauty

Vegan keratin: conscious consumers want it – but is this possible?

With cruelty-free beauty as  a long-standing trend that’s gaining pace, particularly amongst young people, products such as vegan keratin are seeing a significant increase in consumer demand. Between 2013 and 2018, there was a 175% growth in vegan cosmetic launches, according to Mintel. Now, 67% of Gen Z would stop using brands that used unethical practices and a further 55% only use cruelty-free products (Mintel, 2020). In light of the COVID-19 pandemic, this prioritization of cruelty-free products is set to be further emphasized. As connections emerge between the spread of the virus and wet markets and meat processing plants, consumers are increasingly concerned with animal welfare as it pertains to the wider environment.

This trend is relevant to the entire beauty and personal care segment, and hair care is no exception. Consumers are looking for cruelty-free, vegan products free of animal-derived ingredients that also enhance hair wellness. This tendency is reflected in the market: last year, ‘vegan’ was amongst the top five claims within the natural/organic BPC market (Mintel, 2019). Therefore, formulating vegan keratin alternatives to this traditionally animal-derived ingredient is of particular concern to an industry where  natural, plant-based claims are becoming the new key brand differentiator.

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How does keratin strengthen hair?

An equally ubiquitous hair care trend is keratin – and this isn’t without good reason. Keratin is a protein that already occurs naturally in the hair, forming a protective shield around the hair shaft that helps it stay elastic, soft, and shiny. Unfortunately, keratin can be depleted due to heat, styling, chemicals, and other environmental stressors.

As a result, most consumers are looking to boost their keratin to strengthen their hair among other natural ingredients for hair care. You can increase keratin production naturally by consuming more proteins like lean meat, beans, eggs, hemp, or nuts. Alternatively, you can also apply keratin directly to the hair through shampoos, conditioners, and other treatments: this year, 45% of American consumers said that when they are buying conditioner, strengthening hair is an important purchase driver (Mintel, 2020).

Is keratin vegan? Can you synthesize it?

In light of the vegan beauty trend, the synthetizing of vegan keratin has become  a key obstacle: in the past, applied keratin has been animal-derived. Like human hair and nails, hooves, feathers, and horns are made of keratin. In fact, many hair products with keratin claims contain ground animal parts to make the product. Technically, there is no synthetic vegan keratin and it can’t be extracted from plants in quite the same way. Naturally, this is an issue if you are looking for a vegan keratin treatment..

However, this isn’t to say that the properties of keratin can’t be mimicked in plant-based formulas. For instance, the synthesis of amino acids extracted from grains like rice or wheat creates hydrolyzed proteins that act as an alternative and a de facto vegan keratin treatment. As a result, products with ‘vegan keratin’ claims are emerging, which chimes with the rising popularity of vegan claims.

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