What is Olaplex?
Olaplex is a hair repair treatment that’s getting heaps of buzz in the hair community, especially with people who have damaged hair from excessive bleach. It’s available in a couple of forms – Olaplex can be mixed in with colouring products to minimise damage, or used as a separate treatment.
The active ingredient in Olaplex is a compound called bis-aminopropyl diglycol dimaleate. This is a slightly ambiguous name, but I’m pretty sure it matches this structure in the patent:
What does Olaplex claim to do?
Olaplex claims to “reconnect broken disulfide sulfur bonds in the hair.” The treatment is labelled a “bond multiplier”, which limits damage to hair during or after colouring.
A lot of people with damaged hair have managed to get amazing results from Olaplex. Here’s my friend Mary, who got her natural curl texture back with a single Olaplex treatment:
So suffice to say, it defintely does something! But is it as revolutionary as the hype makes it out to be?
How do those claims stand up?
First up, a bit of basic hair chemistry. I’ve posted about hair chemistry before in my explanation of how hair straightening and perming work, but here’s a quick recap:
Hair contains lots of keratin proteins, which has the amino acid cysteine. Cysteine is special because it contains a sulfur (S) atom. Normally, two sulfurs will join together to form a disulfide bond (S-S), creating a link between two proteins:
All these proteins holding hands is partially responsible for your hair’s overall shape and strength. When hair is permed or straightened, these bonds are deliberately broken into two SH (“free thiol”) groups, and then reformed after the hair is pulled into its new shape. Reforming these bonds typically takes a few days (hence not washing your hair for a few days after perming, since it warps the shape).
However, that’s not the only thing that can break disulfide bonds – lye, repeated heat, sunlight, hair styling and chemical treatments like hair colouring will also break disulfide bonds and lead to weakened, damaged hair. The peroxide used in bleaching can help repair disulfide bonds… but can also paradoxically stop them from forming, by capping the SH with a sulfate group, hence the extra damage:
I was initially sceptical of the claims, since so many other hair products claim to do similar things and…don’t. But the patent holders are academic chemists with extremely impressive reputations – Craig Hawker is on the Editorial Board of a lot of high impact factor chemistry journals, and has 17 Angew. Chem. papers on his resume, which is a pretty BFD in the chemistry world. So I wanted to vet this product thoroughly!
The patent has a surprising amount of detail into the mechanism of how it’s supposed to work. The short story is, the two ends of bis-aminopropyl diglycol dimaleate form bonds with the sulfurs, making an artificial, extended disulfide bridge. More specifically, the “dimaleate” part of bis-aminopropyl diglycol dimaleate are what’s known as Michael acceptors. These react with an SH group each in a Michael reaction to form covalent bonds like so:
And so a new disulfide link is formed between the two sulfurs, making the hair stronger. This happens pretty quickly – unlike with hair straightening and perming, these reactions will happen faster than the peroxide capping reaction, meaning hair damage during colouring is drastically reduced. Pretty cool, huh?
It’s neat that there’s a scientifically legit explanation for how Olaplex could work, but does it really happen this way in the real world? There are no published independent scientific trials yet, apart from thousands of rave reviews and before-and-after photos, which are pretty dramatic. There’s also a cool side-by-side comparison in the American Board of Certified Haircolorists Newsletter: they repeatedly shampooed hair after treatment with Olaplex, mineral oil, b3 Brazilian Bond Builder or colorpHlex. Olaplex comes out on top by far, even though the other two proprietary treatments make similar claims (strengthens hair from the inside out, repairs bonds).
I’m looking forward to seeing more comparisons in the coming months, especially with regard to how long the effects of Olaplex last – having coarse black Asian hair, chalkable pastel mermaid hair has always been an unachievable dream, and I’m optimistic that perhaps Olaplex can get me there without any frying!
Things that are bugging me
Could Olaplex be used for perming?
Since this method forms disulfide bonds much faster than traditional methods, could Olaplex be used for perms where you can wash your hair straight away? I personally can’t see why not, though perhaps it hasn’t been marketed that way because it’s less revolutionary.
Why are there ionic bonds in the structure?
The maleate sections of the molecule are joined to the linker by ionic bonds (the attraction between the + and – bits), rather than a covalent bond (a solid line). Covalent bonds are generally stronger than ionic bonds, and generally ionic bonds are more susceptible to being broken if there’s a lot of water and other ions around or if there are pH changes, which you’d expect with regular shampooing. Why did the inventors choose to use ionic bonds?
Is it because the ionic bonds used here are unusually strong or have slightly more angular freedom (covalent bonds are like rigid welded joints, while ionic bonds are a bit more like ball-and-socket joints)? Or is it so the effects of Olaplex will wear off faster and you’ll have to use more product? Is it planned obsolescence, so they can unveil Olaplex Permanent 2.0 in a few years time, with covalent bonds where the ionic bonds are? (It’s worth noting that the patent covers versions with covalent bonds, and currently the effects are estimated to “dissipate in a few weeks to a month” – the patent mentions “two months or more”.) I don’t think I’m going to get a good answer to this anytime soon.
Is there any danger of the hair becoming harder to repair, if it does get damaged after Olaplex?
This question is mostly idle speculation on my part, and it could well be a silly question.
With normal hair, the weakest list is usually the disulfide bond. When it breaks, is becomes free thiols, which can be repaired with oxygen or peroxide (very slowly and unreliably) or Olaplex (quickly and probably reliably). But what happens when Olaplex comes into the picture? I suspect the ionic bond will be the weakest point, and you’ll be left with this on the ends:
Will this act as a “cap” to stop further disulfide bridges forming, preventing further Olaplex treatments from working?
From a chemical perspective, Olaplex could definitely work to repair hair in a way which no other product on the market currently does. Unfortunately I can’t find a list of salons in Australia with Olaplex, but it’s distributed by Haircare Australia, who may be able to help.
Have you tried Olaplex? Does it live up to the hype?
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