First, let me give you some backstory: Since Olaplex launched in 2014, bond-repair treatments have become legendary for their ability to limit some of the damage done during the coloring process and make hair look and feel healthier. (Speaking of, you might have seen the recent headlines about an Olaplex lawsuit, but that’s related to the company’s stock offering and has nothing to do with product safety.) Despite what marketers — and perhaps some stylists — would have you believe, bond-repair treatments can’t return hair to a virgin state or some chemical imitation thereof. So if you’re worried that using traditional products will mess up your bond-building treatment, the short answer is no. “There’s nothing that you can do with a regular product that’s going to mess up what bond-repair products are supposed to do,” says chemist Trefor Evans, the director of research at TRI Princeton, a hair-testing and consulting firm.
The long answer is a bit more complicated. Don’t get me wrong, bond-repair treatments like Olaplex, WellaPlex, L’Oréal Professionnel Smartbond, and the new kid on the block, Epres, offer impressive results like smoother hair and less breakage. But if you bear with me through the science, you’ll be rewarded with the ability to say no to unnecessary purchases and call b.s. on pricey treatments that claim to offer bond-building benefits but are actually no different than normal conditioners.
First, let’s break down the fundamentals of hair bonds. The molecular structure of hair has three major types of bonds, according to hair scientist Crystal Porter, founder of Mane Insights, a research and consulting firm. There are strong covalent bonds, such as peptide or disulfide bonds that give hair protein its stability; temporary ionic bonds (sometimes called salt bonds) that give hair strength; and flexible hydrogen bonds that help to shape hair. Chemical processes like perming and bleaching can break covalent bonds, and something as simple as water or heat can alter ionic bonds and hydrogen bonds (that’s why it’s easy to reshape your hair with a wet set or hot tools). So one way to define a bond treatment is “a product that reforms bonds or induces the formation of additional bonds in hair that has been compromised,” says Porter.
But a hair company may also say its product bonds if it lays down a temporary seal or lubricant that binds to the hair. “Similar to what happens when paint adheres to a surface,” says Porter. In its marketing, that company could claim that the product is a bonder because it’s bound to hair; but I think that’s ridiculous — and so do many stylists. “I’m mystified by products that call themselves bond builders but don’t affect the internal structure of the hair,” says stylist Brooke Jordan, co-founder of the Bird House salons in Brooklyn. (IMHO, if a product doesn’t have any sort of proprietary bond-building technology, the brand shouldn’t charge a premium for it.)
Jordan says she considers Olaplex, Wellaplex, and professional color products like Redken Shades EQ Bonder Inside, to be true bond builders. “This is really simplifying it, but these products all have some form of bond-repairing or -building technology,” she says. “And at a molecular level, those bonds are constantly breaking apart and reforming, so you need to keep using the treatments to maintain the benefits.”
But the scientists I spoke to couldn’t say for certain that the bonds are even the reason the products make your hair stronger. “The true tensile strength of hair is related to all the bonding that goes on in the protein, so I think people take that literally and say, ‘Okay, I need to create more bonds in the hair to increase the strength,’” says Evans. “But in 30 years of [testing hair products], I’ve never seen that.” What he has seen is that a sample hair tress treated with a bond-repair product looked better, felt better, and was less likely to break when combed. But he’s seen conditioners that do all that, too.
Bottom line: You don’t need to use a shampoo or conditioner with a certain pH or special technology after a bond treatment. You don’t even have to use products from the same brand, says Evans. In fact, many stylists prefer to mix things up. Jordan likes to use Olaplex No. 1 during coloring services, and the K-18 molecular hair mask at home (K-18 has ingredients to help repair peptide bonds and disulfide bonds in the hair.) And if you consistently use products that repair the hair from the inside out — any combination of products! — your hair stays strong.
In a perfect world, your stylist or colorist will offer suggestions and help you adjust your at-home regimen until you find the combination of products that works for you. But if you get the feeling they’re just trying to make money by selling you something you don’t need, that’s a red flag. “You should be going to someone you trust and feel comfortable with,” says Jordan. “If you trust them, you should trust their recommendation — but ultimately what matters is how the products work for you.”
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