Bond builders are the newest game changer in haircare. They make damaged hair “new” again. Even the worst kind of chemical damage can be somewhat remedied with new and innovative chemicals that allow you to walk into the salon a brunette and walk out a blond all in one appointment. The quick transformation used to be near impossible, so with obvious reason, bond builders are becoming extremely popular.
I am doing this post for that very reason…different types of bond building products are sweeping through the haircare industry. Some of them are expensive with some very hefty claims, and it can be confusing understanding what your silver hair may or may not need.
The question I’m answering: are bond builders necessary for your natural gray hair?
Table of Contents:
- The First Bond Builder — Olaplex?
- What are Bond Builders?
- What Are Hair Bonds and How Do They Break?
- Is there any science behind the effectiveness of bond builders for gray hair?
- Bond Builders for Natural Gray Hair, I See Issues:
- True Gray Hair Olaplex Experiences
- How To Decide If You Should Use Bond Builders:
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Let’s Start with the First Bond Builder — Olaplex?
Originally, it began as a three-step bond builder system to help “repair” your hair after bleaching, now it is an entire range of products for damaged hair.
What makes Olaplex special is a unique compound called bis-aminopropyl diglycol dimaleate a compound that synthetically rebuilds the disulfide bonds that are broken with bleach. This was extremely innovative because until now once the bonds were broken there wasn’t much you could do except wait.
This compound allows for faster lightening services without the wait or the feel of straw-like hair when you have gone from dark hair to light hair. Anyone who has had bleach damaged hair will attest to how horrible it feels when done too much and too fast, and for some hair types just one bleach session can feel like it ruins your hair.
Olaplex gained my attention in 2015, when I started transitioning to my natural color; I scoured the city looking for anyone that knew how to use it. I was too early to the game though, so no one knew what it was yet. I even had a stylist laugh when I asked her if she knew about it preventing damage during the bleaching process.
Since then, I have watched the brand grow into a global haircare sensation, and bond builders have taken the haircare industry by storm. If you have been to a salon in the last few years, you have probably heard of Olaplex or K-18. Ask in any silver hair group what’s the best products for gray hair and invariably someone will mention Olaplex.
What are Bond Builders?
Bond builders are products specifically designed to penetrate and rebuild the bonds of the hair that are damaged from water, heat, sun, and chemical processing. While Olaplex was the first to create a disulfide bond builder for bleach and chemical damage, most professional haircare brands now have some form of a bond builder that repair some or all of the bonds of the hair.
It is worth noting here, strengthening ingredients are not new to the haircare industry; they include, proteins, certain oils and silicones, keratin, peptides, silk amino acids, and several others fill out the list. They work by filling in the gaps in the cuticle of damaged hair but cannot rebuild disulfide bonds.
What Are Hair Bonds and How Do They Break?
There are three main types of side bonds (disulfide, hydrogen, and salt) that link polypeptide chains (the chains that build keratin) together to create the cortex of the hair. Most bond builders are designed to repair these side bonds.
Disulfide or Cysteine Bonds:
“Disulfide bonds are strong covalent bonds that join the sulfur atoms of two neighboring cysteine amino acids to create cysteine. Disulfide bonds are NOT broken by heat or water and are responsible for permanent waves and chemical hair relaxers.” (as defined by John Halal in Hair Structure and Chemistry Simplified, Fifth Edition, page 296)
The more disulfide bonds you have the curlier your hair is and the less disulfide bonds your hair has the straighter it is.
Disulfide bonds are very strong and are broken by chemical processing like bleach, perms, and relaxers. Olaplex and K-18 (and several others, at this point) have patented ingredients to repair disulfide bonds, many other bond builders do not have these types of patented ingredients yet.
Disulfide bonds can also be broken by sun damage, this damage is usually over the long-term, accumulative, and severe. White (unpigmented hair) is second to bleached hair as the most susceptible to UV damage.
“Hydrogen Bonds are a special type of ionic bond that is easily broken by water or heat and is responsible for wet sets and thermal styling.” (as defined by John Halal in Hair Structure and Chemistry Simplified, Fifth Edition, page 297)
You can break the hydrogen bonds simply by wetting the hair and once the hair is dry again, they have reformed. So, when you wet your hair, put rollers in, let it dry, and let the rollers loose that curl is created by the temporary new hydrogen bonds that were formed while the hair dried around the roller. Once you wet it again the hydrogen bonds break and reform all over again.
Interesting Fact: Frizz from humidity is caused by hydrogen bonds breaking. Sealing products like gel, hold products, or certain oils and silicones protect the bond from moisture getting in and breaking that hydrogen bond, which prolongs your style and helps protect from frizz.
“Salt bonds are ionic bonds that are very dependent on pH and account for about one-third of the hair’s total strength. Salt bonds are easily broken by strong alkaline or acidic solutions.” (as defined by John Halal in Hair Structure and Chemistry Simplified, Fifth Edition, page 302)
When you start playing with home concoctions that include vinegar, baking soda, vitamin C, peroxide, and other acidic or alkaline ingredients you can damage the pH of your hair which breaks the salt bonds. Alkaline solutions like bleach cause the hair to swell and open the cuticle. If you continue to keep an imbalanced pH or repeating pH altering processes it will become dry, discolored, weak, and brittle. Simply balancing the pH of the hair will repair the salt bonds. Salt bonds can be repaired just by using a conditioner that has a much lower pH than whatever you treated your hair with.
Is there any science behind the effectiveness of bond builders for gray hair?
I really wanted to find some hard evidence to support the use of different bond builders, for gray hair (or untreated hair) — there just isn’t any data yet. While Olaplex has a page titled Scientifically Proven, the page doesn’t link to any of the study results they claim. Not to mention, there are no definitive scientific studies yet backing the use of bond builders as anything special or different than strengthening treatments. I even ran across a few forums of hair chemists chatting about these products, they do try to be objective, but “strengthening treatment” was a common thought shared.
Although some of the bond builders claim to repair the hair from the inside out, I think it would be fair to say, that most bond building treatments are just that, strengthening treatments. The fact remains, you cannot return damaged hair to its original state, you can however help it along with treatments that strengthen and condition. It is my understanding, hair is dead, it has no healing capacity; meaning if I burn it, the burned hair will always be burned until it grows off. For me, this distinction, keeps me from believing grandiose claims in marketing.
One of Olaplex’s main competitors in the bond building market K-18 claims, “You will start to see stronger, softer, healthier hair after just one use.” And Olaplex’s claim, “repairs all types of hair damage,” to include chemical, uv, heat, and pollution. Aside from chemical damage, both of those claims could be made with a keratin shampoo and conditioner. In addition, from a formula standpoint both K-18 and Olaplex without their special bond building ingredient are basically strengthening conditioner formulas.
So are the bond builder compounds the same as or more effective than the strengthening and conditioning ingredients? Only studies can prove this, so it will be interesting to see what those will reveal as we learn more. I will keep my eye out and make an update, because not much hair research is done on gray hair, this may take awhile. If I find the right studies, maybe I can request gray hair be added to the studies.
Bond Builders for Natural Gray Hair — I See Issues:
This is where I want to share my thoughts on what damage can be caused by using any products that were not designed for your hair needs. From my understanding, if you don’t have bleach damaged hair you don’t need disulfide bond repair. And just like the overuse of protein (which these bond builders often contain) the bond builders can actually make hair feel worse, mostly by causing buildup.
Olaplex contains maleic acid and once the hair is coated with certain acids they can block moisture from hair. Fortunately, once you remove the acid you can restore the moisture but this could point to why many feel their hair dry out.
This brings me around to a very valid point…you must know what each product is for, if you actually need it, and how to use it.
The main issue I found in my research and all the stories silver hair women have shared with me was incorrect use on the wrong hair type, using it on natural undamaged hair, and/or using it too much, too long, or too often.
I was hesitant to state my mind about it but once I did the stories came pouring in.
I posted a video to say as much (which you can check out below). I really thought, when I posted it, people were going to come after me about their beloved Olaplex products. Some people did defend it with good reason, because it did work well for them during their transition processing.
I did start quite a conversation, and received many comments and emails. Reading through the threads, the comments, the reviews, and the emails verified what I had been suspecting all along was a reality. Take a look at reviews on Ulta or Sephora and you will see that at least 10% of users have some major and valid issues.
Aside from the product being expensive. The minor complaints were the hair felt dry, tangled easily, itchy scalp, severe build up, and/or too heavy. On the severe problems side though, many people contribute the use of Olaplex to excess hair loss, lifeless hair, curl pattern loss, severe breakage, straw like feel to their hair, and some nasty allergic reactions.
I also have seen some severe yellowing occur even on unbleached hair. And the Olaplex bonding oil has been reported to cause white hair to turn yellow. What many people reported and what I see with clients who have come to me for healthy hair consultations, is that it was fine at first but after continued use the hair just started feeling worse and worse.
True Gray Hair Olaplex Experiences
“Prior to transitioning to my natural hair color, I had a lot of fun coloring. Because of my ADHD I did not want to forget and leave it on too long (okay, I admit I did that once) so I always made sure I had adult supervision aka…a salon professional to do my hair.
We went from, blonde, to brown, to red (had fun with rose gold) and back to blond. One can imagine, how dry and brittle my hair had become. My hairdresser used Olaplex in the salon. She mentioned my hair may benefit from using Olaplex at home as well. This was back in 2018/2019 and I believe it was a relatively new product on the market. I used the #3, it helped bring my hair back to life…all was good.
My last color was in November 2019. We went very blond to help blend to my natural color. The plan was for me to go back in 16 weeks to get it touched up and refreshed. Between snowstorms and covid shutting down, I never made it back in, and my transition continued onward.
I first started using it once a month, then as the effects weren’t as good, I started using it weekly. I was shocked by the amount of yellowing I was seeing. Yes, I had hard water, but it was the most yellow it had ever been. I continued with the Olaplex treatment in hopes I could keep it in good condition. In addition to the yellowing, my hair was becoming dry and brittle. It looked and felt like straw. I looked into bond builders and how they should be used, and realized they were causing the dryness by blocking out the moisture. Once I stopped using it all together my hair improved dramatically.
It took a lot of deep conditioning, color pigmented conditioners, and lots of trims to get my hair back to where it is now. I caution anyone using Olaplex to use it sparingly. It’s not going to reverse the damage. It’s like sticking a Band-Aid on it. The damage is still there. With continued use, it can actually cause more damage by blocking things like water from getting into the hair. Hair is thirsty and needs water to stay healthy.
Below you can see a progression of the yellowing and dryness. Hope this helps!”
~Kelli Michele (trained hair stylist)
“I always had a yellow streak about an inch wide, and about four inches from the bottom of bra strap in my long white hair. I had never bleached or dyed my hair, used good quality shampoo and conditioner, with NO YELLOW in them, and no other products. I live in a city with good (not hard) water.
About a year into Covid lock down when I was fully vaccinated, I decided to treat myself to a salon trim and treatment. The salon person was new to me and kindly said, “You don’t need a treatment.” I pursued it. “How about this yellow streak?”
“Well,” he explained,” I can lighten it with bleach, but it will dry out your hair.” He proceeded to put something on my hair and wrapped silver foil around it. I left the salon with my white hair looking slightly purple. I think they had washed or conditioned it with one of the purple shampoos. Within a few weeks my hair began to feel rough and spongy when I washed it. I’m a once-a-week washer.
Here’s where I went stupid. I bought a whole lot of the Olaplex stuff. One was #0 it was supposed to prepare your hair for the next two Olaplex treatments. I ended up with a full head of hair, white from the scalp to about six inches, and a horrible pinkish yellow from there down to the ends all the way around my hair.
I never knew if it was the bleaching or the Olaplex, but I know it was my own fault and ignorance. I’ve patiently worked to get back some of the texture, and gotten it to look less yellow, but your talk this morning was the first time anyone ever came right out and said, “don’t use Olaplex unless….” and explained why. I am grateful to you Joli for that!”
I am so glad you are addressing this as I told you I just started transitioning five weeks ago but last year while getting highlights on my dyed hair which I have been doing for years the hairdresser used Olaplex and my hair was literally dried out and breaking off, of course everyone said it was impossible that it was the Olaplex, but I knew because this had never happened before and I could feel the change in my hair. So of course, I went to the Internet and found many forums where people were complaining about the same thing having devastating results.
Right now, I am following your advice and I purchased Seen products which I love as well as a chelating shampoo which I also love and will be following your advice for everything else during my transition and beyond!”
All the best,
How To Decide If You Should Use Bond Builders:
- If you went through the bleaching process and you are growing your silvers out, you might consider the use of Olaplex #3 or K-18 (or the like), briefly in the beginning, to help with the bonding damage. I say briefly because the evidence I have collected suggests that extended use is where buildup and further damage starts to occur.
- While gray hair has a slightly more raised cuticle naturally, many people with gray hair have a lower porosity and would never need this type of repair unless their hair was severely damaged by relaxers or a permanent. If you aren’t bleaching, perming, or relaxing your hair bond builders are likely not necessary.
When using them on undamaged hair you can actually swing the pendulum the other direction and these types of bond building products can dry your hair out making it stiff, brittle, and in some cases much worse than where you started.To my way of thinking, it would be like taking a medication for an illness you didn’t have.
- Gray hair is always susceptible to heat, sun, and chlorine damage, so if you have severe damage from one or more of these issues, a bond builder product may be very helpful in making your hair feel better.
- Remember hydrogen bonds and salt bonds do not need special compounds aside from water and low pH conditioner to be repaired.
- If you notice breakage, dryness, and/or discolorations like yellowing grays, discontinue and move onto conditioning products after adding clarifying and deep conditioning to your routine.
- If your hair is already dry and brittle it might get worse with bond builders, especially those that also have proteins in their formulas, it would be better to trim the split ends, find an effective clarifying shampoo and a really great (low to no protein) deep conditioner.
Please don’t get me wrong, I am not bashing these products, they work well for their intended purposes. However, based on my personal research, provided testimonies, documented reviews, and statements of hair chemists extended use on undamaged hair can cause issues. That doesn’t mean they won’t prove me wrong at some point with real scientific studies to back them up. And it doesn’t mean what I am seeing is true for everyone, as with anything if you use it, love it, and have no issues…carry on…
All the above cautions aside, if their main goal is to support the hair during the bleaching process, then it seems they have won many a stylist and customer over.
The main take away for me is that a good thing is wonderful but too much of a good thing can often be disastrous.
I hope you found this post educational and helpful.
Thank you for reading. Please feel free to share.
As always it is about so much more than the hair.
1. Halal, John, and Douglas D. Schoon. Hair Structure and Chemistry Simplified. Fifth ed., Cengage Learning, 2009.
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