Looking good is just as much about taking care of your body on the inside as it is about using products on the outside. And we’re not just talking about your skin! A nutritious diet promotes healthy nails and hair, too. But there’s no need to add a refrigerator’s worth of new foods to your diet. Since both hair and nails are made of keratin, through a similar process in the body, it’s thought that nutrients that help one can also help the other. Ready to say bye-bye to brittleness? Read on to know more about the benefits of using keratin and the best foods that can give your hair and nails a boost.
What is Keratin?
The technical keratin definition is that it is an insoluble protein found in the epidermal tissues of vertebrae (1). Keratin comes from the Greek word meaning horn. Keratin is found in other outer tissues, like a rhino’s horn, sheep’s horn, as well as various feathers, beaks, and claws (1). These keratin proteins are tough and fibrous; that’s because they form the structural framework of the cells that line the surfaces of organs, canals, and cavities. They are known as epithelial cells (2). Keratinization is the process in which cells from under the skin convert into hair and nails.
How Does Keratin Work?
While keratin has been found in internal organs and has a role in cell movement (2), it is primarily associated with these three areas:
Keratin is what makes up the hair shaft (3). Because it is the foundation of hair, you will often find products like keratin hair treatment and keratin shampoo/conditioner. Why do we need to boost keratin? As we age, we experience a decline in the production of keratin. In chemical terms, that weakening leads to the deterioration of stability and flexibility in the hair shaft (3). In look-in-the-mirror terms, that makes your hair susceptible to dryness and breakage, especially when using brushes or styling products.
A keratin treatment that uses a cream that contains formaldehyde is not recommended, as this colorless gas can be harmful when inhaled or absorbed by the skin (4). This happens when the cream with formaldehyde or another chemical that releases an amount of formaldehyde is brushed into the hair and then a high heat blow dry and flat iron makes frizzy hair and curly hair more relaxed. Things like Brazilian keratin treatments and Keratin Complex Smoothing Therapy have been deemed dangerous by the Occupational Safety & Health Administration, so formaldehyde free treatments are recommended (5, 6).
Your nerves before a public talk aren’t the only thing that puts your nails at risk. When you lose keratin, which is a natural part of aging, your nails become brittle, discolored, dull, and may lead to splitting or cracking (7, 8). In addition, your nail can lose keratin for other reasons, such as change in the circulatory system, meaning nutrients may not be able to get to the nails, exposure to chemicals and cosmetics, and repetitive cycles of wetting and drying.
Your skin is your biological raincoat. And the reason why your skin is waterproof? Keratin. The strong and flexible fibers make your skin strong against tearing and penetration (2, 9). and it’s what also makes your skin supple and flexible, that’s because it also helps you retain the water you do have to give your skin that glowing appearance. As part of the normal aging process, keratin production decreases, which is what can result in dry and dull skin, which can cause itching and irritation (9).
Other Uses and Benefits of Keratin
There has been documented use of keratin treatments for thousands of years. They have come in the form of animal skin as protection to horns and nails being used as weapons or utensils (1).
For medicinal purposes, the first use is believed to have come from a Chinese herbalist named Li Shin-Zhen. He wrote some 800 books over four decades and published more than 11,000 prescriptions to medical problems. One of those was for a substance that aided in wound healing using ground ash and human hair. This treatment was known as Crinis Carbonisatus (10).
More recently, research has centered around keratin in cosmetics, wound healing, medical devices and drugs, and even tissue engineering.
Besides giving strength and structure to your hair, nail, and skin, keratin also can act as an aid to healing wounds. It has been found to help aid healing in superficial cuts, surgical wounds, leg ulcers, diabetic foot ulcers, first- and second-degree burns, as well as skin grafts (11). It does this by helping to stimulate cell growth and getting healthy cells to the affected area (12).
One animal study shows that bandages using keratin sped up healing and had a better outcome with scars, and another study showed that keratin helped the wound have a better-organized structure of regenerated tissue (13, 14).
How does it work? Keratin dressings release peptides, which are chains of protein, into the wound. These activate skin cells in the wound bed that forms the epidermis and produces keratin; that then stimulates them to proliferate and heal the wound with regenerated tissue by stimulating fibroblasts, which produce collagen and elastin, the two most important components that makeup skin (11). Some examples of treatments include keratin-rich gels or ointments, or keratin matrix dressing for wounds that produce fluid like blisters.
How to Boost Keratin Levels?
Salon Keratin Treatments
Sometimes called the Brazilian keratin treatment, this time-intensive method of using keratin involves several steps. First, a cream that contains formaldehyde is applied to your hair before it’s blown dry and straightened in a salon. Once the treatment is applied, you’re instructed to keep your hair dry for several days. When you visit the salon to have the chemicals washed out, another treatment is applied to “set” the straightening effect. This treatment claims to last for 12 weeks.
Keratin Serums, Shampoos, and Conditioners
Keratin serums, shampoos, and conditioners can’t make the same claims as a keratin treatment in a salon. But they do claim to make hair more damage-resistant and repair hair that has been dried out by heat and hair dye. To identify these products, look for the words “keratin hydro lysates” in the ingredients list. Evidence showed that the active components of keratin were a promising ingredient for people that wanted stronger hair (15).
You can find keratin supplements for sale at nearly any health food store. Keratin supplements come in powder and capsule forms. Keratin supplements are not without risks. If overused, they can cause too much protein to build up in your body.
Are There Any Side Effects?
While salon keratin treatments are effective, they contain large amounts of formaldehyde. Some employees at hair salons even reported nosebleeds and respiratory problems from handling the keratin treatment products and inhaling their fumes repeatedly over time. These levels of formaldehyde exceeded the national safety standard for chemical exposure by 5 times (16). For that reason, pregnant women should avoid getting this treatment. People with a sensitivity to formaldehyde or respiratory problems should also avoid keratin treatments.
Boost Your Keratin Levels Naturally!
Though keratin itself is not naturally present in foods, you can incorporate a variety of foods into your diet to maintain keratin production in your body.
According to a review published by the Journal of Dermatology Practical and Conceptual, and an article on the AARP website, the vitamins, minerals and nutrients that are best for encouraging hair growth and strength include (17, 18):
- Vitamin B5: This gives the hair flexibility, strength and shine and can also prevent hair loss and graying.
- Vitamin B6: This vitamin helps to prevent dandruff and promote hair health.
- Vitamin B12: Vitamin B 12 helps to prevent hair loss.
- Several minerals play a part in healthy hair, particularly zinc, magnesium, silica and sulfur.
- Vitamins B1, B2, niacin and pantothenic acid: All of these contribute to the nourishment of hair follicle cells. The recommended daily dose of vitamin B1 (thiamin) is 1.2 milligrams for men and 1.1 milligrams for women, and for vitamin B2 (riboflavin), it is 1.3 milligrams for men and 1.1 milligrams for women.
- Folic Acid: A lack of folic acid in the body can cause increased graying of hair as well as decreased growth.
- Biotin: The proper metabolism of proteins, fats and carbohydrates relies on the presence of biotin in the body. Without these metabolic processes, hair follicles can become undernourished and weaken hair over time.
- Beta-Carotene: Once inside the body, beta-carotene is transformed into vitamin A, which is essential to hair growth as well as maintaining strand strength. It acts to create a protective sheath around nerve fibers, which in turn strengthens keratin in hair, nails and skin. Add beef, salmon, spinach and carrots to your diet to increase the amount of beta-carotene in your system.
Eat your way to fuller, stronger hair! Consume the following:
Eating eggs is a stellar way to boost keratin production naturally.
What’s more, eggs’ protein promotes keratin production, with 6 grams of protein packed into one large, 50-gram egg (21).
Other healthy nutrients in this ubiquitous food include selenium, riboflavin, and vitamins A and B12 (21).
Containing sulfur, Vitamin C, and protein, cabbage is a great choice. One serving or one cup of cooked cabbage contains 36.4 calories. It is also loaded with nutrients such as Vitamin K, Vitamin A, Manganese, dietary fiber, Calcium, Potassium, and Iron.
Broccoli is another food that contains sulfur and other nutrients needed for the synthesis of Keratin. In a glass of boiled broccoli, we can find a large number of nutrients, including 123.40 mg of Vitamin C and 4.66 g of protein. One cup of steamed broccoli contains only 43.68 calories. This makes it a powerful option for those seeking to increase levels of Keratin, fiber, and weight loss.
4. Brussel Sprouts
Brussels sprouts provide sulfur, as well as Vitamin C and protein, which is essential for the production of Keratin in the body. Loaded with nutrients, Brussels sprouts also contain Calcium, Potassium, Vitamin K, and Iron, among other nutrients. One serving of a cup of Brussels sprouts contains 60.84 calories.
Carrots are rich in beta-carotene, which, in the body, gets converted into vitamin A. Vitamin A not only helps preserve good vision and boosts your immune system, it’s also good for your hair and skin. In addition, carrots contain biotin, which helps promote hair growth. Other good sources of beta-carotene are sweet potatoes, spinach and kale.
Onions are not only great for flavoring your favorite dishes but also ramping up keratin production.
Onions also provide folate, an essential micronutrient necessary for maintaining healthy hair follicles (24).
Related to onions and leeks, garlic is another rich source of sulfur, protein and Vitamin C. Garlic also contains Manganese, Selenium, and Calcium. It can easily be added to a wide variety of foods and recipes, such as in soups, sautéed, seasoning of meats, sauces, etc. It can be cooked or consumed raw.
Salmon is brimming with protein, packing nearly 17 grams per 3-ounce or 85-gram serving (25).
It’s also an excellent source of biotin, another key nutrient that supports keratin production. Just 3 ounces or 85 grams of canned salmon contain 5 mcg, or 17% of the DV.
This fish is also high in omega-3 fatty acids, a type of heart-healthy fat that has been shown to help improve hair growth, enhance hair density, and protect against hair loss when used in supplement form (26, 27).
Oysters contain more of the mineral zinc per serving than any other food, according to the National Institutes of Health. And zinc helps spur hair growth, so much so that people with a zinc deficiency may suffer from hair loss or slow growth. It’s important to know that a zinc deficiency can be caused by deficiencies of vitamin A.
Rich in Vitamin A, directly linked to the production of Keratin, papaya is essential for cell renewal and tissue recovery, helping to keep the skin lush and softer. It also helps in the fight against acne.
Avocados are rich in the monounsaturated kind of healthy fat that can help keep your hair soft and shiny. They also are high in vitamins B12 and E, which may improve the quality of your hair strands. Avocados may also help spark the production of collagen and elastin if applied topically to your hair and scalp, usually as part of a conditioner.
Native to South Asia, mangoes are a tasty way to squeeze extra nutrients into your diet while supporting keratin synthesis.
In particular, this tropical stone fruit is packed with provitamin A, with 89 mcg, nearly 10% of the DV in each cup or 165 grams (28).
Mangoes are also high in several other key nutrients for skin and hair health, such as vitamin C and folate.
13. Beef Liver
Beef liver is one of the most concentrated sources of biotin, making it a great choice if you’re looking to ramp up keratin production naturally.
In fact, just 3 ounces or 85 grams of cooked beef liver packs 31 mcg of biotin, exceeding your daily needs at 103% of the DV.
Plus, the same amount of beef liver provides an ample 24.5 grams of protein and 7,960 mcg of vitamin A, a whopping 884% of the DV (29).
Beef liver is also an excellent source of many other vitamins and minerals, such as vitamin B12, folate, riboflavin, and iron.
Beans are a food rich in Zinc and fiber, it is related to the maintenance of healthy skin, as it is linked to the healing process and to the production of collagen, as well as stimulating the production of Keratin.
Like beans, lentils are also rich in Zinc and important for health and maintenance of healthy skin.
Isoflavone, present in food, plays a vital role in hormone replacement, and helps to give more firmness to the skin. In addition, by containing protein and assisting in the production of natural Keratin in the body, it also strengthens the hair.
Perhaps one of the main foods rich in Keratin is gelatin, which comes from collagen in the bones and paws of animals and can be added to the strength of Keratin cells. Gelatin can be found in certain yogurts, cereals, ice creams, fruit salads and fruit jams.
18. Whole Grains
Whole grains are rich in biotin along with iron, zinc and B vitamins. Biotin is required for cell proliferation and plays an important part in producing amino acids (protein) which are required for your hair to grow.
It might be a good idea to take a break from using chemical products on your hair and nails. Hair styling tools that use heat have the most damaging effects on your hair, so it may be wise to put away your hair straightener or curling iron for a while too!