Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Weird Product Wednesday: Panthenol

Oh, all right. So it isn't a product. But it's in just about every product. So what is it, anyway?

From Wikipedia:

Panthenol is the alcohol analog of pantothenic acid (vitamin B5), and is thus the provitamin of B5. In organisms it is quickly oxidized to pantothenate. Panthenol is a highly viscous transparent liquid at room temperature, but salts of pantothenic acid (for example sodium pantothenate) are powders (typically white). It is well soluble in water, alcohol and propylene glycol, soluble in ether and chloroform, and slightly soluble in glycerin.

In cosmetics, panthenol is a humectant, emollient and moisturizer. It binds to hair follicles readily[citation needed] and is a frequent component of shampoos and hair conditioners (in concentrations of 0.1-1%). It coats the hair and seals its surface[citation needed], lubricating follicles and making strands appear shiny[citation needed].

Now, the first thing that's striking about this is the same thing that's striking about vitamins and minerals that we eat: substances don't usually act alone. They frequently do something/work better with a leg up from something else. (Like, take calcium. Alone, it doesn't do much, but combine it with Vitamin D and both are absorbed well by the body.) But I digress. My point is that when you look at what it's soluble in -- water, alcohol, and propylene glycol -- you suddenly realize that a product containing panthenol will, ipso facto, be likely to contain glycerin in order to free it from its viscous state.

Damn it, I wish I were a scientist. I feel like there's a whole bunch of secret hair knowledge that would be unlocked if I just knew how ingredients interacted.

So, based on that Wikipedia definition, we basically see that panthenol is yet ingredient that acts to smooth things out in Hairville. And it attracts moisture.

And here's more interesting stuff about panthenol, although this time the source is not exceptionally reputable (JMS Beauty Supply!): Panthenol is a small molecule that can penetrate the epidermis and dermis, the papilla and shaft of the hair, and the upper layers of the fingernails. Panthenol moisturizes both hair and skin. Panthenol repairs damaged hair, makes hair more manageable, thickens hair by up to 10 percent, and imparts lustre of the hair. (Bolding is mine.)

Based on what I know about hair (which admittedly would fill a hair shaft), there is no way to "repair" hair other than feeding it protein to fill in "holes" that sometimes result from chemical treatments. The best you can really do is to moisturize to mitigate damage (the equivalent of a band-aid). Are we to believe that panethenol is a protein, then? No -- I looked at many definitions of panthenol and none of them say it's a protein.

Thickening the hair also makes us wonder whether this substance is a relative of protein. We know it's not a silicone but what an oddity that something could add that much thickness to hair.

Then again, if this substance started out viscous, is cut with propylene glycol (sometimes), and tends to adhere to hair, I guess that results in thickness. Is that good? If your hair is thin and coarse, then yes! If your hair doesn't need to be any fatter and isn't all that damaged, maybe you'll have a problem with it.

Pantene gets credit for making panthenol a household name of sorts -- it is named after that ingredient. Actually, the substance is called by many names, strangely enough, there isn't much evidence to show that panthenol really has measurable benefits to your hair. (Those venerable smart chicks at The Beauty Brains referenced Procter & Gamble's attempt to extol the virtues of panthenol, but P&G has since pulled the page and hasn't replaced it with anything new. Interesting, no?) As with so many products and their ingredients, the benefits are understood and appreciated primarily by the user of the product. In other words, if you like what panthenol does for your hair, you probably don't care that it is masking your hair's flaws rather than actually fixing them.

As long as we consumers of hair products understand that that's how the beauty industry works, all is well. But it's when we start believing the claims that hair can actually be physically altered and improved that the trouble begins. Hair products exist mostly to dupe us and those who look at us into thinking that we possess the bare minimum of flaws.

Hey, we do it with makeup. Why not hair products, too?


Paula said...

Going by my own hair, it does feel as if it thickens my hair strands. But, instead of feeling smooth, it feels dry - similar to protein. Since that's not what I want, I avoid it, but it is so pervasive!

Girl with Curl said...

When I read the "repairs damaged hair" part, I said to myself it can't repair damage and then right after I read it, I see "there is no way to "repair" hair other than feeding it protein". Great minds think alike.