Cleopatra was known for hers and during lockdown 2020 Google’s top five beauty searches were dominated by it. We’re talking hair.

Creating products that not only maintain but make the most of all hair types is key to Unilever’s Positive Beauty strategy and is just one of our haircare portfolio’s USPs. “At Unilever, research and development is core to what we do,” says Dr Fraser Bell, Unilever’s Hair Appraisal Manager and Science Insights leader for Nexxus.

“Our team of scientists are constantly looking for ways to understand hair types and the conditions they experience, and the benefits of ingredients and technologies, in new ways.” It’s seen R&D scientists for our Nexxus brand spend more than a decade going right down to the molecular level to understand the chemical and structural differences between all hair types and conditions to shape products that meet each hair type’s specific needs.

In fact, they were one of the first teams to characterise the microstructural differences between the curly and straight hair types, which has boosted understanding of why curly hair may be more prone to breakage than straight hair.

But to really understand the maintenance needs and personality of curls and coils, the scientists embarked on a research study that took them right down to the molecular level.

A slide showing two groups of proteins that define hair type

Our R&D scientists pinpointed specific proteins that differentiate our hair type and used these findings to create a bespoke product range for curls

Decoding the secrets of curly hair

Using state-of-the-art proteomics (the study of proteins) and informatics, our scientists, and our partners at AgResearch in New Zealand, discovered that it’s not just the structure and the hair follicles that are different in curly and straight hair, the proteins that make up those structures are different as well.

This enabled the brand to pinpoint specific protein profiles differentiating curly and straight hair and identifying the top 20 proteins that have important roles in the different hair types.

“Curly hair and straight hair have different keratin proteins,” says Fraser. “In fact, some appear with two to six times greater frequency in curly hair than in straight hair.”

“This level of knowledge was a breakthrough for Nexxus, as now we understand the molecular-level factors that determine hair type, which means we can further optimise our products to deliver against specific needs,” he adds.

Two images of a women before and after using the Curl Define product range

Before and After: Scientists used silk protein that is rich in the same building blocks as curls to create a bespoke product range for Nexxus

Smoother and stronger curls

The next steps were using these insights to develop a product range specifically designed to strengthen and moisturise curls and coils.

“Very, very curly hair is particularly prone to breakage [because you] have all these natural twists and turns in the fibre,” Fraser told Allure magazine. “When you extend a fibre with lots of natural twists and turns, you get lots of concentrations of stress, and the fibre can fail where these high stress concentrations are.” This can mean that trying to detangle the hair during and after a wash can pull the fibres straight and cause curls to snap.

Knowing that curly hair is prone to such breakages enabled the formulation team to start looking at ways to restore its strength using its own building blocks. They crafted a formula with silk protein that’s rich in the same building blocks as curls and coils and helps provide luxurious softness, strength and ductility.

Products from the Nexxus Curl Define Range

The team did two years of testing to create a range to enhance the natural beauty of curls and coils

Two years of testing and optimising the formulation resulted in the creation of a range of four salon-quality products, including a detangling pre-treatment, shampoo, conditioner and leave-on product that were launched in the US market as Nexxus Curl Define in January this year.

And it uses the very building blocks that create naturally curly hair to enhance its natural beauty. “The aim of the range is to fortify and support what is present rather than replenishing, because natural hair that isn’t damaged and hasn’t lost a lot of protein,” Fraser says. “We are fortifying the structure to build curl strength from within.”

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