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Last Updated on September 13, 2023 by Verna Meachum
Protein is essential for hair health but can be tricky to use in different hair types because of its relationship with hair porosity.
Protein can be harmful to tightly curled hair types that are predominantly low porosity. But that makes you wonder, does high porosity hair need protein?
High porosity hair requires protein to maintain health like all hair does. However, high porosity is highly absorbing, and therefore, chemical treatments, environmental factors, and harsh products easily affect it, causing significant protein loss. That results in damaged, weakened, lackluster hair.
Learning about hair proteins and their relation to high porosity hair will help you understand why protein is necessary to help repair damage.
I’ve collaborated with my hair scientist friend to provide you with an in-depth article, including the underlying science, to help you identify your hair’s specific needs.
If you are trying to figure out whether your high porosity hair needs protein and why, it is necessary to get into the connection between the two aspects.
To learn more about hair porosity, its different levels, and how to figure out yours, check out, Hair Porosity 101: The Ultimate Guide.
A brief explanation of high porosity hair refers to hair that has raised cuticles, giving it significant abilities to absorb products, dirt, chemicals, dyes, chlorine, etc. It also makes it more susceptible to heat damage and environmental factors like wind, rain, humidity, etc.
Proteins are amino acids in the hair fibers. They are what we call keratin. Hair needs protein to strengthen it and maintain health but loses a lot of protein if it is highly porous – like high porosity hair. This means that high-porosity hair needs much more protein than other porosity levels.
When protein is lost without replacement, the hair becomes weak and damaged. Protein is necessary to add to high-porosity hair care routines.
You don’t want to overdo it, which can lead to rigid, brittle hair, but incorporate enough to keep your hair healthy.
It can be confusing to fully comprehend how protein affects or works with hair porosity if you don’t know the concept of protein in science.
That is why this post will be beneficial and help you understand everything and how it connects with hair porosity.
Predominantly, two-thirds of hair mass comprises keratin – the protein fibers. All proteins include small, repeated building blocks called amino acids.
As the name denotes, an amino acid is a chemical compound containing an acidic and basic group in the same molecule.
The incredibly fascinating aspect is that there are twenty amino acids in nature, and all proteins are made up of these 20 amino acids in different combinations.
These amino acids are monomers that combine in various patterns to make thousands of proteins in living bodies.
Amino acid analysis of keratin has revealed its chemical composition, and sulfur-rich cysteine is the main component of keratin.
This cysteine is the backbone of hair structure as it is involved in disulfide linkage in the keratin helical structure (Fig 2).
This disulfide bond is mainly responsible for the mechanical strength of hair fiber and is subject to various chemical treatments.
Have you ever wondered why your hair gets weighed down as it gets wet? The reason is the absorption of water molecules by small, tiny pores present along the hair shaft.
Ceramic pans can absorb plenty of water, so gas can easily pass through them. Similarly, hair, being a natural material, has numerous pores and can consume much water.
Natural untreated virgin hair can gain up to 30% increase in its original weight by absorbing moisture.4
Another example is dye uptake during hair coloring. Small dye molecules penetrate the hair and are trapped in small empty spaces in the cuticle and cortex.
Similarly, various conditioning agents are also found inside hair after a conditioning treatment under the microscope.
Therefore, the more pores your hair has or the higher the porosity, the more readily it can absorb moisture.
Absorption is fantastic, but high porosity hair comes with a major drawback. With the ability to absorb moisture easily comes the ability to lose moisture quickly.
Hair porosity can increase significantly by using harsh chemical treatments. Bleaching, perms, and hair straightening treatments may increase the pore size, volume, and geometrical dimension, increasing hair’s overall absorption capacity.
Bleaching hair with 30 volumes of alkaline hydrogen peroxide is a worst-case scenario where it can increase porosity by more than two times.
Studies show that small tiny pores naturally present along the hair shaft open due to harsh chemical treatments.
Degradation of protein material causes dilation of existing pores and may even merge two dilated or enlarged pores, increasing the overall pore size and volume.5
The damage from harsh chemical treatments has a significant impact on hair porosity. What was once low-porosity hair then becomes more (high) porous.
Hair porosity is directly related to hair mechanical strength. The higher the porosity, the lower the mechanical strength of the hair.
Thus, high porosity hair is fragile, likely damaged, and can break during combing or daily grooming. This is due to protein loss and can majorly affect the hair’s health.
Various studies have concluded that the same hairs before and after a chemical treatment have a different total protein content.
Hair bleaching using alkaline hydrogen peroxide causes the most hair damage among cosmetic treatments. Besides the decolorization of melanin pigment, hydrogen peroxide degrades hair protein.
Hydrogen peroxide can attack the disulfide bond of hair and break it. This chemical change converts cystine amino acid into a more water-soluble cystic acid derivative.
As a result, the overall amount of cystine in hair decreases while the total amount of cystic acid increases significantly (see photo below).
Cystic acid is more water-soluble, and its presence at the hair shaft makes hair brittle, rough, and more hydrophilic (water-loving). This will result in hair having more frizz, and hair will become more challenging to manage.
If you have damaged hair, especially from chemical treatments, and you suspect that your hair might be highly porous, you may want to start some protein treatments.
But if you are unsure, there are indicators to help you know if you should use protein or not.
Use a protein treatment when you notice the following indicators:
You want the maximum benefit from added proteins for your high-porosity hair. That means you must know how to properly use protein in your hair.
Here is a simple step-by-step procedure to achieve your desired results. This is only meant for highly damaged, dry, and frizzy hair:
Note: In step number three, we used a low molecular weight protein to ensure it penetrates deep and fills in the empty pores of the hair shaft. The conditioner with higher molecular weight proteins will seal and coat, which traps conditioner molecules inside the hair.
Another reminder is that low pH products and treatments allow cuticle “closure.” Some porosity problems can be temporarily resolved with low-pH solutions or products.
An apple cider vinegar rinse or neutralizing shampoo can help correct a porosity problem and “seal” your hair cuticles.
An excess of anything can cause adverse effects. Excessive use of high molecular weight proteins will cause build-up on the hair, which will make the hair dull, heavy, and without shine. Stop or reduce protein treatments and wash your hair with anti-residue shampoo if this happens.
My advice is to use protein treatments only every 10-15 days. After the treatment, use a light shampoo with naturally derived mild surfactants and a lightweight conditioner. Always find what works best for your hair and follow that.
The prevailing problem with porous hair is the issue of raised cuticles. If you can seal the cuticle layers even a little, you might be able to resolve most of your porosity issues.
Conditioning agents are employed in hair care products to prevent or improve hair quality. Oils and butter such as coconut, argan, castor, and shea butter have been used for decades.
Silicone conditioners are also commonly added to products because they offer slip and shine. An important class of conditioners is protein or protein derivatives. Vegetal or animal sources proteins and their hydrolyzed or hydrophobic versions are available.
These days, consumers prefer plant-sourced ingredients due to their sustainability and biodegradability, and that’s why proteins extracted from plants are currently in higher demand.
The performance of plant-based proteins depends on their extraction source, molecular weight/size, water solubility, and preparation method.
A well-known example of plant protein is hydrolyzed wheat. Similarly, soya, oat, and rice-extracted proteins are used in hair care products.
Different proteins extracted from various sources have different amino acid compositions. Some examples are listed in the table below with their average molecular weights.
Smaller molecules have a better chance of penetrating the hair, which is also true for proteins.5
Proteins can improve your hair quality by aligning its cuticles and filling the empty pores. They can also coat the hair’s surface, forming a thin protective film.
Results have shown that protein treatments containing large amounts of proteins boost hair shine and reduce fiber-to-fiber friction.
Choosing a protein depends on its molecular weight to achieve your desired results. The above table portrays the average molecular weights for commonly used proteins.
Low molecular weight proteins can penetrate the hair and go deep into the cortex. Hence, it is more desired for deep treatments.
These proteins can strengthen the hair fiber and recover protein loss due to harsh grooming and chemical treatments.
However, high molecular weight proteins get adsorbed (coats) at the surface of the hair shaft. They show good adsorption at the cuticle layer and greatly improve their surface features.
This provides shine and makes it easier to comb wet and dry hair. Various proteins available on the market deliver excellent hair conditioning.
The basic details for some selected proteins are provided below:
Keratin is one of hair care products’ most abundantly used protein ingredients. The main reason for its high demand is the theory of “like alikes” since hair comprises keratin.
Primarily, keratin is extracted from wool, which is subsequently purified, fractionated, and may be modified for its cosmetics applications.
Hydrolyzed versions are rich in cystine and thus have attracted much attention from formulators and consumers.
Its addition in chemical treatments (bleaching, dyeing, or perms) improves hair sensorial features at the wet and dry stages.
Collagen was probably the first protein ingredient ever used in hair and skin care products. This magic material has immense water-binding capacity and is used for dry and brittle hair.
It delivers excellent moisturization and hydration to the hair surface without static charge generation. Low molecular weight collagen (500 – 1000 Daltons) is desired for penetration where hair strength is required.
Higher molecular weight collagen (>2000 Daltons) is required for coating (adsorption) and improving the hair surface properties such as cuticle alignment, shine, combing, and brushing.
It is available as a dry powder or water solution and easily incorporated into rinse-off or leave-on products.
Wheat protein is rich in cysteine, and this offers an extra benefit. Various studies have found it an effective ingredient when added to hair bleach, perms, and straightening products.
It reduces hair brittleness and frizz and helps in controlling hair damage.
Oat protein can improve hair shine and repair hair damage. It contains higher levels of aspartic and glutamic amino acids, potentially important in hair moisturizing and hydration.
It also minimizes the irritation of other chemical ingredients used in shampoo and conditioners.
Silk protein is a low molecular weight protein (300 – 700 daltons) with a small molecular size. It exhibits excellent water-binding properties.
It provides silk, smoothness, and superb moisture to dry and damaged hair.
Rice protein (molecular weight 1000 – 3000 daltons) increases moisturization and tensile strength of hair. It also raises hair volume when added to leave-on products.
It is believed to be due to surface adsorption and strong film formation.
Milk protein is also a small molecular size (molecular weight 500 – 1500 daltons). It is popular for moisture retention and film coating on the hair surface.
Corn protein has a medium molecular size that enhances hair conditioning, hydration, and detangling.
The amino acid composition reveals it has high levels of glutamic acid, responsible for its moisturizing properties.
Quinoa is a magic grain that is rich in protein. It contains the highest level of protein compared to all other grains. It has been gaining popularity as a “master food.”
Recently, its hydrolyzed aqueous proteins have been added to hair care products. It offers smooth film formation along the hair shaft, moisture retention, and damage repair and control.
Hydrolyzed almond protein has an average molecular weight of 2000 – 5000 Daltons and is rich in nitrogen.
It offers unique sensorial features when applied in hair care treatments.
Like almond oil, hydrolyzed almond protein has a particular composition of amino acids that coat the hair’s surface very efficiently.
This protein also contains some starch hydrosylates, which are believed to be responsible for these extra benefits.
Jojoba derivatives are well-known in hair care products. Recently, jojoba proteins have been added.
It is an ideal film-forming protein due to its higher molecular weight and high nitrogen content, providing excellent conditioning.
Recently, we have seen a new generation of vegetal proteins demonstrating remarkable properties in controlling hair porosity.
Quaternized proteins containing positively charged nitrogen group offer high substantivity to negative charges (for example, cystic acid) present along the hair shaft, leading to improved hair detangling and conditioning.
Hydrophobic proteins having a long silicone chain attached are also available. They are typically added to prevent hair breakage and improve hair mechanical strength.
These new versions are gaining popularity among formulators because of their superior conditioning properties.
Highly porous hair is damaged hair due to protein loss. The addition of proteins in our shampoo, conditioner, or leave-on products is an excellent remedy for highly absorbent hair.
It enhances its overall health, allowing better management of your hair and recovery of proteins.
1. Zviak, C., The Science of Hair Care. Taylor & Francis: 2005
2. Marsh, J. M.; Gray, J.; Tosti, A., Healthy Hair. Springer International Publishing: 2015
3. Robbins, C. R., Chemical and physical behavior of human hair. 5th ed.; Springer: 2012
4. Johnson, D. H., Hair and Hair Care. Taylor & Francis: 1997.
5. Scientific literature review: Hydrolyzed Source Proteins as Used in Cosmetics 2012.
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