The mestiza muse

The Role of Proteins in Haircare

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Verna Meachum

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A typical hair care formulation is a blend of various natural or synthetic ingredients mixed with cleansing or conditioning our hair. Protein derivatives are among the commonly added ingredients. Proteins are also a major portion of our daily food intake, essential to our healthy life. They are sourced from both animals (egg, milk) and plants (vegetables, lentils).

Protein ingredients added in hair care products are not the same proteins we intake as food. They are sourced from a natural source, processed, and generally fragmented into smaller molecules to facilitate their interaction or penetration. Proteins are natural polymers of amino acids; a large number of amino acid molecules combined to form a larger molecule, known as protein. That’s why proteins are relatively high molecular weight and size. In this blog, we’re going to discuss everything you need to know about the role of proteins in haircare.

The cosmetic industry modifies these naturally sourced proteins to improve their substantivity to hair, penetration, and conditioning potential for haircare application. Over the years, scientists have developed new Hi-tech protein versions for multifunctional benefits. The main focus for protein addition has been improving the hair’s mechanical strength. That’s why protein treatments are popular among consumers with damaged hair. Today, we will go through some basic questions about protein hair treatments to learn their benefits and snags.

Proteins commonly found in hair care products

Hair shampoos, conditioners, and deep conditioning masks often have protein ingredients.

The top examples are;

Hydrolyzed wheat protein

Hydrolyzed silk protein

Hydrolyzed milk protein

Hydrolyzed keratin

Wheat amino acids

Hydrolyzed collagen

Mechanism of protein action

Protein molecules either deposit or penetrate hair fibers. Their interaction with hair varies and depends upon the source of protein, molecular weight, and size. The smaller the protein fragments, the greater their ability to penetrate the hair, thus preferred for hair strengthening treatments.

Proteins having a higher molecular weight and larger size cannot penetrate; they form a coating on the outer surface of the hair shaft. This coating protects the hair’s inner materials and repairs the cuticular cracks along the hair shaft. The coating film is hydrophilic and can be rinsed off during washing. However, that may not be the case with every protein. The build-up is imminent and can cause hair problems down the line itself.

Whose hair needs protein?

Everyday grooming, combing, thermal styling, and chemical treatments can cause significant hair damage. Among them, bleaching is the harshest, capable of causing hair damage. Chemical bleaching oxidizes hair proteins, and resultantly hair becomes porous and brittle. As a result, protein molecules are detached from hair during rinse-off; hair loses its protein which eventually makes hair weak, fragile, and frizzy. Protein treatments are proven to restore hair mechanical strength. Smaller molecular fragments of protein penetrate hair fiber and fill in the empty spaces of the hair shaft.

The following users will require protein treatments;

  • Bleached hair
  • Permanent Hair Coloring: Permanent hair coloring involves a highly alkaline pH using ammonia. This also indicates serious hair damage. High lift color shades are more vulnerable due to higher pH and levels of hydrogen peroxide.
  • Chemically treated hair, e.g., hair straightened with lye or no-lye relaxers, perming lotion, or texturizer. These chemical treatments alter the nature of chemical bonding inside the hair fiber. They attack disulfide chemical bonds which are the backbone of hair structure and vital for its strength.
  • Excessive thermal styling: Heat denatures the hair protein, using thermal straightener repeatedly at high temperature. Microscopic images show cuticles chipped off, cracks appearing all along the shaft. Are you using these thermal appliances? If so, you need protein molecules to restore your hair’s health.
  • Sea water and swimming pool: Sea and pool water contains metal ions and chlorine bleach. Both these components deposit on hair, binding to protein molecules of hair. Chlorine water may also generate highly reactive free radicals responsible for the oxidation of hair proteins and severe damage. This is observable once you are back from the trip. Your hair color changes, hair becomes dull and requires deep conditioning. At this stage, protein ingredients are key to recovering the hair shine and mechanical strength.

Signs hair needs protein

As discussed above, severely damaged hairs require deep protein conditioning treatments to recover. An easy and simple checklist can help pinpoint what your hairs need. The following points are listed to facilitate your timing to use a protein treatment.


Frizz is easy to notice. I don’t think we need an explanation of what that looks like. The extent of frizz should be used to assess the level of protein your hair may need.

Severe dryness

Dryness could be due to the multiple players listed above. Water is essential to life, and hair needs moisture to have healthy hair. Proteins are hydrophilic and maintain the water level of hair. Their hydrogen bonding with hair amino acids helps in balancing the moisture level.


Combing or brushing shows the number of hairs you lose every day. Applying external mechanical force can break the hair fibers. Proteins improve the mechanical strength of hair strands and thus prevent excessive hair breakage.

Difficult to comb and style

Cuticular loss from the outermost hair surface exposes the innermost layers of hair. The hair surface becomes rough, which makes it difficult to comb. Proteins are known to improve the surface properties of hair. Their fine coating at the surface aligns the cuticles and improves the hair quality.

Signs hair has too much protein

Proteins are interesting and are quite tricky to work with as they could be beneficial to hair and, at the same time, could be very disadvantageous. “Excess of everything is bad.” Sugar is sweet and part of our everyday intake; however, too much sugar intake may lead to health problems.

In the same way, proteins are superb moisturizers, fiber strengtheners, and conditioning ingredients, yet at the same time, too much of their deposit on the hair surface leaves hair with an unpleasant feel.

Sticky Hair

Repeated applications of protein products can make your hair sticky as they bond together. This may not happen with every protein; proteins obtained from wheat or others are known to cause this problem. The level of stickiness also depends upon the molecular weight and size. Larger protein molecules tend to be stickier as they mainly stay on the hair shaft and do not penetrate.

Weigh down/heaviness

Products specifically designed or labeled high on the ingredient list as “Protein Treatment” contain high amounts of proteins. This can be observed by looking at their ingredient list, as they are written up in the list at the 1st – 5th position.

Moreover, such products contain high molecular weight proteins, which tend to coat the outer hair surface. Repeated applications form multilayers of protein molecules on the hair surface, making hair stiff. Hair weighs down due to this build-up and gives a heavy feel, which make it difficult to have a good hair day.

Dull, zero gloss

Protein build-up changes the surface properties of hair. Hair shines depends upon the reflectance of light radiations. With protein deposits, the hair surface behaves differently where light is reflected in a random pattern. As a result, hair loses its natural shine, gloss, and vibrancy.

Distorted curl pattern

All of us curlies want well-defined curls. However, protein build-up can be an problem. High protein deposits change the curl diameter, degree of curls (number of curls), and their definition.

How to time protein use

When do you need a protein treatment? The answer varies for all of us. It depends upon your hair conditioning. For dry and damaged hair, we recommend having “Protein Rich” treatment once a week in the beginning. A 4-week session will improve your hair quality. Afterward, you can move on to “Once every 2-3 weeks”.

For each application, leave the product applied for 10-15 minutes. In between the treatments, use mild sulfate-free shampoo and a lightweight conditioner. Moreover, we strongly advise using an anti-residue shampoo to remove any undesirable build-up.

For fine, normal, and naturally curly hair, we recommend using “Mid-range Proteins.” The products with “Amino acids” are preferred as they have smaller molecular weights. We advise using “Once a week for 5-10 minutes” initially and once every 2-3 weeks later. Again, we advise you to wash your hair with a mild anti-residue shampoo.

How to Use Protein for High and Low Porosity Hair

Hair porosity is a major issue among consumers. This can be caused by various factors, e.g., harsh chemical products, aggressive thermal treatments, and hairstyling. The extent of porosity also varies with the extent of the damage.

External weather conditions and seasonal changes in temperature and humidity also change the porosity. Proteins are applied with the target to minimize or control hair porosity. Their film formation preserves the internal biochemistry of hair fibers against external abuses.

Now the question comes, which protein is good for us? Unfortunately, there is not a simple answer to this question. You need to try to figure out which protein and how much is good for your hair. Remember, each one among us has different hair; that’s why we need to have a trial and error phase to identify the best recipe for our hair health (read that again).

High protein vs. low protein treatment

Highly porous hair requires more conditioning and moisture. High protein treatments blended with emollients and conditioners are advised for such hairs. The slippery outer surface coating boosts the cuticular alignment, shine, and overall quality. However, porous hairs are more susceptible to build-up as they are quick to absorb proteins. Their pores are larger and are open. Active ingredients penetrate rapidly; hence care must be taken.

Low protein treatments are preferred for fine, curly, and natural hairs to control heavy build-up on the hair surface.

High molecular weight proteins examples

Hydrolyzed wheat protein

Hydrolyzed Wheat Protein PG-Propyl Methylsilanediol

Laurdimonium Hydroxypropyl Hydrolyzed Wheat Protein

Hydrolyzed Wheat Protein PG-Propyl Silanetriol

Hydrolyzed Collagen

Stearyldimonium hydroxypropyl collagen


Sweet almond protein

Wheat amino acids

Low molecular weight protein examples

Silk Amino Acids

Silk protein

Rice protein

Protein Overload vs. Protein Sensitivity

Protein overload and protein sensitivity are frequently noted terms among the curly hair care community. The two are generally regarded as the same thing; however, the fact is, they highlight two different scenarios.

Protein sensitivity is a kind of “quick” and “instant” reaction by your hair on applying a protein-rich product. You feel a quick adverse and undesired response from your hair. Although you just used a protein product, you find them dry, stiff, and with some rigidity.

When you touch your hair, you can feel the friction and roughness. Moreover, they look dry. This is known as protein sensitivity. You need to immediately wash your hair with an anti-residue shampoo to remove the product, followed by a light cationic conditioner to restore your natural hair slip and condition.

On the other side, protein overload is a progressive build-up of protein molecules on the hair surface. This is the result of repeated applications of protein treatments. High molecular weight and large protein molecules are mainly responsible for this. As mentioned earlier, this changes the hair surface properties resulting in dry, dull, and heavy hair.

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