Last Updated on March 1, 2023 by Verna Meachum
Have you heard about the benefits of proteins for curly hair, but you aren’t sure what it’s all about or where to start? Well, don’t worry—you’ve come to the right place!
In this blog post, we’ll be taking a deep dive into everything you need to know about proteins for hair: from why we need them, the different types of protein found in hair care products, and how best to incorporate it into your hair care routine.
So, whether your goal is length or strength (or both!), we have all the scoop to have you feeling empowered with knowledge about how protein can help nurture and nourish those curly locks.
Proteins in Hair Care Formula
A typical hair care formula is a blend of various synthetic and/or natural ingredients mixed with cleansing or conditioning agents to cater to our hair. Protein derivatives are commonly added ingredients.
Hair care products contain proteins that are distinct from those we consume as food. They are sourced from natural sources, then processed and generally fragmented into smaller molecules, thus allowing them to interact more easily or penetrate even further into the hair.
Proteins are natural polymers comprised of amino acids; when these components join together, they form a larger molecule known as protein. This is why proteins have relatively high molecular weight and size.
The cosmetic industry modifies naturally sourced proteins to enhance their staying power on hair, as well as for improved penetration and conditioning potential when used in haircare products.
Throughout the years, scientists have advanced their research to create innovative Hi-tech protein versions, capable of offering multiple benefits.
The main focus of proteins in hair care is to improve the hair’s mechanical strength.
Consumers with damaged hair often turn to protein treatments for their hair, making them one of the most popular options on the market.
Proteins Commonly Found in Hair Care Products
Numerous protein-rich ingredients, such as shampoos, conditioners, and deep conditioning masks are frequently found in hair care products.
The top examples are:
- Hydrolyzed wheat protein
- Hydrolyzed silk protein
- Hydrolyzed milk protein
- Hydrolyzed keratin
- Wheat amino acids
- Hydrolyzed collagen
Unleashing the Power of Proteins for Curly Hair
Depending on the source of protein, molecular weight, and molecular size of protein molecules, they can either deposit (on the hair’s surface) or penetrate the hair fibers. How these proteins interact with your hair will vary accordingly.
Hair-strengthening treatments are best with smaller protein fragments, as they have the highest capacity to penetrate hair strands.
Proteins that possess a higher molecular weight and larger size are not able to penetrate the hair shaft. Instead, they form a coating on the outer surface of the hair shaft which protects the inner material of the hair while reinforcing any existing cuticular cracks along it.
This coating film is hydrophilic and can be easily removed during a wash session, yet this may not always be the case with every protein. Build-up can occur and eventually lead to various hair issues if left unaddressed.
Proteins for Curly Hair: Who Needs It?
Have you ever questioned why your hair feels so dry and fragile following a protein treatment?
You might be shocked to hear that not all hair needs the same levels of proteins. In fact, overdoing it can have an adverse effect on your curls!
Before you start slathering protein-rich treatments and conditioners on your hair, it’s important to understand which type of hair you have.
Too much protein can cause more damage than good. Thus, knowing the needs of your hair will guarantee that your hair gains just the right amount of TLC they deserve.
If you’re not careful, everyday styling, brushing your hair, and chemical treatments can inflict tremendous damage to it.
Of all of these practices, bleaching is the most hazardous – it oxidizes the protein in your strands making them fragile and porous.
This leads to a process where the protein molecules detach from your hair during rinse-off; with this depletion of protein comes weakened strands that become brittle, weak, fragile as well as frizz.
Protein treatments are scientifically proven to restore the hair’s mechanical strength. The smaller molecular fragments of protein penetrate the fibers, filling any gaps in the shafts that have been depleted over time. This helps give your hair a healthy boost.
The following individuals will require protein treatments:
- Bleached hair: Bleached hair is especially prone to damage due to the proteins being stripped away during chemical processing.
- Permanent Hair Coloring: Permanent hair coloring is a process that relies heavily on the use of highly alkaline pH and ammonia, which can result in severe damage to your hair. Worse still, high-lift color shades are particularly susceptible because they require an even higher pH and hydrogen peroxide concentration.
- Chemically altered hair: such as hair straightened with lye or no-lye relaxers, perming lotion, or texturizer is drastically changing the chemical composition of hair. To be exact, they break disulfide bonds that form the backbone and provide strength to our hair.
- Excessive thermal styling: When using a thermal straightener, the hair protein can be damaged due to high temperatures. At this stage, the cuticles flake off, and cracks form along the shaft. If you’re frequently styling with these heat appliances, you must replenish your hair with protein molecules for optimal health.
- Sea water and swimming pool: Swimming in the sea or a pool can leave your hair looking dull and damaged – all thanks to metal ions, chlorine bleach, and highly reactive free radicals responsible for the oxidation of hair proteins! Once you’re back from vacation, you may start to notice color changes in your hair that require deep conditioning. At this stage, protein ingredients are key to recovering hair shine and mechanical strength.
Signs Hair Needs Protein
If your hair is severely damaged, a deep protein conditioning treatment can help it recover.
As seen on the left side in the photo below, I was struggling with frizzy hair and nothing seemed to work. You’d think it needed more moisture but turns out that a protein treatment was what it truly required.
After much deliberation, I decided to use the Aphogee Two-Minute Keratin Reconstructor – and I’m so glad I did!
On the right side is a photo of my results. Notice how my hair looks smoother, more defined, and healthier.
To make sure you’re using the right protein treatment for your hair’s needs here’s an easy checklist: Follow these points to determine when to use a protein treatment and get on the road toward healthy-looking hair.
Frizz is a telltale sign that your hair could use some extra protein. It’s easy to detect frizz, so take note of its degree and you’ll have an idea of how much more protein your hair may need.
Dryness can be attributed to several different factors, but it is important to remember that water plays an integral role in keeping hair healthy and moisturized.
Proteins are hydrophilic and help to maintain the optimal water level of hair. This is due to their hydrogen bond with hair amino acids, which works in tandem to balance moisture levels. This process is key for maintaining shiny and supple locks that are free from dryness.
By brushing and combing, you can get an idea of the amount of hair loss you’re experiencing daily. But applying too much pressure on your strands can cause them to break and damage it.
Fortunately, protein-rich products are here to help! These proteins increase each hair fiber’s strength, thus preventing it from breaking off or becoming weak.
Proteins improve the mechanical strength of hair, resulting in greater protection against breakage.
Difficult to comb and style
By stripping away the outermost layer of hair cuticles, the inner layers become exposed. This causes a rough texture on your strands, making it difficult to comb.
Proteins are known to improve the surface properties of hair.
Fortunately, proteins can be used to repair this damage; their fine coating at the surface aligns the cuticles and improves the hair quality.
How to Test Your Hair If It Needs Protein
A thorough understanding of your wet hair’s information can help you maintain a harmonious balance between moisture and protein.
Each time you shampoo and condition, take the opportunity to evaluate your hair’s condition as well as identify any potential problems that may arise to keep it healthy.
Regularly monitoring your wet hair will prove invaluable for its continued health. To test if your hair requires protein, follow the steps outlined below.
This wet assessment test is paramount for diagnosing and addressing dryness and breakage issues related to hair.
Establishing a benchmark for how your hair should feel will enable you to easily detect any discrepancies from its typical, healthy texture.
Wet Assessment Test
- To determine whether your hair is properly balanced, grab a strand and wet it with water. Stretch the strand of hair gently; if it returns to its original length without snapping, you’re good! Balanced, healthy hair is quite resilient. Even though all wet hair is weaker when wet, it is not likely to break unless extreme pressure or force is used.
- If instead, the hair stretches more than usual before breaking, then additional protein is needed for balance.
- If your hair doesn’t stretch much before breaking, it needs moisture.
- If the strand test isn’t giving you an answer, pay close attention to how your hair feels when it’s wet. Does it feel limp, mushy, or stringy? That’s usually a sign that your hair needs more protein.
- On the other hand, if it is dry, rough, hard, tangly, or weak then moisture will likely be the best solution for your strands.
Signs Hair Has Too Much Protein (Protein Overload)
Proteins can be a double-edged sword, being both beneficial and potentially detrimental to hair. This only verifies the age-old adage that “too much of anything is bad.”
The same concept applies to sugar – when consumed in moderation, it’s an essential part of our diet; however, too much confectionary may lead to health problems down the road.
Take a look at this before and after picture of my hair when it had too much protein. My hair felt overly soft and dull, instead of hard and straw-like. It may sound contradictory, but you can have both positive and negative results from the same product.
My overly soft curl pattern changed, even altering the color of my strands! To correct the protein build up, I clarified my hair with the Kinky Curly Come Clean Shampoo, then followed it up with a protein free deep conditioner.
Similarly, proteins are fantastic for moisturizing and conditioning hair, while also supplying strength. Nevertheless, too much of their residue on the outer layer of your strands can give it an unpleasant feel.
When you use certain protein products repeatedly, your hair may become overly sticky due to the protein bond to your hair.
But, this may not happen with every type of protein. Wheat-based or other similar proteins are known culprits of this issue.
The level of stickiness is also contingent upon molecular weight and size; as larger molecules typically linger on the surface of your hair and do not penetrate, they lead to a greater amount of stickiness.
Many products labeled as “Protein Treatments” contain high concentrations of protein, which can be easily ascertained by looking at the first 5 ingredients listed on their label.
In addition, such products are formulated with high molecular weight proteins that tend to coat the outer hair surface.
Constantly layering protein molecules on your hair will cause it to become rigid and heavy. This build-up eventually weighs down the hair strands, giving them an unpleasant texture and feel.
Dull, zero gloss
Protein build-up changes the surface properties of hair, altering how light is reflected on it.
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 beautifully well-defined curls. Sadly, protein build-up can sometimes stand in the way; too much protein accumulation alters the curl diameter, degree of curls (number of curls), and their definition.
Learn the Perfect Timing for Using Protein
When should you consider a protein hair treatment? The answer varies depending on the health or condition of your hair.
For those suffering from dry, damaged hair, we suggest a weekly “Protein Rich” treatment for the first 4 weeks. This is sure to improve your hair’s quality and can then be changed to biweekly or even triweekly treatments thereafter.
To ensure successful results, allow the product to sit for 10-15 minutes after it is applied. To prevent any build-up or dryness in between treatments, use a mild sulfate-free shampoo and lightweight conditioner.
Additionally, to fully remove any unwanted residue on your hair, use a mild clarifying shampoo.
For those with fine, normal, and naturally curly hair in particular, we suggest utilizing “Mid-range Proteins.” In this case, products containing “Amino Acids” are the preferred choice as they have smaller molecular weights. A great example of this is the Mielle Organics Babassu & Mint Deep Conditioner.
For hair that is protein deficient, weekly treatments for five to ten minutes should be done initially. Gradually space out the treatments as your hair starts getting better – every two or three weeks, and eventually once a month or as needed.
If it starts to look limp and feels too heavy, then you might need to cut down protein treatments good rule of thumb is to monitor your hair’s condition.
Additionally, be sure to always clarify your hair with a mild clarifying shampoo before using the protein treatment.
How to Use Protein for High and Low Porosity Hair
Hair porosity can be a major concern for many people, varying in severity depending on the extent of damage done to it. This includes abuse of chemical products, extreme heat styling, and hairstyling techniques that could lead to unfavorable results.
By using protein treatments, we can reduce or regulate this level of porosity. The film formed by the proteins will protect your locks from external damage while preserving their internal chemistry.
External weather conditions and seasonal changes in temperature and humidity also alter porosity.
Applying proteins to control hair porosity is a great way to protect your hair from external damage. By forming a protective film over the cuticle, it preserves and maintains its internal biochemistry against environmental stressors.
Now comes the million-dollar question: what protein is best for us? Unfortunately, there’s no one-size fits all solution to this issue – you’ll need to experiment and determine which type of protein and how much is essential for your hair health.
No two heads of hair are alike – that’s why it is important to experiment with different treatments until you discover the perfect remedy for your own head. Don’t forget: trial and error is key!
High-Porosity Hair Protein Treatment vs. Low-Porosity Hair Protein Treatment
Hair with a high porosity needs more conditioning and moisturizing treatments. It is recommended to use protein treatment formulas, blended with emollients and conditioners that will give the strands a slippery coating for smooth cuticle alignment, shine, and improved hair quality.
Porous hair is more at risk of build-up as the larger, open pores allow active ingredients to penetrate quickly.
To avoid this accumulation and protect your hair’s health, it’s wise to opt for low-protein treatments such as those used on fine, curly, or low-porosity hair that is prone to heavy residue 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
To learn more in-depth about the best type of proteins for high porosity hair, read: Protein Treatments For High Porosity Hair (Learn The Best Type Of Proteins To Use)
To learn more in-depth about the best type of proteins for low-porosity hair, read: Best Proteins For Low Porosity Hair.
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 an abrupt reaction your hair experiences when applying a protein-rich product. The effects of this can be unpleasant, manifested in your hair becoming dry, stiff, and rigid. You may find yourself taken aback after using such products despite expecting the opposite outcome.
When you touch your hair, you can feel the friction and roughness. Moreover, they look dry. This is the tell-tale sign of protein sensitivity.
If this happens, wash your hair with clarifying shampoo followed by a light cationic conditioner to restore your natural hair slip and condition.
Conversely, protein overload is a gradual and progressive accrual of proteins on the hair surface that comes about from the persistent use of protein-infused treatments. It’s generally caused by large molecules with high molecular weight.
As mentioned, this alteration affects the surface characteristics of your hair resulting in excessively dry, lifeless, and weighed-down strands.
This article discussed proteins for hair and proteins treatments for high porosity hair and proteins treatments for low porosity hair, as well as protein overload vs. protein sensitivity.
Knowing the difference between proteins with different molecular weights is important to help create a personalized treatment plan tailored to your individual needs.
Experimenting and testing different proteins is key to determining the best proteins for your hair type. The main takeaway is to stay conscious of proteins and their effects on your hair to achieve the healthiest, most beautiful version of your hair.