Protein is a really in-depth topic, with many MANY different subtopics. Instead of bombarding you with all the information in this one article. I will break down all the info in a serious of articles linked to this Q&A.
Why does my hair need protein?
Every human being on this Earth needs protein. Protein is responsible in aiding our body in its biological processes. The human body is made up of about 15% protein, making up the majority our hair, skin, nails, tissue, cartilage, and even our bones. This is why it is so important to make sure you are getting your fill of protein throughout the day.
The daily protein intake recommended for women: 46g per day
The daily protein intake recommended for men: 56g per day
Approximately 91% of our hair is made up of protein, which is why it is so vital to keep up with your normal protein treatments. Protein is meant to penetrate the cortex of the hair shaft (the cortex is where you will find the melanin of your hair and your natural texture) to help repair from within. Protein is one of the seven essential nutrients for hair growth. Without it your hair will not grow. Since hair is so porous (all hair is porous otherwise water and nutrients couldn’t get in) and experiences damage from either previous hair styling methods or our environment, protein is used to help repair the damage sustained, prevent new damage from occurring, and is even used as a conditioning agent!
What is the best way to get protein into my hair?
Like any essential nutrient, it’s best to consciously try to incorporate more protein into your diet. This way the nutrients will break down further and be distributed to the parts of the body that need it most. I know you are reading this like wait, I want the protein to go to my hair not my nails or even my tissues. Well here’s the thing, our bodies are pretty incredible at keeping us alive on their own. They don’t need us trying to direct traffic. The protein consumed will first be applied to the most crucially needed places in the body. Once the body has sufficient protein and is healthy, the rest will go to your hair resulting in beautiful healthy long hair with lots of body.
Although consuming protein is the best way to really absorb the protein, your hair will need to be supplemented with protein treatments. Relying on only protein treatments while eating poorly will result in results that aren’t too pleasing. You can also be missing out on potential hair growth, since protein is needed for hair growth.
How is protein needed for hair growth?
The body needs protein in the system for the production of keratin. Keratin is fundamental to hair’s structure. Keratin makes up most of the hair structure. In order to nourish hair, you need to nourish your body first with adequate protein and water. Without it, any potential hair growth will be hindered. Hair is known to grow half an inch a month for a total of six inches a year. That growth will not happen if there isn’t enough protein in the system. Without protein, hair has no structure or strength, and will experience constant breakage, making it impossible to retain length. Protein is a necessity for not only hair growth but the growth of any cell in the body. Fish, shellfish, and other marine protein are especially amazing for hair growth since they contain essential fatty acids (EFA), vitamin B3 (Niacin), along with iron and zinc.
How do protein treatments work?
Proteins have the ability to penetrate the strand and temporarily fill in the gaps left behind in the hair strand by damage. For example, high porosity hair has a lot of tiny gaps in the strand. It is through these gaps that all the moisture escapes that is why high porosity hair is able to dry so fast. It is also the reason why high porosity hair is often dry and brittle. High porosity hair, particularly, benefits greatly from protein treatments. The protein fills the little gaps like spackle fills the hole in your walls. While the protein fills the holes in the surface, it also penetrates deep down to begin repairing the cortex (the real root of the problem).
While high porosity greatly benefits from protein treatments, ALL hair types NEED protein treatments at least every 4-6 weeks. If you are protein sensitive, although it is an inconvenience, you must still incorporate protein in some way. My suggestion would be to double down on protein in your diet, while using smaller and gentler protein treatments.
If big protein treatments like aphogee is too strong for your hair look into gentler protein treatments such as DIY protein treatments with amino acids (broken down protein building blocks). Don’t worry we will get to DIY treatments. If you decide to use aphogee, please remember the step two part of the system is filled with silicones. Do not use step two, simply replace it with your own deep conditioner.
How do I know if I need protein?
All hair needs protein at least once every four to six weeks. There are a couple visible signs that it is time for you to replenish the protein in your hair:
- When wet the hair tends to feel mushy and overly soft
- Hair loses its bounce
- Constant frizz no matter what you do
- Hair is very brittle and breaking off
- Increased split ends
- Hair won’t behave even after deep conditioning
How to spot protein on your ingredients labels?
Protein will often be identified on labels with a few Buzz words:
These words can only be associated with protein because moisture is meant to soften and hydrate the hair to avoid frizz. Yes, moisture helps repair the hair in the long run but it is the protein’s specified job to work as a conditioning agent by first repairing any existing damage. Protein will come in many forms but here are some common example names for protein on labels:
- Collagen protein
- Wheat protein
- Oat protein
- Milk protein
- Rice protein
- Soy protein
- Silk protein
- Keratin protein
- Quinoa seed extract
- Blue-green algae
Pretty easy when you see the word protein right after the initial word right? Well unfortunately the more in-depth you get into the Curly Girl Method, the trickier spotting protein becomes. The word protein will not always be there to give a hint. Sometimes the proteins will be broken down into smaller pieces, this is called hydrolyzed proteins.
- Hydrolyzed keratin
- Hydrolyzed oat flour
- Hydrolyzed silk
- Hydrolyzed wheat
Other less common names for protein on ingredient labels
- Cocodimonium hydroxypropyl hydrolyzed collagen
- Cocodimonium hydroxypropyl hydrolyzed casein
- Cocodimonium hydroxypropyl hydrolyzed keratin
- Cocodimonium hydroxypropyl hydrolyzed rice protein
- Cocodimonium hydroxypropyl hydrolyzed silk
- Cocodimonium hydroxypropyl hydrolyzed wheat protein
- Cocodimonium hydroxypropyl hydrolyzed soy protein
- Cocodimonium hydroxypropyl hydrolyzed silk amino acids
- Cocoyl hydrolyzed collagen
- Cocoyl hydrolyzed keratin
- Potassium cocoyl hydrolyzed collagen
- TEA- cocoyl hydrolyzed collagen
- TEA- cocoyl hydrolyzed soy protein
How do I know if I am experiencing protein overload?
Too much of any one good thing will lead to disaster so make sure you get protein in moderation. For big and intense protein treatments like aphogee, use once every 4-6 weeks. For gentler protein treatments like Deva Curl Deep Sea Repair, or even using Bragg’s liquid amino acids in your favorite conditioner, are very mild treatments and can be done weekly.
Don’t go overboard by having protein in every single one of your products. Space out the protein, make sure to alternate products to keep the balance of moisture to protein.
Here are a few signs that you have over done the protein thing or have even used the wrong protein for your hair, and are now experiencing protein overload:
- Hair becomes stiff
- Hair becomes sticky
- Hair becomes increasingly more tangled
- Hair feels brittle
- Curl pattern definition is lacking
- Hair feels very dry and rough
- Hair is experiencing too much volume
- Hair can also become limp and flat
- Overly soft
How to reverse protein overload?
There are a couple of ways to approach protein overload, but one thing is always constant, it takes time! Protein overload is one of the hardest to treat since your hair is so stiff and lifeless. The first step would be to remove all products in your regime that contain protein. You can compare the labels to the list I have given here. Stick with protein free products for a while such as kinky curly knot today, as I am hydration elation, or eden bodyworks jojoba manoi natural deep conditioner.
Another tip is to pack in that moisture! Co-wash every time you wash your hair from now on until the protein is neutralized by the moisture. Remember it’s all about keeping a balance. You get too much protein, you need to pack in moisture. You get too much moisture, you have to pack in the protein. Balance is key.
Clarifying is a huge help as well. Clarifying shampoos are strong enough to remove buildup including silicone build up (which is why you don’t need a final wash shampoo). Clarifying will help remove excess protein on the strand and help you slowly achieve your balance again.
There is a DIY option although I also warn to be very careful with this option. As all DIY options, if not done correctly it can cause more issues. A common DIY option is everyday table salt. Add about one teaspoon to a substantial amount of a moisture based deep conditioner (around 1/3 of a cup). The salt will work to breakdown the protein in your hair. Salt is often used as an exfoliator for the scalp as well!
Finally my last suggestion would be to utilize honey! Honey is a natural humectant that works to draw moisture into the hair. Adding about a teaspoon to your shampoo or conditioner will help pack moisture into your hair to finally restore your protein- moisture balance.
How to choose the right protein for your hair type?
There are different types of protein for all hair types. The mistake most of us curly girls make is that we don’t know there are so many different types in different sizes! It’s all about finding the right type. So let’s break it down a bit:
- There are four types of protein treatments: protein packs (are meant for mild damage, best used for routine maintenance, every 1-2 months), light-weight treatments (meant for slightly damaged hair. It is ideal for routine maintenance and often marketed as a leave in or conditioning mask), deep penetrating treatments (these are best for moderately damaged hair. These treatments are meant to be used every two weeks and are INTENSELY moisturizing. I would suggest this for those starting the method or transitioning from lots of heat, styling, or dying damage), Reconstructors (These are meant for SEVERELY damaged hair and are best used every 1-2 weeks to help transition hair)
- Eggs are way too big to penetrate the hair strand which is why egg and avocado DIY protein treatments are not a good idea. Since the molecules are too big to penetrate the hair shaft they will simply sit on top of the hair, only repairing damage at the cuticle (surface layer) neglecting the cortex. It’s like putting a Band-Aid on a wound that needs to be stitched up. It is only a temporary fix and most of the time since the molecules are so big they are just washed away when you are ready to rinse.
- For protein to penetrate the cortex of the hair shaft, they need to be broken down. That means utilizing amino acids. Amino acids are broken down protein building blocks. These broken down proteins are called “hydrolyzed,” they are made up of two or more amino acids that are small enough to penetrate the hair
- Hydrolyzed proteins form temporary bonds with the proteins in the cortex, this helps lay the hair shaft down in an attempt to mend the holes, cracks, and chips in the cortex.
- Hydrolyzed proteins allow the hair to maintain the results of deep protein treatments for longer periods of time.
- Hydrolyzed proteins are considered conditioning agents because they are able to make the hair feel softer after the first use. Hydro = water (proteins like animal, wheat, and silk proteins are broken down by water infusion. They have hydrating properties because amino acids attract and retain water. After repairing, hydrolyzed proteins create a clear flexible film over the hair which slows water loss, helping hair retain water for longer periods of time.
- By utilizing amino acids (hydrolyzed proteins) the hair is able to increase its water retention levels, maintaining water in the hair for longer periods of time. This overtime will lead to healthier, bouncier, and shiner looking hair.
- Hydrolyzed soy, keratin, and silk proteins – low to medium in size, better suited for repairing both the cuticle(surface of hair strand) and penetrating down to the cortex (deepest layer of the hair strand)
- Hydrolyzed Collagen – medium to high in size, this amino acid is best used to deposit ON the cuticle and only somewhat in the cortex. Meaning it’s great for the surface of your hair and repairing any damage there, but it doesn’t always work all the way down to the cortex
- Hydrolyzed wheat and oat– high in size and works only on the cuticle layer of the hair. These will be great to make hair shine and look moisturized.
What are some frequent protein mistakes people make?
We make a lot of mistakes along the journey, this is why I try to make these articles so in-depth. The more you know the better you can do for your hair. Here are a couple mistakes I have noticed on the subject of protein or even made the mistakes myself!
- Using proteins too big to penetrate the hair (i.e. egg and avocado) – I made this mistake myself, only four month into my curly girl method journey. Needless to say I cried my eyes out when I finally rinsed off the mixture. Save yourself the headache, scientifically, on a molecular level, these proteins are far too massive to put on your hair. These are the types of ingredients your body needs to consume and breakdown to properly utilize the proteins. So best advice here save these for your diet not your hair.
- Using protein in every product- even if your hair loves protein like mine does, this is the quickest way to end up with stiff, dull, lifeless hair. You hair needs BALANCE that is why you should always write down when the last time you did a protein treatment, make sure to be using moisture based products, and rotate your products every 3-4 months.
- Not using the right kind of protein- since no one really breaks down the science of protein to us, we normally just buy whatever our favorite influencer is using and that just doesn’t work. Even if your favorite influencer has your hair type, your hair may have different needs. Using huge protein treatments may have left your hair feeling worse but it doesn’t mean your protein sensitive right away, it may just mean you used the wrong kind of protein. For example, I have fine hair and noticed, fine hair does better with weekly gentle protein treatments using amino acids. If you used one of the big treatments and your hair didn’t like it, try using Bragg’s liquid amino acids in any of your favorite conditioners for 30 minutes. If hair doesn’t respond better THEN you are protein sensitive.
- Not using protein enough- remember the big heavy protein treatments are to be done once every 4-6 weeks. Otherwise light weight treatments with amino acids can be done weekly. I normally use my Bragg’s liquid amino acid once a week. I mix in two teaspoons into whatever deep conditioner I am using that week. I mix it, apply it to my hair then sit under a dryer for thirty minutes. The heat helps the protein penetrate the cortex and the follicles better. All new growth from the follicles has a weak foundation and NEEDS protein, hydrolyzed is best.
- Using protein at the wrong time in your washday. Normally if you are not mixing your protein and deep conditioning treatments together, protein is meant to be used after shampooing, and before deep conditioning. The reason is your hair needs to be cleaned so the protein can identify the holes or damage in the strands, then your hair needs to keep its protein moisture balance. Always follow protein treatments (light or heavy) with moisture.
What are signs that I need protein?
When wet or dry the hair when properly balanced will stretch and then return to its original state without breaking or stretching out the original shape. If hair is properly moisturized and balanced, it will have elasticity to stretch and the protein will give the hair structure to preserve its shape. Common signs will include:
- Wet or dry, when stretched the hair doesn’t return to its original state
- Feels weak when wet (hair is strongest when wet)
- When wet hair feels gummy, mushy, or limp
- When dry, hair feels rough, hard, dry, brittle, or a combination even after deep conditioning or moisturizing you might need protein
- Constant flyaways even though you have moisturized and trimmed hair
- Tangles easily
- Lacking in natural shine
- Lifeless and dull appearance
How to tell if you are protein sensitive?
Let’s start by defining protein sensitivity. Protein sensitivity is defined as the hair being overly sensitive to the strengthening effects of protein. When exposed to protein the hair immediately stiffens and becomes hard as a rock. Many people believe their hair is protein sensitive when they are not! Protein sensitivity is actually rare and often seen in low porosity hair since the follicles are shut so tightly and low porosity hair is considered to be healthy hair. It all goes back to finding the RIGHT protein for your hair. Amino acids are best because they are gentle.
How to test if I am protein sensitive?
- Dampen or wet a small section of your hair.
- Apply a protein containing product or gentle protein treatment to the hair section.
- Leave on for 5-7 minutes.
- After the time is done, examine the hair. If it is till soft and manageable, you are not protein sensitive. You were probably just using a protein too strong for your hair. If your hair is hard or breaking off after the 5-7 minutes you are protein sensitive.
If you are protein sensitive, remove all products from your regime that contain protein. Switch to more moisture based products. This does not mean your hair can go without protein. ALL hair needs protein, especially protein sensitive hair. Because such long periods of time will go by between treatments.
Do oils like coconut and avocado oil contain protein?
No, oils are 100% fat. They are a great option for protein sensitive hair because they can penetrate the hair and strengthen it similar to protein. While they provide similar benefits oils do not contain protein.