Protein has long confused those of us with curly hair. Some curlies love protein treatments whilst others seem to be overly sensitive to it effects. Personally, I’ve always found the whole protein issue to be pretty confusing so today I’m going to explain the role of protein in hair care and how it directly affects your curls.
What is Protein?
Proteins are large molecules composed of long chains of amino acids and they are found in every living thing. They are essential components of all body tissues such as muscles and bone and our cells and bodies need proteins to function properly. The majority of hair is made of a protein called Keratin which gives structure and strength to hair strands. Therefore, if you think about a fine hair strand – it’s light, transparent and breaks easily because it’s lacking in the protein that gives it strength. Conversely, coarse hair has too much protein and as a result it’s thick, strong and clearly visible.
At a basic level, fine hair or hair that has been damaged by colouring/chemical processes/heat etc. needs more strength and will therefore benefit from protein. Protein gives fine hair added strength and body resulting in hair that is less flyway, less fragile and less likely to break. Proteins also help to temporarily patch up damaged hair strands to prevent further damage. On the other hand, coarse hair has a naturally abundance of protein making it strong. Therefore adding more strength will only result in hard, stiff hair that has a straw like feel. An exception to this is coarse hair which is particularly damaged through things like relaxing, colouring or heat. Medium haired curlies have hair that is neither too strong nor too weak. As a result most will find that they don’t need the added strength from protein and will therefore find that having too much of it will make their hair stiff and ridged. If you’re not sure of your hair texture, you can learn more about it here.
Proteins and Hair Care
Proteins are used in hair care products for a number of reasons. Firstly, proteins are naturally attracted and absorbed by the surface of hair. Furthermore, water molecules bind easily with proteins and in fact protiens also attract water molecules from the air meaning they are also a humectant. This results in a protective film created over the hair which not only protects the hair from damage but also smooths and flatten the cuticle which gives shine and eases tangles. Secondly, proteins also penetrate into the interior of the hair shaft where they help to fix weaknesses caused by chemical processes, heat etc. Because proteins penetrate deep into the strand they give strength to the hair and temporarily reverse damage. This is especially true because a high percentage of proteins are absorbed by the hair and then remain within the hair for some time.
How To Tell If Your Hair Needs Moisture or Protein?
There are a lot of discussions about the “protein/moisture” balance across curly hair blogs and forums and it can be tricky to figure out whether you hair is in need of moisture or protein. As we discussed above, generally its fine and/or damaged hair that tends to need protein but it’s more important to listen to your own hair and adjust your routine depending on how your hair feels.
Since hair is made up of both protein and moisture it stands to reason that your hair needs a balance of both. However, these two things are intrinsically linked – the amount of moisture retained by your hair is dependent on the amount of protein because water molecules bind directly to them. Hair that has either too much protein or too much moisture will break and therefore it’s important that you have a good balance of both since your hair needs both to be strong and healthy. Observing how your hair acts/feels is all you need to figure out if your hair is craving protein or moisture:
Type A: Hair feels dry and un-moisturised, it’s weak and breaks easily even when gently combing or finger de-tangling. It’s lifeless, greasy, limp and stretchy so that it doesn’t hold curls very well. Although it’s dry, doing deep treatments and conditioning makes no difference and the hair remains frizzy and dry.
Type B: Hair feels dry, rough, brittle and breaks very easily. It’s hard and stiff even when it’s wet. The protein treatments which are supposed to help treat damaged hair and prevent it from breaking are making no difference and the hair is getting worse.
You can see how you can have very similar symptoms and yet the solutions are very different. You might be struggling with ‘dry’ hair that feels like it needs deep treatments, oils or thick conditioners but in fact it just needs a dose of protein to give it some strength and structure. Another curly might be struggling with a similar issue but instead their hair is over proteined and just needs a simple moisturising routine with conditioning deep treatments and limited protein. This is why it’s so important to observe your hair and act based on how it feels. It’s also important to be more aware of what is in your product – if you don’t check the ingredients you may be using proteins without even realising!
If you are still uncertain about whether you need protein or moisture in your routine it’s always best to err on the side of moisture. This is because it’s much easier to overload on protein than to over moisturise. Plus, it’s easier to fix hair that has too much moisture over hair that has too much protein as the latter will need a lot more TLC and time to re-balance. *If in doubt try moisture 1st*
How To Tell If Products Contain Protein?
- It may just list the word ‘protein’ in the ingredients
- Any ingredient with ‘hydrolyzed’ is generally a protein – this just means that the protein has been broken down into a smaller one
- If it lists ‘amino acid’ in the ingredients it will act like a protein – amino acids are what make up a protein.
- It will list ‘keratin’ or ‘collagen’ in the ingredients
Different proteins also have different effects on the hair (just to complicate things!). Furthermore, not all products with protein will contain the same percentage of them so protein products will vary in strength too. A good thing to note is that on the ingredients list, the nearer the top the protein comes, the higher the percentage. Unfortunately, you’ll have to play around with protein types and strengths to figure out what works for your hair through a bit of trial and error. The list below explains a bit more about how different proteins act differently on your hair and was kindly shared for this post from Tendayi who wrote about it in her blog ‘African Hair Blog’. Further information was also found from the urban bush babes in their post here.
- Collagen Proteins – known for increasing elasticity in the hair.
- Silk Proteins – known for softening the hair. Forms a cystalline protective barrier on strands. Improves hair’s elasticity, resiliency, increases shine
- Wheat Proteins – Water soluble. A moisturising and strengthening protein. Known for increasing the hair’s ability to maintain and receive moisture.
- Milk Protein (Lactabumin): Derived from milk, high in lactic acid containing 8 essential amino acids. Has been labelled the most perfect protein. Great for dry or damaged hair.
- Soy Protein: Water soluble protein derived from soy. Strengthens and mends hair fibre. Increases the ability for hair to hold moisture. Adds shine and smooths hair.
- Vegetable Protein – Vegetable protein absorbs more easily into the hair shaft (than animal protein) and does not create build-up, leaves the hair very shiny, radiant and healthy.
- Animal Protein – Animal protein breaks down into fatty acids, which coats the hair and can create residual build-up.
- Silk Amino Acids/Protein – Natural silk is the strongest, natural fibre known to mankind. Silk has a tiny molecule that can penetrate the entire hair shaft deeper than all other proteins without adding any weight and leaving the hair feeling clean and non-greasy.
- Keratin Protein – responsible for keeping the hair strong and pliable. This is the strongest of the proteins found in hair products and is actually the one hair is made from. Keratin Protein re-structures hair that has been damaged or broken down by chemicals. It helps to replace the amino acid cysteine which is the main one lost during chemical processing. This is what is known as a heavy duty protein. You can identify it as the following:
* Keratin Protein – this will re-structure and strengthen the hair cuticle.
* Hydrolyzed Keratin Protein or Keratin Amino Acids – this means that the Keratin molecules have been broken down and are small enough to go beyond the cuticle and penetrate the hair shaft. It will strengthen all 3 layers of the hair.
* Hydrolyzed Human Hair Keratin – This is an exact match for the keratin your hair has (or has lost due to chemical processing). This is the highest quality and most potent keratin that can be used in hair products.
Now that you know what proteins are, how they act on your hair and how to figure out if you need moisture or protein in your routine you should be able to keep your moisture/protein in balance much easier. Observe your hair, react accordingly – your hair changes all the time depending on your routine, products, weather, seasons (curly hair really does have a mind of its own!) so get to know your hair, listen to it and you’ll soon get to grips with what you need in your routine.