DOES Your Hair NEED PROTEIN?
Fact: human hair is 91% protein.
So exactly why is everyone (for the most part) always going on about how to deliver more moisture to our strands? Shouldn’t we be also talking about protein?
Yes, yes we should.
Here’s the thing about moisturizing hair treatments- we do occasionally need them. This a well known and observed hair commandment. Most everyone needs adequate moisture or water content for the protein fibers that make up the hair to feel soft and pliable. But there is a point where simply adding moisture ceases to give results and may even backfire.
Yes, what you may not know is that there is such a thing as over moisturized hair and this can take many forms: flat and limp, little to no volume, frequent breakage. If you have natural curls, too much moisture will mean your curls may be poorly defined with no strength or structure—more like a wave. Or, if your hair has been subjected to routine peroxide or color treatments, regular dousing with moisture may help it to some extent but the texture will remain thin and even mushy. Oddly enough, some that moisturize their strands without any attention to protein will even experience dry hair that seemingly doesn't respond to further moisture masks at all. If this is you, your hair may be trying to tell you something: the protein/moisture balance in your hair is out of whack and needs fixing.
Maybe the last time you saw anything regarding protein was a random story on keratin treatments. Once the go to service for hair junkies looking to upgrade their long locks, it turns out keratin treatments are no so much about strengthening the hair as straightening it. Using high heat and a chemical solution, salon keratin treatments have garnered some controversy lately due to the high amounts of toxic formaldehyde released during the process, causing with some stylists with repeated exposure to suffer from respiratory illness and even cancer.
Legit protein treatments have evolved since then. They come in many forms and with many types of amino acids but with the same goal in mind: to add strength, structure and rigidity to the hair. When applied with your typical pre or post shampoo method, protein works to replace the missing amino acids (proteins) to the cuticle that commonly occurs in the following instances:
- When hair is bleached or highlighted
- Chemically curled or relaxed hair
- Hair that has been subjected to routine heat in the form of flat irons, curling irons or hair dryers
- Hair that is frequently dry brushed or braided
- Hair that has been exposed to chlorinated water or salt water
- Hair frequently exposed to the elements such as sun or wind
- Hair that has a high porosity (usually as a result of heat or color damage but not always)
In all cases, the cuticle undergoes varying degrees of damage whereby the proteins in the cuticle are stripped down, eroded or chipped away. Protein treatments are effective because they effectively put the missing protein back on the hair fibers themselves. Hair fibers that are missing the necessary amino acid proteins are generally weak, thinner in size and prone to breakage. If there are gaps in the cuticle the amino acids in the protein will automatically go to those areas to fill in those missing gaps. Think of it as a method of coating, filming or adding a layer of reinforcement to the individual strands so that they are at once thicker, stronger and more defined. Hair that has had protein applied to it will generally feel ‘stiffer’ and thicker than before but this can vary greatly with the specific kind of protein used (more on this later).
Surprisingly enough, protein also acts as a conditioning agent. This is the various amino acids in your hair naturally attract water as a way to keep it hydrated. So a protein treatment will fill in the missing gaps but it will do so in a way that is ‘water-grabbing’, drawing moisture to the hair. This means that protein is doubly beneficial and treats the hair in a way that a simple oil based conditioner cannot. Of course do keep in mind that this coating-filming-glossing effect is not permanent and does require upkeep and re-application. How often you need a protein treatment will vary greatly from hair type to hair type and person to person.
“Protein treatments are effective because they are a way to simply put the missing protein back on the hair fibers themselves. Hair fibers that are missing the necessary amino acid proteins are generally weak, thinner in size and prone to breakage. If there are gaps in the cuticle the amino acids in the protein will automatically go to those areas to fill in those missing gaps.”
Protein With Caution
As we mentioned, proteins are made up of amino acids. When discussing amino acids there are important points to consider: amino acid profile and molecular weight. Each protein is composed of different amino acids with each one having a specific molecular size or weight, which will have a unique effect on the hair. As a general guide, proteins with a higher molecular weight will have more of the coating-glossing-gap filling effect while smaller proteins will simply be more conditioning. It is worth noting however that if the molecular size of your protein is very large and not broken down at all (like those commonly found in food) it many not be very beneficial to the hair in the long run. For example, simply taking a whole egg and applying it to the hair may not do anything very lasting to replace lost proteins, but again this can be case dependent. Proteins that are at least somewhat broken down to medium or smaller parts through acid or fermentation treatments are generally more effective as their smaller molecule size allows for better and easier adhesion to the hair fiber. For example, partly hydrolyzed proteins (collagen, gelatin) have been broken down so that the molecule is smaller and more fully absorbed by the hair.
If you really want to get technical, proteins that bond best to the hair are said to have a molecular weight of 1000 daltons or less. At this size they are weakly cationic (an ion having a positive charge and moving toward a negative one) and can most effectively bond to the hair. PH also is also a factor. Proteins bond best to the hair when they are found in products between a pH of 4 and 7, with 5 or 6 being best.
While size of course does matter, so does the amino acid component of your protein. Human hair is composed of a very specific set of amino acids (see table below) with cysteine, serine, proline being in the top three.
Collagen the main structural protein found in human hair. It is one of the few proteins to provide a good source of proline, one of the more abundant amino acids in the cuticle. This means it is great for improving elasticity in hair that snaps or breaks easily and feels mushy when wet. It is a hydrating protein, medium to large size and substantive.
Gelatin is essentially collagen but hydrolyzed. It has exactly the same amino acid profile as collagen, the difference being gelatin is partly hydrolyzed and therefore the individual proteins have been broken down for better absorption. Both film forming and hydrating, gelatin is very effective when applied to the hair because its abundant amino acid profile is very similar to the proteins found in human hair AND in a smaller form that the hair can readily use.
Rice has a good amino acid profile and is popular within the curly girl community. However due to the high molecular size, its ability to effectively bind to the hair is unsure. This may mean that as a result its effects are not as lasting as a smaller, broken down protein. It is also worth noting that all rice contains high levels of arsenic, especially brown rice.
Oat protein is both hydrating and film forming/porosity filling. Some versions of hydrolyzed oats are engineered to be medium in size but you cannot always be sure of what is in your product.
Soy is a medium size protein but it may not have the hydrating power of other proteins. Its amino acid profile also does not closely resemble those found in human hair. Take note that soy crops around the world are some of the most artificially engineered (GMO).
Corn protein is often combined with other proteins since its amino acid component is rather on the low side. Also along with soy, it is nearly a guarantee that it is genetically modified or GMO.
Keratin human hair source keratin is perhaps most identical to the protein in your own hair. Keratin molecules are small in size so that it has more of a hydrating and conditioning effect. A good amino acid profile as at least 6 are naturally abundant in the hair cuticle.
Silk protein is smaller and therefore less of a protein treatment and more of a hydrating or conditioning one.
A Delicate Balance
So it may be common sense to suppose that the best protein for hair repair might be that which has a amino profile the most resembling those found in human hair. While this is often the case it does greatly vary from person to person and hair type to hair type. If you have hair that is fine in width and highly porous or damaged you may find more results from a medium to large protein that can give you the strengthening and conditioning effects you are looking for. You could also occasionally balance that with a moisture mask to make sure that your hair does not become too stiff and stays hydrated. If your hair is less porous and more coarse you may find that the smaller proteins are more effective. If you have curls, you may appreciate the way a protein treatment enhances your curls, giving them more support and more bounce.
Either way, it is all about the achieving that ‘golden balance’ between protein and moisture. Think of it as strength and stiffness vs. softness. This balance is achieved from judiciously alternating between protein and moisture treatments depending on where your strands are at. Just keep in mind: strength/stiffness comes from protein and softness from oils and conditioners. If your hair feels like the individual strands are weak, thin and in need of structure, protein is what you may need. However, if you use too much protein and your hair becomes too stiff or rigid you need to balance it out with some moisture from a good conditioner or oil treatment (silicone free for best long term results). Hair that is moisturized too much, is commonly limp and overly soft. If this is the case, then you need the strengthening that can be had from a protein treatment. Keep in mind that even though many products do have some type of protein in them, some and dare we say even most hair types will need a stronger dose of protein on a regular basis.
What’s the bottom line? No matter your individual hair type, whether thin or coarse, straight or curly, porous or not, nearly everyone can benefit from the occasional hit of protein.