If your hair is dry, breaking or you are planning on doing a color treatment you may want to change up the proteins in your products! Everyone deals with protein loss in some way. Chemical treatments like perms, blowouts or coloring/lightning can damage the cuticle layer, creating larger openings for the proteins and oils in the cortex to escape. For example, swimming in chlorinated pools can cause oxidation of the epicuticle layer, where the proteins in the cuticle are rapidly degraded and small bubble-like sacs form (allworden sacs), allowing for smaller water soluble proteins to slip through. High heat styling, sun damage and mechanical stress to the cuticle layers can also break the hair shaft open, making it difficult to maintain the balance needed for healthy hair. Some, if not all of these things are part of your day to day life, so how can you combat the damage?
Can you repair protein loss?
Unfortunately, we can’t add protein back into the hair permanently. Protein in the cortex is synthesized in the follicle during the anagen phase. As the hair loses protein over it’s life, it can’t re-synthesize them at the tips of the hair, only at the follicle. This means that any loss of protein would need to be replaced using products, but these products are usually water soluble and will need to be reapplied. This is why many products have hydrolyzed protein already added to them, because it is understood that your hair will inevitably lose protein along the way.
That said, how do you know if you need more protein? It has to do with the balance of moisture and protein in your hair. If protein is the scaffolding that holds up your hair, moisture is the WD-40 to keep it working! Too much of either component can deteriorate the hair’s structure in different ways.
Over moisturized hair becomes stretchy and elastic which causes structural damage to the cuticle layers. Over moisturized hair often has difficulty keeping it’s form, often causing styles to fall loose quickly or the hair to appear greasy/limp.
Too much protein can cause the cuticle layers to be rigid, and unable to absorb moisture causing the hair to become dry and brittle. Hair with protein buildup will feel like straw, tangle easily and break with little effort. Finding the balance of protein to moisture will be different for every individual, mostly influenced by the porosity of your hair.
Protein comes in many different shapes and sizes and is very versatile. The customizability comes from the molecular weight of each protein. Smaller hydrolyzed proteins will penetrate the epicuticle, which helps seal in any openings created by fractures or cuticle lifting. A medium to large size protein could help coat the hair shaft, adding shine and reducing frizz similar to a film-forming humectant, a product used to retain moisture. This means that using only one type of protein will likely not fill all your hair needs. Combining 2-3 different types is recommended to find the best balance for your hair, and they can be located in styling products, deep conditioners or your regular washing products.
How Often and How Much Protein?
The frequency of application of these hydrolyzed proteins is dependent on your type of hair! Higher porosity hair can quickly absorb products. The raised sections of cuticle layers can easily support larger molecular structures, meaning that bigger proteins like quinoa or gelatin will fill up those spaces easily while smaller structures like hazelnut or wheat would be less efficient. However, easily filling in the gaps also means it is easy to lose added moisture and protein on the surface of the hair. Coarse hair is naturally protein rich, but may still need protein in conditioning products.
Low porosity hair won’t lose as much protein as high porosity. Protein is often needed when clarifying low porosity hair because it allows small proteins to coat the hair surface right after cleansing. However, stylers with larger protein structures can often weigh down fine hair, causing buildup around the surface and causing dry and brittle feeling hair. It’s important to look for the protein in the ingredients list to determine the relative concentration. (It can be difficult because all ingredients that are less than 1% can be listed in any order and proteins are often found in this section of the list)
Your hair may not fit a category perfectly nor are these hard and fast rules for everyone, but as you get to know your hair and observe its response you will have greater confidence selecting products that work well for you.
Recommended Protein Types
Proteins tolerated well by low to high porosity types:
- Amino acids
- Hydrolyzed Silk
- Hydrolyzed Hazelnut
- Hydrolyzed Collagen
- Hydrolyzed Avocado
- Hydrolyzed Keratin
In the Virtual Product Aisle, these are known as Small Hydrolyzed Proteins.
Proteins your normal to high porosity hair will likely tolerate:
- Hydrolyzed Wheat
- Hydrolyzed Oat
- Hydrolyzed Soy
- Hydrolyzed Corn
- Hydrolyzed Vegetable
- Hydrolyzed Quinoa
- Hydrolyzed Lupine
- Hydrolyzed Rice
- Hydrolyzed Milk
- Hydrolyzed Sweet Almond
- Hydrolyzed Amaranth
- Hydrolyzed Jojoba
- Gelatin (high porosity only, unless hydrolyzed)
In the Virtual Product Aisle, these are known as Large Hydrolyzed Proteins.
Gama, Robson M., et al. “Protective Effect of Conditioner Agents on Hair Treated with Oxidative Hair Dye.” Journal of Cosmetic Dermatology, vol. 17, no. 6, Dec. 2018, pp. 1090–1095. EBSCOhost, doi:10.1111/jocd.12484.
Desantis, Lisa. “KERATIN.” Health, vol. 33, no. 10, Dec. 2019, p. 36. EBSCOhost, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=s3h&AN=139516570&site=eds-live.
“The Best Protein Treatments for Hair; Your Dry, Brittle Hair Is Hungry for Protein — so Saturate It with a Nutrient-Rich Product.” The Guardian (London, England), 18 Jan. 2015. EBSCOhost, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=edsbro&AN=edsbro.A397824170&site=eds-live.
“HOW TO GET FULLER SHINIER HAIR: Recharge from the inside out with These Transformative Products.” Harper’s Bazaar, no. 3666, Sept. 2018, p. 397. EBSCOhost, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=edsgac&AN=edsgac.A552305453&site=eds-live.