The Curl Whisperer on Protein: Friend or Foe?


by Tiffany of Live Curly, Live Free


It is a never-ending question on boards and web sites everywhere: does my hair need protein or not?

There seems to be a ton of debate online these days about protein and its role in hair health. Some beauty industry professionals and product manufacturers advocate lots of protein, some say protein is the devil and should always be avoided. Which of these is really true?

The world of hair science can be a bit daunting, but let's break down the information on protein needs one bit at a time to figure out how it all really works.

First of all, it is important to understand that 98% of our hair shaft is made of protein, a protein called "keratin." Those keratin protein amino acid chains are what form the structure of our hair strand; they are also what give our hair its strength. Protein in and of itself is a strengthener; for example, if you eat it, you build muscle. So it stands to reason that if you put it on your hair, it will make your hair stronger as well.

So how does that work in relation to our hair needs?

Let's look at a fine hair strand. When you hold up a fine hair strand, it is almost translucent and has a "barely there" kind of feel. There is not a whole lot of protein in the structure of that hair strand, so it isn't very strong. Mary Pat Mestre, the fine-haired curly who runs the hair analysis service of Live Curly Live Free, calls fine hair, "floaty hair." It is kind of limp and flyaway and does not hold a style very well; it has a tendency to "float" up into the atmosphere since there isn't a whole lot of structure or weight to anchor it down.

For fine-haired curlies then, it stands to reason that protein in their "penetrating" products, i.e., conditioners and protein packs, is a crucial part of a healthy hair routine. Since Mother Nature didn't give fine hair a whole lot of strength naturally, the added strength and support provided by protein-based products will help to anchor the hair strand down, and give it a bit more structure and texture.

Protein deprivation in fine hair can often come across as a "dry" or "unmoisturized" feeling when, in fact, it is actually fairly easy to get moisture into relatively undamaged fine hair strands. What most girls with fine-textured curls are really feeling when they feel "dry" is most often protein deprivation instead of lack of moisture. (That is why so many fine-haired curlies who use a heavy emollient-based deep treatment--which are often protein-free--to combat that dry feeling often end up feeling limp and greasy, but still dry!)

While baby-fine hair usually needs protein every single day, those with more of a fine-medium texture may find that using a protein-based conditioner once or twice a week, or even every other day, is more than enough to provide optimal structure strength and control. Adjust your amounts as needed based on how your hair "feels" that day: trust me, if you listen to it, it will let you know.

And now for our coarse-haired friends.

Coarse-haired curlies are the perfect polar opposite of their fine-haired counterparts. Hold up a strand of coarse hair and you will still see it as plain as day even if you walk across the street. It is a strong, beautiful hair texture, but it is also resistant and not very supple (have you ever tried to bend a coarse hair strand?) because coarse hair strands naturally manufacturer too much keratin protein within their own structure.

When you use a protein-based penetrating product on a coarse hair strand then, what you are actually doing is strengthening the structure of a hair strand that is already too strong naturally--resulting in what I call the "broom straw" effect. When protein penetrates within a coarse hair strand, that strand immediately becomes a hard, rigid "straw" you can almost literally snap in two.

When a coarse-haired curly sits in my chair and tells me, "I tried to go the sulfate- and silicone-free route, but it didn't work for me," I can almost guarantee she was using a shampoo or conditioner that contained a significant amount of protein in it. The avoidance of sulfates or silicones was most definitely working, but the protein penetration into the hair strand was causing the structure to become inflexible and stiff.

It is important, therefore, that those with coarse hair generally avoid protein and ensure that their conditioners and deep treatments are instead loaded with plenty of moisturizing emollients, as lack of moisture is usually the biggest challenge for coarse hair. The heavy moisture from those emollients will help to soften a coarse hair strand and make it more supple (a suppleness it does not naturally possess).

And for those in the middle of the road: the "mediums."

If there is such a thing as a "normal" texture in Curly Hair World, the medium-haired curlies are pretty much it. They aren't too weak and they aren't too strong: their texture is fairly well where it needs to be. And so, the medium-haired curly hair contingent generally wants to avoid protein in their penetrating products because there typically is no need for them to strengthen their structure. If they do, they could eventually strengthen it to the point that they will start getting that "broom straw" effect like the coarse-haired girls.

To pull it all together with respect for your own hair and make it easy for yourself, use this thought process: when you think "protein," think "strength." When you are debating if your hair needs protein or not, ask yourself: Does my hair need some added "strength" right now? Again, I cannot stress enough the importance of "listening" to your hair and following its cues.

It is also important to remember that, although the above is a great general guideline, there are always exceptions to the rule sometimes; for example, a coarse-haired girl has a lot of structural damage from repeated flat-ironing or chlorine exposure and could benefit from a good protein reconstruction. Always let the condition of your hair be your guide as well as the facts of good hair science!

CN Says:
Many gels and leave-in conditioners with hydrolyzed wheat and soy protein left me feeling stiff and brittle. I assumed I was protein sensitive and needed to avoid all protein at all cost. And that's just what I did... for years.

After a 6 month henna hiatus, I felt like my strands needed some fortifying. I read a bit about the benefits of silk protein and decided to experiment. It's a bit different than your average protein and softens while it strengthens. It adds shine, body, improves elasticity and restores moisture balance. Apparently, my hair LOVES hydrolyzed silk protein! So for those of you that are protein sensitive but still feel as if your routine is missing something, try out a different protein and re-assess!

15 Weigh in!:
Anonymous said...

I have fine strands and because I manipulated my hair a lot this summer I was doing protein treatments after every shampoo (once a week). However, I stopped when I realized I was experiencing what Tiffany calls "the broom straw effect." Now the only protein I'm using is the soy protein in the Giovanni Deeper Moisture conditioner (that I'm trying to use up) and that seems to be doing the trick. When I snap a strand of shed hair and it makes an audible snapping sound that's how I know I'm getting enough protein.

Also, I agree with you, Nikki, on how different kinds of protein can have different effects.

Nashira said...

I very much enjoyed this article, but now my question is, How do I know if my hair is fine, medium or coarse (I'm transitioning)?

KayDanai said...

I've been using hydrolyzed silk protein for years. Even back when I pressed my hair all the time. I have fine hair, and it does the trick just right. I've experimented with some "heavier" protein treatments, i.e. apHogee 2 step protein treatment and that left my hair feeling horrible. I've always wondered if the structure of fine hair responds to the structure of the different proteins differently - where my trichologists at on this one?

hairscapades said...

I was sooo going to do a post on Moisture and Protein balance, but this puts me to shame as mine wouldn't have been anywhere near as scientific!! Also, like you Nikki, I found that my hair seems okay with some protein and dislikes others. I recently said I had to really start looking at the types of proteins to figure out which ones it can deal with and which make it hard and brittle. I THINK my hair is okay with silk and some wheat. But, I'm not totally certain. So, time to investigate.

Shelli

Anonymous said...

After a perm gone wrong (I self-relaxed) and highlights, I used Aphoghee (2min) for a few weeks trying to "repair" my hair. I had no issue for awhile and then my hair literally tried to dread up. I didn't know what went on and my hair dresser told me to only use it sparingly. I have very thick, very coarse 4a hair. Can anyone recommend a shampoo or conditioner for protein-sensitive folks?

Anonymous said...

Thanks for this wonderfully informative article. I have fine, thin, 4c coils.

Can you recommend "brick and morter" brands of conditioner with great hydrolyzed silk protein?

I would surely appreciate it! : )

To the anonymous above at 12.52pm, have you tried Yes to conditioners, or Herbal essence hello hydration or Aussie Moist 3 minute after your aphogee? All three products have reduced the "lock" in my hair after a DT or henna.

I don't use HEHH or AM regularly because I think -cones conditioners leave my fine stranded, highly porous, thin 4c hair a little hard when dry.

Anonymous said...

This was a great article...extremely informative! Also timely for me since I had begun to wonder if my hair would benefit from more protein.

I have dense 3c/4a curls, CBL when stretched. I'm probably a "medium" based on the article.

Since I started using SheaMoisture products, which contain silk protein, my hair has been well moisturized on a consistent basis. I never get the straw effect. I also wear WNGs a lot so my hair is saturated (moisturized) with water a few times a week.

So based on this article and the current condition of my hair, I'm going to forego supplemental protein treatments and stick to my current regimen.

Thanks!!!!

Annie L. said...

I describe myself as "normal" as well and silk amino has also been the only protein my hair can stand w/o becoming a whisk broom. Great article.

KalleyC said...

I love this article, it's so very informative. I think it's really important to just listen to your hair. I've gone through the extra protein to find that my hair was hard as a rock, to almost no protein, where my hair was feeling wonderful.

Anonymous said...

Excellent article!

Tina said...

This is exactly what I needed to read. Unfortunately, I learned the truth of the matter about one month ago when I started using protein treatments after a vlogger (who LOOKED like she had the same hair as me). The result was beautiful coils and loose curls (4a? 4b? hair) and some very broken kinks. For the first time since my last relaxer (14 months ago) and my big chop (12 months ago), I had breakage! :(

Anonymous said...

Does protein sensitivity have anything to do with porosity? Are they one in the same?

Mya Symons said...

I have been making my own conditioner. I tried one with protein and panthenol and one without. I found out that my hair turns to straw with these additives. What is weird is that my hair strands are thin or fine. However, I have a lot of hair. So, even if you have thin or fine hair, there is a possibility your hair will not do well with protein or panthenol.

Anonymous said...

what if your hair is coarse when it is natural, but wiry when pressed straight?

Anonymous said...

Does shea Moisture smoothie which contains silk protein work well with thick coarse hair and normal to high poroisity? I got second hair with this product but it's been 3 days after my second day hair and my hair is feeling a littlte rough but not broom stick rough. Or do I just need to moisturize my hair daily with water while using the Smoothie?

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