Protein and Protein Sensitivity in Natural Hair: Everything you need to know

Your hair needs nutrients and vitamins to grow. You need to keep your hair and scalp clean if you want healthy hair. You need to fight tangles in order to prevent breakage and hair loss, and of course, your hair needs moisture to look and feel healthy. You also need to seal moisture into your hair, to prevent it from drying out.

But this isn’t a perfect recipe to healthy hair; it lacks one key ingredient: protein. You may know that protein is necessary for hair growth; you may even incorporate protein into your diet or give your hair regular protein treatments. But what does protein really do for your hair? What happens if your hair lacks protein? How does protein balance with moisture in healthy hair? And what happens if your hair gets too much protein?

healthy natural hair protein

The structure of a hair strand

Your hair is made out of a protein called keratin. This protein provides structure to your hair, giving it its shape and strength. Without protein, your hair is limp, lifeless, and weak, and can fall out or fall apart very easily.

Protein balances the moisture in your hair to keep the hair healthy and strong. If you have enough protein but not enough moisture, your hair will be dry, brittle, and stiff. But too much moisture and not enough protein can leave your hair limp, lifeless, and weak (this is known as hygral fatigue.) You need both moisture and protein to maintain healthy hair, which is often referred to as moisture/protein balance.

wash day bundle moisture natural hair

Chemical treatments, color treatments, the weather, pollution, washing, drying, styling, detangling, heat, and other factors can erode the keratin in your hair, weakening your hair. In addition, if your diet doesn’t contain enough protein this can lead to weak hair as well. We hopefully all know what to do when our hair lacks moisture (check out this article if you need tips) but what if you need protein in your hair? It’s time for a protein treatment.

Protein Treatment Q&A

What is a protein treatment? A protein treatment is any store-bought or handmade product that reinforces the protein structure of your hair. It restores damage, strengthens your hair, and improves elasticity, strength, curl, and bounce.

bouncy healthy natural hair

How do protein treatments work? The proteins in the product attach to your hair follicle, filling in any gaps, hardening the hair cuticle layer, and protecting it from further damage.

Do I need a protein treatment? You can tell your hair needs a protein treatment if it feels weak, limp, and lifeless. Especially if it seems like products aren’t working and no amount of moisture seems to make your hair look or feel good, it’s time for a protein treatment.

How often should I do a protein treatment? Most naturals benefit from a protein treatment every 4-8 weeks, depending on hair damage and how much protein is in your everyday hair products. Pay attention to how your hair feels. If it is bouncy, strong, and healthy, you don’t need more protein! But if it is beginning to feel weak and limp, it’s time for a protein treatment. After a while, you’ll notice how often your hair needs protein treatments.

How do I incorporate protein into my regimen? There are so many options! For severely damaged hair, you’ll want to look for a “reconstructor.” For moderate damage, look for a “deep penetrating treatment” which will strengthen your hair without providing a protein overload. For light or everyday damage, stick with light protein treatments or protein packs.

protect hair from damage with protein

What products do you recommend? We recommend using small amounts of protein in your hair regularly. You can use the Dry Hair Solution or Damaged Hair Solution of our Avocado Deep Conditioners. Both contain small amounts of protein due to the fresh avocados we use. These products both moisturize and strengthen your hair: the best of both worlds! Using one of these products every two weeks, your hair will stay strong and sustain less damage over time, so you’ll only need to do a more intensive protein treatment every 8 weeks or so.

Is it possible to use too much protein? Yes. Remember the moisture/protein balance? It is possible to add so much protein to your hair that the moisture is unbalanced, leaving your hair feeling stiff, dry, or hard. This is why we recommend paying attention to how your hair feels before and after a protein treatment, and waiting at least a few weeks before doing another treatment. If you notice this happens to you no matter how infrequently you use protein, read the next section about protein sensitivity.

How do I know if a product contains protein? Usually such products contain buzzwords in the product name or description, such as “repairing,” “reconstructing,” “strengthening,” or “rebuilding.” Look at the ingredients too. Any ingredients that contain “keratin,” “silk,” “protein,” “hydrolyzed protein,” “amino acid,” etc. are proteins. Here is a comprehensive list or proteins in hair products.

Protein Sensitivity

So you read all our tips, went out and got a protein treatment, and now your hair feels hard, stiff, or extra dry. What happened?

Some individuals have “protein sensitive hair” -hair that is too sensitive to the strengthening effect of protein. When exposed to protein, it becomes stiff and hard. Here is a simple test to determine if your hair is protein sensitive:

  1. Dampen a section of your hair
  2. Apply a product or ingredient that contains protein. You can use a store bought protein treatment, greek yogurt, or raw egg.
  3. Let the section dry, and then compare it with the rest of your hair.

You’ll notice the section will be harder than the rest of your hair, but if it is extremely stiff or starts breaking, you have protein sensitive hair.

is your hair protein sensitive?

Protein Sensitivity Q&A

But I’ve used products with protein before without this problem! You might not actually have protein sensitive hair; your hair is probably just overloaded with protein. Anyone can overload their hair with protein, but only some people have protein sensitive hair that reacts badly to any amount of protein. The outcome of either one is the same- stiff, hard, crunchy hair. Try this trick: take all products with protein out of your regimen and heavily moisturize your hair for a couple weeks to get rid of the protein overload. Then, try a protein treatment again. If your hair feels good, you just overdid it last time :)

Do I have to eliminate all protein from my regimen? No, not necessarily. Your hair still needs protein to maintain strength. Make sure the products you use on a daily or weekly basis are protein free, and do a light protein treatment every 4-8 weeks. If the treatment makes your hair stiff or crunchy, be sure to follow it up with a moisturizing treatment.

Are there certain oils I need to avoid? No, it is a common misconception that oils like coconut or almond contain protein. Oils are actually 100% fat, and can actually be great for protein sensitive hair as they strengthen the hair shaft from the inside out. However, there are many individuals with hair that is sensitive to specific oils in addition to protein. Pay attention to how your hair responds to different oils to determine which ones work best for you. We recommend our Jamaican Black Castor Oil Growth Serum.

products to use on natural hair

Can I use NaturAll Club’s Avocado Deep Conditioners? Yes! We recommend that protein sensitive individuals try the Dull Hair Solution, which contains less protein than our other treatments. If you find that it still makes your hair stiff, treat it like a light protein treatment- only use it once a month, and use a moisturizer afterwards to rehydrate your hair. 

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