Protein is one of the most common ingredients found in strengthening shampoos and conditioners. From my experience I can tell that not all hair types like protein or products that act like protein (such as coconut oil).

Unfortunately, there is no easy way to tell whether your hair will do well with a protein-based treatment. First there’s the fact that everyone’s hair is unique and will likely react differently. Then, to make this even more complicated, there are several different types of protein used in hair care products (whey, keratin, etc). So what does protein sensitivity look like and how to tell whether your hair likes protein or not?

When to Use Protein Treatments

For the most part protein treatments for hair are designed to strengthen broken, weak and damaged hair. These products are often called reconstructive treatments and can vary in intensity from mild to intensive/strong. These products are created to be used on hair that has suffered some sort of chemical (too much hair color), physical (heat) or environmental (sunlight, toxins) damage.

Now, the way most stylists recommend protein-based hair care products is simple:

  • If you have fine hair that breaks off easily, you should use a shampoo/conditioner that contains protein.
  • If your hair is of medium complexity – use protein based products about once per week, but only if you want to strengthen your hair. Most people should choose moisturizing treatments instead.
  • People with thick hair should not use products that contain protein.

The general principle is very simple: fine hair contains far less protein than coarse hair. Since protein acts as a shield (seals in moisture and strengthens, but doesn’t moisturize), it can prevent fine hair from breaking off easily. Coarse hair can be easily overloaded with protein which is not a good thing.

This all sounds great and is pretty straightforward… except for the fact that sometimes fine hair absolutely hates protein while coarse hair seems to love it! In reality, the only way to find out whether protein will work well with your hair is to give it a shot and look out for any side-effects.

Side Effects of Protein on Hair

Most side effects that arise from protein overuse can be categorised into two types: protein overload and protein sensitivity/buildup. Overloading your hair on protein will normally lead to it suddenly breaking off in large quantities (pretty rare). Protein sensitivity is a bit trickier to notice and can have many different side-effects:

  • Hair that is straighter than normal and feels waxy/straw-like.
  • Hair can be very difficult to detangle. Breaks off easily when trying to detangle.
  • The very ends can feel dry and rough.
  • Extremely dry hair.

In most cases the above side-effects can be cured using a clarifying conditioner. If you notice that your hair appears to be protein sensitive, try using moisturizing products/oils instead of products that contain protein (or mimic protein the way coconut oil does).

Susan Ehlers

Susan Ehlers

Susan was born and raised in Seattle, where she studied Biology. Now she works as a health and nutrition coach. In her free time she enjoys canoeing and hiking together with her husband.
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