The Curl Whisperer on Protein: Friend or Foe?
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. A good friend of mine 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 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!