Is Protein Sensitivity Really A Thing?
Hair is made up of a protein called Keratin. Proteins are the basis of all life and are essential nutrients for the human body. They are one of the building blocks of body tissue and can also serve as a fuel source. All proteins are made up of only 20 amino acids arranged in millions of ways to create millions of different individual proteins. Each with its own function. Keratin is one of these individual protein arrangements.
Added protein in your hair care products is not needed to grow or make your hair healthy. Instead, they are added to add another layer of protective strength and conditioning to your constantly manipulated strands and to draw moisture like a humectant.
What Is Protein Sensitivity?
In the healthy hair community Protein Sensitivity is often described as experiencing brittle, dry, and breaking hair after the application of protein to the hair strand. This causes the aversion to or avoidance of using any product that has a protein ingredient in it. The belief implies that the hair strands themselves are allergic to proteins. Nothing could be further from the truth.
In all actuality, some proteins are commonly known allergens, but the allergic reactions that are experienced show up in the scalp in the form of redness (erythema) and or even blisters, according to Why Are Some Proteins Allergens?, Toxicological Sciences. Not the hair strands. Remember that by the time the hair strand exits your scalp, the entire strand is dead. It can no longer have biological reactions but can have atmospheric/circumstantial reactions, ie. changes in pH can cause cuticle tightening (closing) or loosening (opening); lots of hydration can cause cuticle softening; large or too many added protein molecules can cause buildup and hardening, etc.
But does that mean that you can’t be protein sensitive? No. We just need to know what to look out for and apply it to the right area – the scalp. Your hair strands are not allergic to protein but they may be Protein Intolerant. Meaning your strands may prefer one type of protein or proteins over others. Or your hair my have Protein Build-Up. Meaning the accumulation of proteins from various products (gels, shampoos, conditioners, etc.) may be causing your hair to be wonky. The goal is to find the protein(s) that work to create a proper moisture balance in your hair.
Types of Protein
The type of protein your hair can tolerate is similar to the type of protein your diet can tolerate. After all, hair is a sum of your genetics, environment, and diet practices. Unlike your diet, most hair can only use whole food proteins when they are eaten and not applied externally. Proteins in dairy products (yogurt or milks), eggs, and mayonnaise are often to big to help and should only be used if you already know your hair can tolerate them. Never if your hair is fine. The protein molecules are just too big to form a film on your hair that is not too rigid. They also don’t draw moisture to your strands, causing them to feel dry and brittle.
Instead look for these three types of protein classes in your products:
Hydrolyzed/Hydrolysed Proteins: Hydrolysis is the process of using water to break down the bonds of a substance. Hydrolyzed proteins are larger proteins that have been broken down to a more usable size that can penetrate your hair strand and adhere to them. Look for the term “Hydrolyzed ** Protein” on your labels.
Examples of Hydrolyzed Proteins are:
Essential Amino Acids: The building blocks of proteins that are already broken down into smaller parts. There are 20 amino acids, 9 of which are called “essential amino acids” that should be acquired via diet (although science has created synthesized versions for external use). These nine are histidine, isoleucine, leucine, lysine, methionine, phenylalanine, threonine, tryptophan, and valine. Eat whole foods daily to get the most out of these protein building blocks.
Oilseed Proteins: these are proteins found in plant based natural oils. Usually when an oil has been refined, most if not all of these proteins have been removed. As consumers you usually don’t know if a product that includes oil is refined or unrefined. So to be safe, assume all oils have the possibility of still containing their natural proteins and select carefully. This is possibly the reason why your hair gets dry when using unrefined shea, cocoa, and coconut oils/butters. They are high in natural proteins.
My Hair Is Low/High/Med Porosity. Should I Avoid Protein?
All hair can benefit from the addition of protein. A balanced moisture/protein regimen is the foundation of healthy hair regardless of its porosity, length, texture, or style. So you should never avoid it. The art is knowing which proteins and at what frequency works for you and your hair.
Generally, the tighter your coil, the less frequently protein needs to be added to your regimen. But this is not a hard and fast rule. You could be a type 4 natural that’s into high-manipulation styles and therefore could use the additional support frequent protein can provide. Contrary to popular belief, proteins are included in shampoos and conditioners in small amounts to make them more moisturizing and conditioning. So the regular addition of smaller proteins can also help dry hair become more hydrated. Proteins can also really help those whose hair has been lifted and dyed by restoring strength to the weakened hair strands. Because dyed hair is more fragile than non-colored virgin hair.
When To Add Protein?
Healthy hair can tolerate products with low amounts of protein in them a few times a week. Shampoos and conditioners, gels and edge controls often have low levels of protein in them to make the hair feel smoother. Look for the proteins closer to the end of the ingredient list. Be careful though. Layering of stylers with small amounts of varying proteins can still give you the effects of protein sensitivity and and protein build-up. Pay close attention to which proteins you use and how your hair feels after applying them to be able to rule out problematic ones.
Protein-rich products that are designed to strengthen the hair and restore structure after a chemical treatment will have proteins closer to the top of the list in the top five ingredients. If you see this, then know the product could cause your hair to feel brittle and possibly break if you use it when it’s not necessary. These products should be used no more than twice a month. For tighter textures every 4-6 weeks is ideal to restore any lost integrity to your hair from manipulation and life itself.
REMEMBER proper moisture balance is all about balancing hydration to protein in your hair strands.
Add proteins when:
- Your hair starts to feel mushy.
- Your curls/coils begin to look extra frizzy and won’t define easily.
- When you hair starts to stretch but not spring back. Maybe even breaks
- Your hair color is fading even though you keep it hydrated with water based products.
How Do I Know My Hair Likes/Dislikes A Protein?
If after using it your hair becomes dry, brittle, and/or straw-like. Sadly too much protein can have the same effects of too much water. Hair will respond similarly at either extreme.
In the case of too much protein immediately check your products and stop using any that have protein in them. Wash and deep condition your hair with protein-free products. Eliminate all coconut and shea products for a while. Style your hair in a low-manipulation style that you can leave alone at least until your next wash day. After your hair recovers, carefully add back in your favorite products 1 by 1 until you find the one or combination that cause the problems. Eliminate that combination or product from your line-up as your hair is intolerant of that protein. Check all future products to make sure it doesn’t contain that protein to avoid a repeat problem.
With these tips you’ll never have to fear protein again. Now let’s get to growing balanced and healthy hair!