Confused by what type of daily or deep conditioner you need for your hair? Do your strands thirst for a product with loads of protein or dripping with moisture, or both? Why does it all matter? Well, because everybody’s hair reacts differently to different ingredients and each person needs to find the right balance for their unique strands.
The protein versus moisture balance comes down to your hair type, texture, and mostly the condition at any given point. That’s why it’s important to identify your hair density (fine, medium, thick, coarse), texture (straight, curly, wavy), and to be aware of your hair’s ever-changing condition (dry, damaged, brittle, limp, etc.).
What is Protein?
Hair, as well as your skin and nails, is mostly made up of keratin, a hard protein. Linked by a cysteine disulfide bridge, amino acid molecules from consumed protein (in our diet) form the keratin in hair.
When hair is healthy, it’s strong, shiny, and is resilient to breakage. However, hair is subjected to thermal styling, chemical treatments, exposure to the elements, and other stressors at which point it can become weak and dull. In such cases, protein is used for adding strength and shine to hair and reducing breakage. Protein
fills in gaps in the cuticle layers of hair and keeps strands hydrated by slowing the loss of moisture.
Hydrolyzed proteins such as wheat, silk, oat, soy, quinoa, and some seeds, as well as amino acids and peptides, are forms of protein. Hydrolyzed proteins are proteins broken down into smaller molecules that work to form flexible film-like support and rigidity around hair that inhibits moisture loss. Protein in most forms can also add support to fine to medium hair but can cause brittleness, roughness, dryness, breakage, even tangling if hair is coarse, or if the protein is too strong or is used too often. It's advised only to use protein when needed and with caution, and to always consult in person with a licensed hair professional.
Who Needs Protein?
If your hair is porous, over-processed, or has any amount of chemical treatments such as permanent or semi-permanent hair color, bleach, relaxing treatments or permanent waving, it will likely need protein. Hair with thermal damage from styling tools also tends to require extra protein as it has lost much of the protective layer that holds moisture in.
If you have overused oils and conditioners on hair that needs protein, strands may become too soft and likely limp, and lays flat. Also, if prolonged deep moisturizing treatments still leave hair dry, it's advised to introduce a limited amount of protein into your hair care regimen but to use it sparingly at first until you can see its effect on your hair
To personalize your hair conditioning regimen, choose proteins based on their size. Amino acids and peptides are the smallest with hydrolyzed silk, keratin, and collagen being slightly larger. Both types will likely work with most hair types including fine, medium and coarse, porous, normal porosity, and even low porosity.
Between medium and large proteins, gelatin is best suited for porous or very damaged and brittle hair or fine to medium hair that needs strength. Hydrolyzed wheat, oat, quinoa, soy, and other plant proteins tend to have medium to large components that are best for fine and medium hair or porous, damaged or chemically treated strands.
When to Use What
If you're new to using protein or have coarse hair, choose products with smaller proteins such as amino acids, peptides or hydrolyzed silk, keratin, or collagen. Larger proteins such as wheat, soy or quinoa work better for fine and medium hair or occasionally for coarse hair.
Protein treatments are usually labeled for damaged hair and tout repairing or strengthening benefits. You can tell how much protein a product contains by where it shows in the ingredient list. In the United States, hair care ingredients are listed by higher percentages first and continue to lowest amounts at the end of the list. If a protein is listed in one of the first few ingredients, it's a more protein potent product.
When it comes to products with both protein and moisture, you need to find the right balance for you. It's a difference of strength and stiffness of your hair versus softness. Protein provides strength and rigidity while softness is from oils and other moisturizing conditioners (emollients).
Frequency & Intensity
In addition to finding the right protein versus moisture balance, you’ll also need to get a feel for the protein intensity, frequency of use, and the amount of processing.
Porous hair that is not coarse can use protein conditioners with every shampooing. The same for normal porosity hair that is fine or medium. However, low porosity hair that is fine to medium may do best with a weekly protein treatment. People with coarse, porous hair should consider using protein only occasionally - maybe once per week or two. However, low-porosity, coarse hair may need protein only every one or two months.
To help protein bond to your hair for better hydration, leave protein products on for more time, which will make the treatment more intense. You can also intensify further by using heat. The adverse is true for a less intense treatment - merely leave the condition on for less time.
Use protein with caution: don't repeat its use until the good effects of the previous use begin to fade. If you've used a product that contains protein and your hair feels stiff, tangled or mushy when wet, stop. You've used too much protein, it’s too potent, or your hair did not need protein. Rinse your hair very thoroughly and immediately apply a deep moisturizing oil, conditioner or mask for at least several minutes, but preferably longer. For an intensified treatment add a plastic cap and apply heat.
Our Best Advice
Your hairdresser really is the best person to assess your hair and to prescribe the appropriate protein/moisture balance within your hair care regimen. They are the experts after all, so listen to them and ask for a product recommendation that will work for you.
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