We all know the importance of protein for our hair - after all, hair is made of it! Protein determines the structure and health of our hair. But how much do we need? And what do we do if we experience an overload or a build-up? Finding the right balance of protein and moisture can confuse people new (or not so new!) to a natural curly hair regime. Below are a few tips to help you navigate the minefield.

Signs You Have Protein Build-up

Protein build-up can occur if you use too many products containing protein or products containing too much protein. The following could be signs that you are experiencing a build-up of proteins in your hair:

  • Your hair might be dry and brittle. This can make it more difficult to style. 
  • Your hair may become stiff, crunchy or straw-like.
  • Your hair may lose elasticity and snap instead of stretching. You can do a strand test by taking the end of a strand in each hand and pulling on the strand in both directions. Your hair should stretch, but not break.
  • Your curls may be lifeless and dull and might not hold a style well. It may also lack shine.
  • Your hair could break and tangle too easily. It may take a long time to detangle.
  • Hair shedding could be higher than usual due to breakage brought on by the protein build-up.

How to Remove Protein or Fix Protein Build-up

If you do suffer the unfortunate fate of a protein overload, the best thing to do is to balance it with moisture and temporarily cut out protein from your routine. Here are the steps to take.

Step 1. Eliminate proteins

Check the ingredients of your products carefully – all products: Shampoos, low-poos, conditioners, deep conditioners, creams, gels and sprays. We all know ingredient labels are not the simplest to read, so here is a list of names to look for.

Commonly used proteins in hair products are:

  • Hydrolyzed (wheat, oat, soy) protein
  • Hydrolyzed vegetable Protein
  • Hydrolyzed keratin
  • Hydrolyzed collagen
  • Amino acids (silk, milk, wheat, etc.)
  • Cystine Bis-PG-Propyl Silanetriol (derivative of keratin protein)
  • Hydrolyzed Wheat Protein PG-Propyl Silanetriol (silicone modified wheat protein)
  • Cocodimonium Hydroxypropyl Hydrolyzed Wheat Protein (quaternized wheat protein)

Once you have identified which of your products contain these ingredients (especially products with proteins higher up on the ingredient list) set them aside and hold off on using them for now.

Step 2. Pre-Poo

To begin the process of fixing the build-up, pre-poo with oil to protect your hair from shampoo. Saturate the lengths of your hair with the oil and allow it to sit on your hair in a shower or heat cap for a while before you shampoo. You can use the oil to help you to detangle your hair with your fingers or a brush.

Step 3. Shampoo

Too much protein coats the hair, thus preventing water from entering the hair shaft, so you will need to clarify your hair to remove the protein build-up; use a shampoo with sulfates, sulfonates or other clarifying agents and without protein in the ingredients.

Step 4. Deep Condition

You will then need to deep condition again with a protein-free conditioner. Try using a heat cap to help the conditioner soak into your hair. 

Step 5. Moisturize

Next, use leave-in conditioners and stylers (creams and/or gels) without protein and containing hydrating ingredients like aloe, honey, glycerin or moisturizing ingredients like shea butter or avocado oil. If you apply your stylers in sections, you can achieve thorough coverage throughout your hair.

After the treatment: After your initial clarifying wash, you may wish to use gentle cleansers or co-wash for a while to avoid stripping the hair of further moisture.

If you have a lot of protein build up, it might be a few weeks before your hair returns to normal. 

Step 6. Re-introduce protein

Once your hair is in a happier state, you can start introducing protein to your routine slowly. Try incorporating one styling product that contains protein and ensure your other products are protein-free.

Also check where in the ingredients list the protein is; the higher up in the list, the more protein there is likely to be in that product. You could also go for products containing amino acids which are smaller proteins and therefore may not cause as much build-up. 

It’s worthwhile getting into the practice of refreshing your hair with water mid-week, or maybe even nightly in extreme cases, to keep that moisture level up! You can wear your hair in a protective style while your hair is recovering, to avoid breakage.

How to Achieve Moisture/Protein Balance

Striking a balance between protein and moisture is essential for healthy, happy curls. But how do we do this? It sounds difficult right? It doesn’t need to be. All you have to do is to get to know your hair and be mindful of your ingredients. 

To begin with, figure out your hair’s porosity to find which moisturizing products work well for you; for example, butters and heavier oils may work well for high porosity hair. Work out which humectants work well for you; humectants, such as aloe, honey or glycerin, draw moisture from the air and into your hair. Then you need to incorporate protein into your routine slowly one product at a time; for example, you might use protein-free cleansers and conditioners and include a leave-in conditioner or cream containing protein. Alternatively, if you know you are slightly protein sensitive, you could make your final styler one that contains protein so that the hair is coated and protected by other layers of stylers; for instance, if you use a cream/mousse/gel method, you could ensure the gel contains protein. 

Once you’ve achieved that protein/moisture balance maintain it with these following tips:

  • Follow up protein treatments with a deep conditioning treatment or a moisturizing leave-in.
  • Look for products that contain both protein and moisturizing ingredients to simplify the process once you have achieved that balance.
  • Always check ingredients in new products to make sure that you are not causing an imbalance in your routine with either protein or moisturizing ingredients.

Hopefully, with these steps you can restore your protein-overloaded locks to their former glory!