If you’ve followed my blog posts you may have seen me mention that I am protein sensitive. I get asked about protein sensitivity all the time: what is it, how do you know if you have it, is there a cure for it; so this will be a post dedicated to protein and my hair’s general distaste for it in products. Long before I ran across the term protein sensitivity I always knew I had it. Even back in my relaxed days when everyone else was going ga-ga over hair reconstructioner treatments or during the silk amino acid product craze I knew my hair did not like it. How did I know? Whenever I used a heavy protein laced product my hair felt coarse, dry and tangled like a clump of straw. It felt horrible and looked worse then before I used the application. I began to find ways to make it work — i used to mix the hair placenta treatment into my chloresterol deep conditioner and it was not as tangled or rough. However when I went natural the problem seemed even worse so I resolved just to stop using it. To compensate for not putting protein in my hair I made sure I kept plenty of protein in my diet from a variety of sources like meat, legumes, and dairy. Then I ran across a forum which confirmed everything I had always known, my hair did not like protein because I was protein sensitive.
Protein in Hair
Hair is made up of keratin, a type protein, coarse hair contains abundant amounts of protein while fine hair contains less protein. Protein can be lost through chemical, thermal or mechanical damage meaning processing, heat or everyday styling. Damaged hair will be weakened so the use of a protein reconstructioner will return protein to the hair and repair the damage. Protein attaches to the hair’s surface and forms a layer that helps retain moisture like a humectant. This coating can also smooth the hair cuticle making it appear shinier. For the protein sensitive (PS) our hair makes enough protein and reacts horribly when protein is added via protein based treatments or products that contain proteins.
Types of Protein
There are different types of protein: those derived from animal sources and those from plant sources. Animal proteins are stronger or more potent than plant proteins. Animal proteins coat the outer layers of the hair shaft while vegetable proteins are absorbed deeper into the hair shaft. However there are issues with the size of proteins and what can actually be absorbed by the hair. Enter hydrolyzed proteins. Hydrolyzed proteins are proteins that have been broken down into smaller amino acid components and these components are said to easily penetrate the layers of the hair shaft. How do you identify a protein? If you see the terms keratin, collagen, elastin or amino acid or of course the word protein, then it’s a protein. Common proteins used in hair products are keratin, placenta, collagen, silk, wheat, corn, soy, and oat. For the DIYers coconut milk, eggs, and yogurt all contain protein.
Proteins That Aren’t Protein
There are also products that aren’t protein but either contain or mimic protein. Common fugitives are henna, yeast, coconut oil and jojoba oil. Yeast (brewer’s yeast, beer, vegemite, marmite, etc) are known to contain protein as they are used as dietary supplements. The tannins in henna bond with protein in the hair and act like a protein treatment. Coconut oil does not contain significant amount of protein though it has been known to effect people all the same (just ask my girl Marci). Jojoba oil, which is actually a wax, like coconut oil mentioned above does not contain significant amount of protein, but still can have the same effect.
How to Know If Your Hair Needs Protein
Generally if your hair feels limp, curls are saggy and has lost its luster you probably are in need of protein. The simplest thing to do is a strand test. When your hair is wet isolate a strand and give it a little tug. If your hair stretches a bit then resists your hair is in good balance. If it stretches and stretches, before finally snapping you are in need of protein. If it stretches a little then suddenly snaps, you should cut back on the protein.
Healthy hair will not require additional protein, so it is completely possible that you will never need a protein treatment. Eating a balanced diet will also help maintain proper protein levels in your hair however this will only effect “new growth” as your hair is dead and only what has yet to be produced from the follicle will show improvement. There is no “cure” for protein sensitivity, all you can do is identify the triggers and avoid them. It is important to note that after doing a strong protein treatment like Aphogee 2-Step Protein Treatment or similar everyone will experience the dry, brittle straw-like feel referred to earlier. That does not mean you are protein sensitive, any strong protein treatment will yield this result and needs to be followed up by a moisturizing deep conditioner. Protein sensitivity should be judged by the presence of protein in regular products like Giovanni Smooth as Silk Conditioner or Eco Styler Gel. It is also important to state that you hair may not like certain proteins but tolerate others. Shea Moisture Curl Enhancing Smoothie and Darcy’s Botanicals Pumpkin Seed Conditioner both contain protein but I use both and had no ill effects. However if you’ve used a couple products with silk amino acid and all left your hair feeling gross, its safe to say that you hair doesn’t care for that ingredient and you should avoid using products that contain it. For more on the science behind proteins in hair check out this article from the Curl Chemist, Tonya McKay on NaturallyCurly.com.