Protein Sensitivity in Natural Hair

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.

Final Thoughts

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.

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22 thoughts on “Protein Sensitivity in Natural Hair

  1. I used to wonder what protein sensitivity was as well. The products that I use, I realize are full of protein now that I have read this article, so should i continue to do protein treatments?

    • Continue what you are doing unless you are seeing negative effects. Some people just LOVE protein, I am just not one of them. You should be doing a strand test whenever you want to asses what your hair needs. If it need protein give it. If not sure just use moisture and skip the protein and see how your hair does.

  2. My hair probably is protein sensitive since it’s low porosity. I had been using raw avocado and coconut milk as a dc and it feels just like the aphgoee 2 min tmt, not moisturizing at all. Now I am on the hunt for the most cost effective and moisturizing deep conditioner…

    • Wanda I cannot do protein DC’s. Here are my current fav DC’s:
      Yes to Carrots Hair & Scalp Moisturizing Mud Mask (Discontinued but it’s available on Amazon.com) Komaza Care Olive Moisture Mask (this one is just okay) Jessicurl Weekly Deep Condish (its a solid DC) also check out Aussie 3 Minute Miracle you can find this one in drug store and its only 2.99. I am trying out some new ones from Pura Body Naturals, BASK Beauty and Brown Butter Beauty.

  3. Pingback: Product Review Alaffia Shea & Honey Shampoo | derby city naturals

  4. Pingback: Product Review: Komaza Care Olive Moisture Mask | derby city naturals

  5. Even during my relaxed days, my hair would react to deep conditioner in a weird way….Therefore I never did it at that time. NOW that I am natural, my hair is extremely dry & brittle and protein sensitive! I plan to deep condition weekly with Organic Root Stimulatior Olive oil Replenishing Conditioner to help restore my hair back to a healthier state.

  6. I have realized over the last 24 hours that I am protein sensitive and finally this answers any questions I had about it! Well, almost…now that I know what NOT to use, do you have any suggestions about products that will actually add moisture? Currently every conditioner, leave-in and oil i own contain proteins, and now that I know its not just me, I don’t know what to do next!

  7. Hi,

    Information was very helpful.

    You advised that Henna was one of the things that mimics protein; is that to say that protein sensitive hair will react to it in much the same way?

    I ask because I was contemplating using Henna instead of protein treatments.

    • your hair will react to different proteins differently. Henna can mimic the effects of protein as can coconut. So before using these do a strand test on a section of hair and see how your hair reacts. You will now know if you will have positive or negative effects until you try it.

  8. I am in desperate need of HELP…I have been natural since around 2006.I have hair that is maybe a 4b type but my back area of my head is different in thickness and more texture. I notice it is a lot easy to comb threw than my side and top.I use a lot of natural DIY condition
    er’s such honey,yogurt with eggs may twice a month and daily moisturizing with water,oils and creams My problem is the back sidwod my head. It is thin, and it broke off inspots abour a inch wide. I. don’t understand what’s doing it but its like slight patches in one spot. about the size of a quarter. Ihad

    • Well first I would recommend you getting it checked out by a doctor to make sure there aren’t any underlying health issues. After that it sounds like just as you said your hair is a different texture and needs to be treated as such. Many people have different textures throughout their head and it is important to focus on the needs of each section. I love DIY products but there are some things better left to professional line. It seems like you are doing protein treatments however the particles of the food are not small enough to penetrate the shaft so there are not any lasting effects. My tip is to baby that section, use a good professional protein treatment at lease once a month, moisturize and seal that section and make sure there is no tugging, pulling or rubbing on that area.

  9. After reading this I think that I may be protein sensivite. I say this bc all the examples you used fit my profile. I’m natural and every time I use coconut oil or anything that contains coconut oil my hair acts as if I have no product in it at all, for example I have used everything from Edens coconut leave in, Shea moisture leave in conditioner hair milk with coconut and Edens jojoba shampoo and my results are a very dry and brittle hot mess especially my ends I have even used Herbal essences shampoo with coconut as well and same results and my hair was feeling like straw and hard while washing and a tangled mess. I think I finally discovered what I’m doing wrong can you give me some feedback as to what you think?

  10. Hi! I believe that I have protein sensitive hair. But read in the past that it doesn’t exsist. Anyways I just dyed my hair with henna a month ago and it has been supper matty and tangled ever since 😞 any advise?

    Thanxx

    • Protein sensitivity is super real, I know because I have it. I can say they more you know and pay attention to it the better you will be. Remember that animal proteins are stronger than vegetable ones so start with those. Also your hair may love soy and hate wheat, these are things you can tell simply be trying products and reading the ingredients. Regardless of how sensitive you are you should always follow a protein treatment with a DC to help soften and moisturize. IF you want to use henna in the future I would suggest doing a henna gloss (I have a post on that you can check out) but basically mix the henna in with conditioner. The effects of henna should not last too long. You can help your hair out by doing a pre-poo or by using your fav conditioner and steaming your hair.

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