One of the hardest things about haircare is to find just the right products that work for you. But deciphering the ingredients list is often an impossible task and we end up using products which in fact damage our hair even further. If you’re suffering from unusually dry and unmanageable hair, you may, in fact, have too much protein in your hair.
This is called protein overload and in this article, I’ll show you just how to diagnose it and give you the tools to fix it.
Protein overload happens when there is an imbalance between the levels of protein and moisture in your hair. Although protein is an important factor of hair health, you can develop too much protein in your hair if you continuously use protein-rich hair products.
Protein overload produces symptoms such as dry and brittle hair and you may experience a sudden change in hair texture.
What Causes Protein Overload
Human hair is mostly made of protein. Protein has many names but you may have heard of keratin which is often marketed as a miracle ingredient in hair products that helps restore shine and prevent further damage.
When we use chemicals such as hair dye or heat appliances such as hair straighteners, the integral structure of the hair strand becomes damaged.
This causes protein to be stripped away and thus we need to add protein back into our hair to rebuild the strength of each hair follicle.
We then turn to said miracle products that contain protein. Products that contain ingredients such as keratin, soy protein, biotin and even coconut. Because did you know that coconut is actually a protein mimicker?
A study actually revealed that the only oil able to penetrate the hair shaft was coconut oil. So if you check out your hair products, I guarantee that most of them contain coconut.
Here’s a list of the most common proteins you can find in hair products:
- Soy protein
- Silk protein
- Hydrolyzed collagen
- Hydrolyzed wheat protein
- Hydrolyzed rice protein
- Amino acids
Adding protein back into our hair is great however if we’re not careful, we may just end up overdoing it. Hair needs a balance between protein and water to remain healthy and if too much protein is contained within the hair strand, it is impossible for water to get through.
Take keratin for instance. Keratin is insoluble in water and is also an organic solvent which means it can dissolve other substances.
Too much keratin within the hair follicles means that water is not able to penetrate the shaft of the hair and so there becomes an imbalance of protein to moisture ratio.
Some people are also just protein sensitive and have to be very careful using protein products in general. This is why many people stay away from hair products with coconut as it causes an unpleasant reaction such a itching or dry hair.
Porosity can also play a factor in how your hair reacts to protein. Hair Porosity refers to how well your hair absorbs moisture. Low porosity hair can be protein sensitive as it doesn’t absorb water very well and so using protein products can cause protein overload.
If you are not sure what porosity your hair is, try grabbing a hair strand at its end and place it between two fingers. Follow the hair strand up to its root. Does the hair strand feel smooth? Or slightly coarse?
If it feels coarse you have either medium or high porosity hair as the coarseness is caused by the hair cuticles being open.
If the hair strand feels smooth, you have low porosity hair. The cuticles are placed tightly together and this is what makes it hard for moisture to penetrate.
5 Signs Of Too Much Protein In Hair
There are 5 tell-tale signs of protein overload:
1 Dry And Brittle Hair
If your hair has become dry and snaps off easily, you may have too much protein in your hair. Excess protein prevents water from fully hydrating the hair follicles causing your hair to become weak and prone to damage.
2 Hair Feels Stiff Or Straw-like
You may find that your hair feels more coarse than usual. Without enough moisture, hair strands turn stiff and become less flexible.
This can produce a straw-like texture where no amount of deep conditioner seems to help.
3 Significant Change In Hair Texture Or Curl Pattern
One of the most important signs of protein overload is when your hair is misbehaving.
By this I mean that you’re experiencing a change in your hair texture or your curl pattern and it’s very noticeable to you. Maybe your fine glossy hair has turned coarse or your curly locks now won’t form.
Too much protein in your hair is a result of using the wrong products over a period of time. If the texture of your hair has changed, definitely look into the products you are using.
4 Loss Of Shine
One of the key components to glossy shiny hair is enough hydration. If your hair is experiencing protein overload, this can lead to loss of shine.
You may find that your hair colour looks a bit off or that it simply looks dull.
Too much protein in your hair is definitely one of the main causes of loss of shine and it can sometimes happen quite rapidly.
Shedding can happen for a variety of reasons but too much protein is often the first thing you should like into.
If water/protein levels are unbalanced, your hair is not getting all the nutrients it needs to maintain its health. This can cause your roots to become weak and in turn produce more shedding than usual.
How To Fix Protein Overload
If you suspect that you may be suffering from protein overload, then there are some good news. It is absolutely possible to fix!
It won’t be overnight and you do have to put some work into it, but the good thing is that it only requires a few changes to your normal hair routine and really shouldn’t take longer than usual.
Don’t expect to see significant changes within a few days but it is possible to start seeing improvements after just a couple of weeks.
Get Rid of (most) Of Your Protein Products
Firstly, go through your hair care products and identify which ones contain protein.
Again, coconut is a repeat offender but also look out for ingredients that contain the word ‘hydrolized’. Here’s the list again of common protein ingredients:
- Soy protein
- Silk protein
- Hydrolyzed collagen
- Hydrolyzed wheat protein
- Hydrolyzed rice protein
- Amino acids
Now, you don’t have to get rid of all your protein hair products because you still need some protein. After all, we did establish that hair is mostly made of protein.
I would suggest you switch between two different shampoos or conditioners and use the non-protein product for a few weeks and then begin to use them both intermittently.
If one of your favourite conditioners contain protein I see no reason to stop using it entirely. Just add into the mix some non-protein products to reverse the damage that has been done.
Having a mixture of products is always great and prevents your hair from becoming accustomed to one particular product.
Sometimes, hair products can stop working or like in this case, cause you to develop too much protein in your hair.
Invest In Protein Free Products
Note: ALL products listed below are sulphate, silicone and paraben-free which means they are suitable to use for the Curly Girl Method.
Here are some great protein and coconut free products to add to your routine:
Faith In Nature has a really good range of natural protein and coconut free conditioners.
This Aloe Vera conditioner is suitable for normal to dry hair and is made with 100% natural fragrance.
The Yes To Cucumbers Volumising Conditioner is a firm favourite. It’s very lightweight, and is perfect for normal to fine hair.
This conditioner is fortified with vitamins and natural moisturisers and contains 95% natural ingredients. It is also vegan and cruelty free!
If you’re shopping in supermarkets or drugstore, you can also pick up the following protein and coconut free conditioners for a bargain:
- Alberto Balsam Sun-Kissed Raspberry Conditioner
- ASDA Apple Conditioner
- Superdrug Extracts Conditioner Raspberry and Macadamia Nut
Remember to avoid coconut oil or any products containing coconut oil.
If you use a styling product such as gels, creams or mousses, you should switch these to non-protein products as well.
Here’s a few of my favourites:
If you use gel or curling custard in your hair care routine, the Creme of Nature with Argan Oil Twirling Custard is a great non-protein addition.
It eliminates frizz and provides crunch-free curls. Suitable for all hair types.
The Aussie Instant Freeze Sculpting Gel is long lasting and contains jojoba oil and sea kelp for additional nourishment.
If you prefer mousse the gel, the Herbal Essences Body Envy Volumizing Hair Mousse is a great protein-free pick.
It offers maximum hold against humidity and gives you brilliant frizz control.
Remove Excess Protein With A Clarifying Cleanse
If you have curly hair and follow the Curly Girl Method, you’ll know all about clarifying. If not, clarifying means using a non-sulphate cleanser to get rid of product-build up.
It’s normally used for people who do not use shampoo in their hair-washing routine.
If you only use conditioner to clean your hair, sometimes build-up can occur from using gels or creams or even just pollution. If this is the case, you will need to clarify your hair.
Clarifying your hair will allow it to ‘breathe’ and removing the build-up of oil, product or dirt from your scalp can really be a game-change for hair with protein overload.
The reason for this is that once you clarify, water is once again able to penetrate your hair whereas before it might have been blocked by product-build up.
You don’t need to go out and buy a super fancy shampoo to clarify. The best method I know is to use apple cider vinegar.
Simply mix a couple of teaspoons of ACV with a cup of water and apply to soaking wet hair. You can adjust the quantities as you like, there’s really no wrong or right.
When applying to your hair, use a scalp brush to massage the mixture around your scalp and in between your hair for around 2-3 minutes.
The apple cider vinegar will neutralise the dirt and build-up in your hair and also restore your hair’s natural PH value.
For best results, do an ACV rinse only once a week for 3 weeks and afterwards, do them sparingly, say two to three times a month.
You should definitely start to see some changes in your hair after the first 3 weeks. Follow up every ACV rinse with a deep conditioning treatment.
Weekly Deep Conditioning Treatment
Many people forget to deep condition and it’s a shame. It’s really one of the best ways to nurture your hair and give it that extra bit of attention.
If you are experiencing protein overload, follow up your weekly clarifying routine with a rich deep conditioner. There are some really great non-protein conditioners on the market:
The Mystic Black by Novex Deep Hair Mask won’t break the bank when it comes to a protein-free hair mask. It is enriched with vitamin E and is suitable for all hair types.
The mask offers intense hydration and split end protection and as always is paraben, silicone and sulfate-free.
The Sashapure Restorative Conditioning Masque is an intensive deep conditioning treatment that will really help hydrate your protein-rich hair. It is particularly great for hair that has been coloured or chemically treated.
The Curlsmith – Double Cream Deep Quencher – Vegan Moisturising Deep Conditioner offers great nourishment for dry and stiff hair. It has a thick consistency for ultimate hydration.
When deep conditioning, you will always get the best results if you use a hot head thermal cap, otherwise known as a deep conditioning cap.
The cap helps open up the hair cuticles which allows more product to penetrate the hair and moisturise the centre of the hair shaft much faster.
You can also wrap your deep conditioned hair in cling film if you don’t have a deep conditioning cap.
Leave for 15-30 minutes and rinse.
For optimal results, do a deep conditioning treatment once a week.
Moisturise And Seal
The final step to recover from too much protein in your hair is to follow the old ‘moisturise and seal’ approach.
This process is very simple. 1) Choose a moisturising cream and 2) seal with oil.
The As I Am So Much Moisture Hydrating Lotion is a great choice when you need additional moisture due to protein overload. This product contains glycerin which means it works wonders in humid conditions.
For your oil sealant, go with a natural oil such as this jojoba oil from Amazon.
Sealing your hair with an oil locks in the moisture and gives you a much better chance to restore your hair to its natural glossy self.
And there you have it. If you do suffer from protein overload, don’t worry.
It’s absolutely fixable, all you have to do is make a few changes to your hair care routine, be patient and you’ll soon see results!