Here's How To Tell If Your Hair Needs A Protein Treatment

Plus, ways to avoid protein overload.

by Sienna Fantozzi and Kara McGrath
Originally Published: 
Protein treatments for hair can be great — but, in some cases, protein can be too much of a good thi...
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There are so many hair products out there these days that it can get pretty overwhelming. Being in tune with your strands’ unique needs is one of the things that can help you cut through the clutter and determine which one is right for you.

A common issue — no matter what your hair type — is protein deficiency. “Protein deficiency usually comes down to external factors, not hair texture,” explains celeb stylist Andrew Fitzsimons. “Aside from poor diets, people with color-treated hair are at the highest risk of protein deficiency because of the exposure to chemicals in hair color products that can alter and damage hair bonds, especially if your hair is being bleached.”

If you’re currently using protein treatments for your hair, that’s great — to an extent. In some cases, there can be too much protein in your hair routine (more on that later) and you should be reaching for a moisture-boosting product instead.

You might find yourself wondering: Does my hair need protein or moisture? And is there even a real difference between the two? Luckily, you can figure this out easily enough at home, without having to go to the salon and consult a stylist — and Bustle chatted with hair experts for the details.

Signs Of Protein Deficiency In Your Hair

It's important to know that protein and moisture treatments deal with two very different issues, but let’s talk protein first. “Hair is a highly complex appendage of the body that is created by many proteins,” Dr. Tara Rao of Schweiger Dermatology Group in NYC tells Bustle. Anabel Kingsley, Brand President and Consulting Trichologist at Philip Kingsley, elaborates: “Think of amino acids (proteins) as the building blocks of your hair; they give strands strength and structure. Without adequate protein, hair can become brittle and fragile.”

Some signs of a protein deficiency can be stringy, limp, or sticky hair. “Lack of protein can result in hair loss, and the growth of weak and brittle strands,” Kingsley says, and board certified dermatologist Nicole Rogers, MD FAAD, Assistant Clinical Professor at Tulane Department of Dermatology and in private practice at Hair Restoration of the South, confirms that hair without enough protein “might break more easily.”

Signs Of Too Much Protein In Your Hair

Just like having a protein deficiency, it is possible to have too much protein in your hair — but, again, it’s pretty rare. “If [the products you’re using] are very protein heavy and the protein molecules in them are too large, they could potentially weigh the hair down and make it feel coated,” Kingsley says.

Fitzsimons agrees and says that the “biggest signs of protein overload in the hair are split ends and shedding. This can happen when our hair is exposed to an excessive amount of keratin which causes a lot of buildup.” He says that protein overload (aka too much of a good thing) can “actually have the opposite effects on our hair such as feeling straw-like, lacking shine, and becoming overly dry.”

Luckily, this is just a temporary effect: It should clear up as soon as the product is completely washed out.

Signs Of Moisture Loss In Your Hair

In general, if your hair isn’t feeling its best, it’s much more likely that you’re dealing with moisture loss, which most often is caused by chemical treatments (like relaxers and highlights) and hot tools (like your curling iron). If your hair is dry, easily tangled, and weak, it may need more moisture. Kingsley also says split ends, a lack of shine, and inability to hold a heat style could be a sign of dehydrated hair.

Treating Protein Imbalances In Your Hair

Although there are products on the market that claim to be able to restore protein in your hair, most experts agree the real cause of protein deficiency usually has to do with your diet — and therefore, the only way to fix the problem is to make sure you’re eating enough protein. According to Rogers, most people need about 40-50 grams of protein per day, “and have no problem getting it, since the average American actually eats 80-100 grams per day.”

Fitzsimons notes that you should always check in with your doctor if you have nutrition-related concerns, but suggests a supplement like Dose & Co’s if you have dietary restrictions.

Rao agrees that a protein deficiency is quite uncommon: “True protein deficiency that affects hair can be congenital and is identified very early in life,” she explains. “In very rare circumstances, skin, hair, and nails can all be affected by severe deficiency of protein in an adult diet.” Rao also notes that changes in your hair quality can also be a sign of serious illness, so it’s best to check in with your doctor if you’re noticing them. If it is a protein deficiency, “there is nothing that can be added to infuse protein,” Rogers notes. “You just have to grow the hair out.” While you do, you can work with medical and nutritional experts to find healthy ways to add more protein to your diet if they determine you need to.

Treating Moisture Loss In Your Hair

Just like protein, Rogers notes that it’s pretty hard to add moisture back to your hair once it’s been damaged. “Products containing silicone (dimethicone, cyclomethicone) can be helpful to coat and protect the hair shaft, but only temporarily,” she explains. Otherwise, you’ll just need to “grow it out and treat it gently.” As for getting into a regular routine that can help your hair at least feel more moisturized, Kingsley recommends a pre-shampoo conditioning treatment once to twice a week, depending on how damaged your hair is.

“These draw moisture into the hair shaft, increasing elasticity, strength, and bounce,” she explains. Kingsley also recommends using a leave-in conditioner to help your hair be easier to detangle and style. Below are some specific products you can try if your hair just isn’t feeling its best.

We only include products that have been independently selected by Bustle's editorial team. However, we may receive a portion of sales if you purchase a product through a link in this article.

1. Wella Keratin Mask

Rogers mentions that products containing wheat protein or keratin can temporarily make your hair feel softer and bouncier. This mask is like a mini salon-style keratin treatment you can do at home.

2. It's A 10 Keratin Leave-In

For even longer-lasting effects from a keratin treatment, try a leave-in version. This one from It’s A 10 can be used on wet or dry hair, so it’s great for days when you don’t shampoo too.

3. Moroccanoil Hydrating Mask

If you love the oil, prepare to fall in love with the mask. You only need to leave it on for five to seven minutes to see results.

4. IGK Leave-In Conditioner

This leave-in is packed with the silicones Rogers recommends. Plus, it smells really, really good.

5. Philip Kingsley Elasticizer

This pre-shampoo treatment contains olive and castor oil to help hydrate your hair and smoothe down the outer cuticle, which can make your strands look shinier.

6. Bumble & bumble Heat Protectant

In addition to the detangling and smoothing benefits you get from an oil leave-in, this one contains UV protection, which can stop your strands from losing additional moisture while you’re outside.

7. Davines Hair Mask

Depending on your hair length and thickness, you can get about two to five uses out of this handy little mask pouch.

8. Redken Protein Mask

Redken’s hair mask features hydrolyzed soy protein to help repair brittle, breakage-prone hair. Leave it on for three to five minutes to reap the benefits of its strand-strengthening formula.

9. One 'N Only Argan Oil Mask

Need some extra shine? Choose a mask with argan oil.

10. Briogeo Leave-In Conditioner

This leave-in conditioner also contains argan oil, plus tons of additional oils to give your hair lots of softness and shine.

11. NatureLab Protein Mask

Fitzsimons says that this hair mask has “keratin, bamboo stem cells, and argan oil to help restore, replenish, and ultimately give your hair more life.”

Additional reporting by Audrey Noble.


Andrew Fitzsimons, Celebrity Hairstylist

Dr. Tara Rao, M.D., Schweiger Dermatology Group in NYC

Anabel Kingsley, Brand President and Consulting Trichologist at Philip Kingsley

Dr. Nicole Rogers, MD FAAD, Assistant Clinical Professor at Tulane Department of Dermatology

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