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The moisture vs protein balance is the most confusing aspect of learning how to care for your naturally wavy hair, in my opinion. I felt really overwhelmed by it early on. I tried to just avoid it, at first, and that wasn’t a disaster. If you just cannot seem to figure out if your hair needs protein or not, that doesn’t mean you can’t embrace or waves. It may just take time to learn your hair well enough to make sense of your moisture and protein needs.
That being said, once I started to grasp my moisture and protein balance, it did help me get results that I was happier with.
I’ve gotten many comments and emails from people asking about moisture vs protein. I’ve pushed off writing this blog post because most other people who discuss protein and moisture balance do so by discussing your protein vs moisture needs in relation to porosity. Essentially they say that high porosity hair needs a lot of protein, and low porosity hair doesn’t need much protein. That isn’t the case for me.
I’m not an expert so I can’t say with 100% certainty why that is. I have found a single source that gave me a potential answer…but just one, which is odd. I’ve wondered if I just shouldn’t speak to this topic due to my hair not following the basic expectations of how porosity and moisture/protein balance are said to impact each other. I decided to finally write this post, though…because I don’t imagine that I am the only one who has found that my low porosity hair likes protein….a LOT. Unfortunately, as far as I can tell, there isn’t a ton of research about different hair types and how they react to different ingredients. While I can’t provide any science behind why my hair needs what it needs, I can share how I’ve learned what my hair needs…and that may be helpful to others who are struggling to figure out what their hair needs, too. With that “disclaimer” in mind…let’s jump in!
How I know That My Wavy Hair Needs Protein
- Part of my hair goes straight. I have a section of my hair that is always straigher than the rest. However, when it gets really needing protein, it’ll be almost entirely straight.
- My hair stops getting a gel cast or mousse cast when using these same products and same amounts that I used before and got a good cast.
- When my hair falls flat really quickly compared to usual, while using the same products and routine.
- My hair feels so soft that it has no structure.
- My hair won’t clump together at all unless I use products*
- My hair gets straighter than usual all around.
- My curls lose their ‘bounce’.
*My hair never stays well defined without products. My hair is just more prone to poof/fluff than definition. However, when I have a better protein/moisture balance, my hair will have some clumps for a few hours after I shower, at least. When my hair is over-moisturized, the clumps won’t even hang around until my hair is dry.
When my hair has enough protein, it will clump some on its own without using gel or mousse. This photo was after it had dried, but before I had slept on it.
How I Learned The Signs That My Hair Needs Protein
While I now understand the signs that my hair needs protein, I didn’t always know. I tried to grasp the basics while watching protein overload vs moisture overload videos. I’ll link some of those resources at the bottom of this post. Those are what taught me that hair that is too moisturized may fall flat quickly, may not be as bouncy as usual, and may feel “overly soft”, which definitely helped clue me in. However, some other signs of moisture overload didn’t make sense to me (and still don’t, honestly!). For example, a lot of people say that over-moisturized hair will feel mushy or gummy when wet, and I’ve never experienced that.
Anyway, the “signs of moisture overload” helped me to try to make a general guess about when my hair may be in need of more protein. I was afraid of getting protein overload though, so when I first started wondering if my hair could use more protein, I felt it was ‘safer’ to just not risk adding in more protein, as my hair seemed fine. However, as time went on, it got to where my hair wasn’t forming a cast at all anymore. If I don’t get a hair cast from my gel or mousse, my hair doesn’t hold its shape very well at all. As a result, I would have some vague loose waves right after my hair dried, but just a couple of hours later my hair would look straight and puffy, it had lost all definition. This would happen even when I used my old “tried and true” products that I knew gave me a good, hard cast before. That experience of not being able to get a cast at all is what finally gave me the courage to try using more protein. When I did a protein treatment, I knew it was a good decision before I even got out of the shower! My hair felt stronger even while wet. This was interesting because I hadn’t felt like my hair felt ‘weak’ before…and the protein treatment didn’t make my hair feel hard, or rough, or stiff…it just felt stronger or like it had more of a “backbone”. This was a new feeling to me, and I think that was because my hair had been somewhat over-moisturized for quite a while!
From there, I decided to add in a shampoo that had protein, to see if that helped. Some people find that if they use shampoo, conditioner, leave-ins and/or stylers that have protein, they don’t need to do protein treatments. My former hair routine had been protein-free, so I started with a protein-containing shampoo. I used it for a couple of weeks to see how my hair would adjust. No signs of protein overload, so then I added in a protein-containing conditioner too. My hair liked that, also. That made me decide that using protein in my shampoo and rinse-out conditioner may not be enough. I decided to experiment with doing protein treatments a bit more regularly. Instead of waiting on my hair to get so moisturized that it couldn’t hold a cast, I started with once a month. I often felt like that wash day was my best wash day of the month, which made me wonder if my hair could use even more protein. For a while I did protein treatments every two weeks, and eventually, I moved to once a week.
As I was experimenting with how often to do protein treatments, I was on the lookout for my hair to feel stiff, rigid, or straw-like. I was also looking out for signs that my hair was breaking or snapping easily, but I never saw any o those. Instead, protein treatments continued to make my hair feel good each time. This is how I determined that using protein treatments once a month was not too much for my hair…by just observing how my hair looks, feels and “behaves” after using protein. For example, noticing if it’s limp or bouncy.
If/when I ever do start to feel any signs of protein overload, I’ll dial back my protein.
I sometimes do still feel worried when trying out a new protein treatment, or trying a new hair product with protein. I always keep in mind that if/when I do ever experience protein overload, I can use a clarifying or chelating shampoo, and then use a protein-free deep conditioner to help get rid of the protein overload. Most of what protein overload is, is protein buildup, so clarifying is the main solution to the problem.
Does Low Porosity Hair Need Protein?
It’s a common rule of thumb that higher porosity hair needs more protein. Some take this idea and stretch it to mean that low porosity hair doesn’t need any protein.
All hair needs protein, it’s just a matter of how much. Low porosity hair may need less protein than medium or high porosity hair, but it still needs some protein.
Many suggest that how much protein your hair needs is all about how porous your hair is, but that hasn’t proven to be true for me personally. My hair is low to average porosity but likes a lot of protein.
The portion on my front left side (appears on the right in this picture) is the part that goes (extra) straight when I need protein.
Is It Possible For Hair To Hate All Protein?
Occasionally in wavy/curly hair groups I hear people say “I can’t use any protein – my hair HATES protein.”
All hair needs protein to some degree. I think many people who assume their hair hates protein come to that conclusion after trying something with protein that didn’t work well. My belief is that if your hair reacted poorly to protein there were two likely reasons. One could be that your hair just didn’t need protein at that time, so it was too much protein for you at that moment. If you tried different protein treatments at different times and had a bad reaction to each, your hair may just need very little protein and might be getting enough through your regular routine, so the protein treatments were all too much. As a quick example, of the 15 hair gels that I tested, 7 of them had protein. Odds are that if you’ve been using hair products without specifically checking for protein, you’ve probably still been giving your hair some protein. The other main possibility I see is that your hair may have reacted poorly to that specific protein source. Some protein molecules are bigger than others, so your hair may respond better to small proteins or large proteins. Many people believe that hair can be sensitive to specific ingredients, so perhaps your hair has a sensitivity to a certain type of protein.
Does Hair Strand Thickness Impact Moisture and Protein Balance?
Once I realized that my hair likes a lot of protein despite being low porosity, I was confused about why until I found this hair protein 101 article from the Science-y Hair blog that said fine or even ‘normal’ thickness hair needs more protein than thick or coarse thickness hair. This is repeated in her blog post titled More About (hair) Protein.
Currently, that’s my best understanding for why my hair likes protein. It’s fine-textured. So even though it’s fairly low porosity so it doesn’t need protein to ‘fill the gaps’ of damage, it needs protein for structure and support. I’m not sure how that person gained that information, or why it’s not often discussed by others when discussing moisture or protein needs.
How much protein your hair needs based on porosity and thickness
Fine hair needs protein, and so does high protein hair. If your hair is fine and low porosity, it needs a lot of protein. If your hair is coarse and low porosity, it needs only a little protein. The remainder of hair types are somewhere in the middle. I made a graphic to help illustrate the relationship between porosity and thickness for all hair types.
Why I Wish I Tried Protein Earlier
When I first did a protein treatment, I was shocked at the results. I wish I had before and after pictures. I remember feeling like it looked like I had cut my hair, because it was visibly shorter as a result of curling up more! I was also shocked that my ‘straight section’ finally had more waves. It became one of the ways that I help balance out my uneven curl pattern.
Beyond that, my hair just felt better! Which is a little odd to say, because my hair has always been soft and that feels good. However, after trying a protein treatment and noticing that my hair was observable stronger feeling, I just could tell it was good for my hair.
Before I discovered protein balance, my uneven curl pattern was pretty dramatic sometimes!
My favorite protein-containing products
NYM Curl Talk Conditioner (Amazon). (This works well for me personally, but it doesn’t offer great slip so I wouldn’t recommend it if your hair is prone to tangles)
Shea Moisture Manuka Honey & yogurt protein treatment. (Walmart / Amazon / Sally Beauty) My hair LOVES this. It’s very thick, you have to mix it with water to be able to spread it over your hair, so the 8oz container lasts a long time.
Neutral Protein Filler drops. (Sally Beauty) This is pure protein and you can add a few drops (literally just a few drops) to your rinse-out conditioner, or to a protein-free deep conditioner, to add protein. It’s really affordable. It can be a good way to start out with protein if you’re worried about protein overload, you can literally just try a single drop! The downside is that the spout of the bottle is a bit challenging so you can get more out than you intended. If that happens, let what you got out rinse down the drain and try again. Using too much of this can cause protein overload because it is pure protein.
Aphogee two-step protein treatment. (Sample size on Amazon / Sally Beauty) (Full size on Amazon / Sally Beauty) I’ve only used this a couple times, but with great results. It’s a really powerful protein treatment that my hair loves. I would not recommend using this unless you are confident that your hair needs protein.
Money saving tip:
Use my link to sign up for Rakuten and you can use their app on mobile, or browser extension on your PC to get cash back when shopping at all sorts of online retailers, including Walmart, Ulta and Sally Beauty. If you’re new to sign up and use my link, you’ll get a $25 sign up bonus (and I will get paid as well!). As long as you use Rakuten to place a $30 order in the first 90 days after signing up, they’ll just give you and I both $25. I’ve used Rakuten for years to get cashback on my online purchases and only recommend it because I know they’re legitimate. Most online retailers work with Rakuten (Amazon is the only place I know of that doesn’t). Those who participate usually offer 2%-10% cash back on your purchases.
Can Hair Need Moisture and Protein At The Same Time?
Yes, your hair can need protein and moisture. Other than neutral protein filler drops, I think most any protein treatment you buy will contain moisturizing/conditioning ingredients as well. It’s rarely just one or the other. The moisture-protein balance is often talked about as if there are two options to it, which is confusing. However, if your hair needs protein, that doesn’t mean that you need to give it just protein and no additional moisture. It’s just that you want to give it a protein boost.
Some say that when you do a protein treatment, you should always follow it up with a protein-free deep conditioner. Whenever I have tried this, it has left my hair roughly in the same place where I started – still over-moisturized. I believe it basically depends on how deprived of protein your hair is. If your hair just needs a little protein but isn’t really over moisturized, it may work to do a protein treatment and then a protein-free deep conditioning treatment. I believe this can give it some protein without changing your protein-moisture balance.
Where if your hair is really over-moisturized, so you’re wanting to pull yourself closer to the ‘protein’ end of the moisture-protein balance spectrum, then doing a protein treatment and not following it up with a protein-free deep conditioner can help correct the balance. My hair gets over-moisturized easily and seeds lots of protein, so I do protein treatments without following them up with a deep conditioner.
Hair Moisture Protein Balance Resources
As I mentioned above, I’m no expert on this, and it’s a big, confusing topic for many. For those reasons, I wanted to include some additional resources about hair protein and moisture balance that may help you.
There is such a thing as over-moisturizing your hair from NaturallyCurly.
Protein treatments for hair by holistic enchilada.