Protein-Moisture Balance for Natural Hair: A Guide

Black woman smiling with natural curly hair

Lara Callahan/Refinery29/Getty Images

You know that your hair needs both moisture and protein, but when it comes to how much or how often you need them, you might be at a loss. Unfortunately, there's no magic formula that can determine how much moisture and protein your tresses need. Add factors like chemical processes, daily styling routines, and even porosity, and you can see why it's not that simple.

We contacted trichologist, Precious Rutlin, founder of Help Me With My Hair, to help us understand everything we need to know about protein and moisture in natural hair.

Keep scrolling to determine general guidelines on how to create a good moisture/protein balance for you.

Meet the Expert

Precious Rutlin is a virtual trichologist and hair loss expert. Her website, Help Me With My Hair, is dedicated to providing customized hair and wellness routines to get to the root cause of hair loss, thinning, and scalp issues.

What Is Protein-Moisture Balance?

Black woman with natural hair

Dahyembi Joi/Getty Images

So you may be wondering what exactly protein-moisture balance is. Allow me to let Rutlin explain: "Protein-moisture balance [is] when your hair texture has the proper hydration, nutrients, and strength to prevent breakage in your hair shaft." However, this balance is a delicate game—too much protein might cause breakage, while not enough protein may also cause breakage. How can you tell if your hair has the correct protein-moisture balance? To test, take a few strands of your hair and stretch it down towards the ground and release it. If your hair bounces back to its original length, congrats, your hair is nice and balanced. If it stretches more than usual and breaks, you possibly have too much/not enough protein, and if you stretch it and it feels limp and sort of weak and lifeless, you might have too much moisture.

It's not always easy finding a good moisture-protein balance, but when you're familiar with your hair and its needs, you'll know when to add or cut back on the various components required for healthy tresses.

Why Natural Hair Requires Protein and Moisture

Black woman with bantu knots and fro

Rochelle Brock/Refinery29/Getty Images

Contrary to popular belief, natural hair doesn't have supernatural strength. It's actually quite the opposite. Natural Black hair is more susceptible to breakage than the other hair textures, thanks to the unique shape of the hair follicle.

As Rutlin told me, "All hair textures require protein and moisture, especially kinky, coily, and textured hair. Your hair texture is determined by the shape of your hair follicle. Kinky, coily, textured hair tends to have a flat-shaped, small, and fine hair follicle, which most African Americans have. This is why natural hair, and kinky/coily hair especially, requires both protein and moisture."

Protein vs. Moisture: Which One Does Your Hair Need?

Young Black woman with natural curly hair

CoffeeandMilk/Getty Images

Hair is made up of protein, so yes, you need it, but maybe not as much as you think. Protein strengthens the hair, but treatments are often drying, so you don't want to overdo them. You may need more protein if your tresses are:

  • Relaxed
  • Heat styled frequently
  • Colored
  • Damaged

Just because you need more protein doesn't mean you need a lot of it. Light protein in the form of a leave-in conditioner may be enough. For most women, the only time an intense product (like ApHogee Two-Step Protein Treatment $24) is required is due to severe damage and breakage (i.e., a relaxer gone wrong). Otherwise, any of these products should provide enough protein on an occasional basis, about once or twice per week or less. You can find them at major retailers like Target or Walmart, and beauty supply stores or chains like Sally.

What if you don't color, chemically process or heat style your hair at all? Your protein needs are much less than someone who does. You may find you never need to apply additional protein to your hair, and that's fine. 

Anytime you apply an intense protein treatment, you must follow up with a deeply moisturizing conditioner. Rutlin explains, "You cannot have one without the other. This is why you see some people have brittle and damaged hair. The keratin in their hair is depleted over time due to a number of factors, like heat styling, chemical damage, environmental, health issues, etc. Their cortex (keratin filaments which hold the hair’s disulphide and hydrogen bonds together) of their hair cuticle has become exposed, creating porous spots in the hair follicle and making it susceptible to further damage. If you don't moisturize, you run the risk of brittle, damaged hair, which is exactly what you're trying to fix or prevent in the first place."

As a general guideline, start by making sure your hair gets twice as many moisturizing treatments as protein. Women who do a lot to their hair probably need weekly moisture. This means you have to deep condition your hair frequently, as well.

How to Rebalance Over Moisturized Hair

Young Black woman with medium length afro

HEX/Getty Images

So let's say your hair is too moisturized. This is known as hygral fatigue and can be caused when your hair's cuticle is damaged and is therefore extremely porous—think a bad dye job, a relaxer, or a perm gone wrong. There's no need to worry though, as Rutlin told me, it's a relatively simple fix.

"To rebalance overly moisturized hair, consider using a conditioner that has protein in it or using a protein treatment," says Rutlin. You should do this at least once a month. Rutlin continues: "Be sure to take caution and do not over use the protein treatment, as it can dry your hair out and cause it to become brittle." Brittle hair can lead to major matting—the kind that can't be untangled.

And if your hair is too damaged for a protein conditioner or protein treatment, "you can always cut off the damaged hair," says Rutlin.

How to Clarify Hair with Too Much Protein

Young Black woman with afro and vitiligo

Jabulile Nadia Newman/Getty Images

The telltale signs of too much protein include stiff, brittle strands, hair that breaks way too easily, and your hair looks like...well, straw. Rutlin says, "When you have too much protein in your hair, you can opt for a clarifying shampoo to help remove the protein. Clarifying shampoos are known to remove residue and product build up from the hair shaft. It is even known to strip your hair of its natural oils." 

Regular exposure to water helps to maintain softness, which is why regular cleansing is key. Add conditioning after each shampoo, and deep conditioning at least twice per month, and you have a good start at well-moisturized tresses.

However, you'll probably find moisturizing treatments throughout the week helpful as well. Creams, oils, and lotions help seal in moisture, which is why it's best to apply these products to damp hair. Water or water-based products are the best foundation for that. Depending on your hair's unique makeup, you might find daily moisturizing necessary, or once-a-week applications may be more than enough. You may also find your moisture needs change throughout the year, so be prepared to tweak your routine as required.

Article Sources
Byrdie takes every opportunity to use high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial guidelines to learn more about how we keep our content accurate, reliable and trustworthy.
  1. Quaresma MV, Martinez Velasco MA, Tosti A. Hair breakage in patients of African descent: Role of dermoscopySkin Appendage Disord. 2015;1(2):99-104. doi:10.1159/000436981

Related Stories