Protein Treatments for Hair: When, How, and Why to Use Them

Red haired woman combing her hair in the sunlight.

Getty / Design by Cristina Cianci

We all know that protein is an important part of a balanced diet. Protein is what we associate with building strong muscles deep within, but does it have the power to strengthen what's on the outside of our bodies as well? For example, human hair is a complex fiber composed of dead cells, proteins, water, lipids, pigments, and trace elements. Our hair is actually made up substantially of protein, with one study identifying over 300 proteins in human hair so far, so it's easy to see why providing protein to damaged hair could be restorative. However, despite its diversity in proteins, hair is comprised primarily of keratins.

In-salon keratin treatments have been popularized for their ability to straighten and smooth hair. Still, those in the curly community have been utilizing at-home protein to improve their curl pattern for years. Protein treatments have become widely accessible in every haircare aisle, so we turned to the experts: Daboju Ogboru is a certified trichologist and holistic practitioner of NHCG Trichology in Sugar Land, Texas, and Ava Shamban, MD, is a Board Certified Dermatologist in Los Angeles and the founder of Ava MDSkin Five, and The Box by Dr Ava. They gave us the breakdown of when, how, and why you should be using protein treatments on your hair. Read on for what they had to say.

Meet the Expert

  • Type of ingredient: Strengthener
  • Main benefits: Improves hair elasticity, strengthens the hair follicle and improves the overall appearance of the hair.
  • Who should use it: Protein has proven reparative benefits but may not be necessary for those with strong, shiny, and thick hair. Those with dry, dehydrated, damaged, color-treated, extremely porous, or textured hair will benefit most. Salon protein treatments can contain harsh chemicals and may irritate those with sensitive scalps or skin conditions.
  • How often can you use it: Salon treatments can range from about seasonally to annually, depending on hair and scalp condition.  At home, use protein treatments weekly or monthly as needed.
  • Works well with: Collagen and blood circulation around the follicle.
  • Don’t use with: There are no known ingredients that negatively interfere with protein, but salon protein treatments may contain harsh chemicals that can interact with other hair care products.

Why Hair Needs Protein Treatments

If the hair is made up of protein, why does it need additional protein treatments? Dr. Shamban explained the need for protein treatments with the following "feast" analogy: "Our living hair cells in the root which is attached to the sebaceous glands within the skin. Therefore, below the surface, living cells are well fed by blood and oxygen, peptides, and lipids from our sebum.  As hair gets farther from the scalp, the feast "diminishes"—entree turns to appetizer size, and by the time we are down the shaft towards the ends, there are bare crumbs left to nourish the hair. As we lose moisture and nourishment, the keratinized protein begins to unravel and break down. It loses strength, elasticity, and the bonds weaken. Eventually, it cracks, dismantles, and breaks or splits. Rebuilding, supporting, and boosting this protein matrix is key to healthy hair and scalp. This can be done chemically in the salon or more naturally and botanically at home."

Benefits of Protein Treatments for Hair

The key benefit of a protein treatment is the ability for the protein ingredients like hydrolyzed wheat protein or silk amino acids to attach directly to the hair follicle and harden the cuticle layer. This places a barrier around the follicle, which protects it from further damage, Ogboru explains. Shamban agrees, adding that protein treatments are designed to restore and seal the cuticle preventing transepidermal water loss and keeping nourishment in. 

It is important to note that when both experts discussed the benefits of protein treatments for hair, they typically referred to the benefits of an at-home treatment. In-salon keratin and other protein treatments have been found to have some serious health risks, including exposure to formaldehyde. Protein treatments in salons differ from home protein masques or deep conditioners. "Salon grade protein treatments contain a range of potent and often harsh chemicals, including formaldehyde. Combined with heat, it may actually have a reverse effect and further dry hair," Shamban cautions.

  • Strengthens the hair follicle: Protein is the building block of the hair, Ogboru explains, so replacing protein that has been lost or damaged at the follicle rows away from the root helps to strengthen the entire length of the hair.
  • Improves hair elasticity: Protein treatments improve the elasticity of the hair follicle by boosting the protein matrix and strengthening the bonds to prevent breaking or splitting.
  • Prevents transepidermal water loss: By restoring and sealing the cuticle, protein treatments prevent transepidermal water loss and lock in nourishment, Shamban shares.
  • Helps to eliminate breakage and split ends: In preventing transepidermal water loss and improving the strength and elasticity of the follicle, protein treatments help eliminate breakage and split ends. Ogboru adds that this can give the appearance of hair growth, as protein treatments prevent weak, brittle hair and stronger hair breaks less.
  • Improves the overall appearance of the hair: The popularity of protein treatments is due largely to the observable difference they make in the appearance of the hair. "Proteins will certainly impact the density, elasticity, and strength of hair. In addition, they will help to eliminate breakage and split ends and help hair reach its potential diameter - overall resulting in the appearance of more, better or healthy hair," Shamban explains.

Hair Type Considerations

Our experts agree that protein treatments are safe for all hair types; however, those with dry, dehydrated, damaged, color-treated, extremely porous, or textured hair will benefit the most. While there is no harm in at-home protein treatments, they may not be necessary for those with healthy, shiny, strong, and thick hair. Shamban cautions that there has been a history of high-intensity chemically fortified keratin treatments in salons, although alternatives may now be available. She warns that "Protein treatments in salons differ from home protein masques or deep conditioners.  Salon-grade protein treatments contain a range of potent and often harsh chemicals, including formaldehyde. Combined with heat, it may actually have a reverse effect and further dry hair."

When and How to Use Protein Treatments for Hair

Both experts preferred the more botanical, at-home protein treatments for hair but recommended monitoring your hair for protein deficiency before receiving any treatments. The time between salon treatments can range from about seasonally to annually, depending on hair and scalp condition. In contrast, at-home protein treatments can be used weekly or monthly as needed. If pursuing at-home protein treatments, there are many options, including DIY masks and hair products that contain protein. Both experts recommended a 30-45 minute application, and you can leave some products on overnight. You can amplify the effects of a protein treatment by adding heat. A simple protein heat treatment is as follows:

  1. Apply protein treatment or mask to hair from scalp to ends. Comb through with fingers or a wide-toothed comb to ensure even application.
  2. Wrap hair into a bun and apply a covering, such as a shower cap.
  3. Using your blowdryer (on low heat), apply heat to the head. Consistently move the dryer around the head to ensure even heat distribution and prevent burning.
  4. Remove covering and rinse treatment out. Depending on the specific product's instructions, you may need to shampoo and condition following this treatment.

The Best Protein Treatments for Hair

Philip B Russian Amber Imperial Gold Masque $225

"While expensive, this masque made by my friend Philip B is truly worth its weight in gold, and a little goes a long way,"  Shamban shares. She recommends looking for a pea protein-based product with any in-home product, which combines protein and lipids and works wonders. There are many protein treatments on the market, each designed for different hair types and textures.

damage remedy
Aveda damage remedy™ intensive restructuring treatment $40

As far as home shampoo, Shamban recommends this one from Aveda as it uses quinoa proteins and jojoba oil with castor oil to help restore, restructure, and protect against future damage and breakage.

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