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—keratin especially—so it's easy to see why providing protein to damaged hair could be restorative—or at least that's what we turned to experts Daboju Ogboru and Dr. Ava Shamban to find out.
Meet the Expert
Given how widely accessible protein treatments are—you can find them in any haircare aisle, after all—we were wondering whether they actually live up to the hair hype. To satisfy our curiosity, Ogboru and Shamban 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.
- Type of ingredient: Strengthener
- Main benefits: Improves hair elasticity, strengthens the hair follicle, and enhances the overall appearance of hair.
- Who should use it: Those with dry, damaged hair.
- How often can you use it: Salon treatments can range from about seasonally to annually. At home, use protein treatments weekly or monthly as needed.
- Works well with: Oils like castor and jojoba
- 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.
Benefits of Protein Treatments for Hair
If the hair is made up of protein, why does it need additional protein treatments? According to Shamban, hair naturally loses moisture and nourishment the farther away it is from the root. "As we lose moisture and nourishment, the keratinized protein begins to unravel and break down. It loses strength, elasticity, and the bonds weaken. 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."
- Protect hair from damage: Protein ingredients like hydrolyzed wheat protein or silk amino acids attach directly to the hair follicle and harden the cuticle layer. This places a barrier around the follicle, which protects it from further damage, says Ogboru.
- Strengthen hair: 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.
- Improve elasticity: Hair lacking in protein will often stretch more than usual before breaking. A protein treatment will help to restore hair's elasticity so that it stretches normally and then bounces back.
- Help to eliminate breakage and split ends: In improving the strength and elasticity of hair, 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.
- Enhances the overall appearance of 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, damaged, color-treated, extremely porous, or textured hair will benefit the most. While there is no harm in doing at-home protein treatments, they may not be necessary for those with strong, healthy hair.
How to Use Protein Treatments for Hair
Although both in-salon and at-home protein treatments exist, Shamban and Ogboru prefer the latter. "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. However, despite there having been a history of high-intensity chemically fortified keratin treatments in salons, alternatives may now be available, she adds.
If pursuing at-home protein treatments, there are many options, including DIY masks and hair products that contain protein. But before starting any treatment, both experts recommend first monitoring your hair for protein deficiency which can be mistaken for a lack of moisture. If all checks out (meaning, you could use the protein boost), try an at-home treatment weekly or monthly, depending on the condition of your hair and scalp. Shamban and Ogboru recommend a 30-45 minute application, noting that you can leave some products on overnight. A simple protein heat treatment is as follows:
- Apply protein treatment or mask to hair from scalp to ends. Comb through with fingers or a wide-toothed comb to ensure even application.
- Wrap hair into a bun and apply a covering, such as a shower cap. (Note: Some treatments do not require a covering so always follow product instructions).
- Blowdry (on low heat) consistently around your head to ensure even heat distribution and prevent burning.
- Remove covering and rinse treatment out. Depending on the specific product's directions, you may need to shampoo and condition following this treatment.
The Best Protein Treatments for Hair
There are many protein treatments on the market, each designed for different hair types and textures. "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 to amazing effect.
We'll be the first to admit that we're suckers for cute packaging. So it should come as no surprise that when we saw this K-beauty protein treatment we had to get our hands—or hair, rather— on it. And while it's not uncommon for cute packaging to compensate for less than stellar products, fortunately for us, that's not the case here. Featuring collagen and ceramides, this treatment proves that popular skincare ingredients can also work wonders on hair.
If your damaged tresses could use some damage control, then why not reach for this aptly-named treatment by Aveda? As far as home shampoos go, Shamban recommends this one as it uses quinoa proteins and jojoba oil with castor oil to help restore, restructure, and protect against future damage and breakage.
This two-step protein treatment is a crowd favorite, especially among those with natural hair. It aims to bring you silky-soft strands—but only after turning them rock hard. Don't worry though, that's all part of the process and once complete, your Medusfied mane will spring back to life—better than ever, no less. Apply it directly to strands, combing throughout for even distribution, or our personal preference, via a spray bottle.
As its name implies, this hair mask delivers on its promise of resetting, renewing, and repairing dry and damaged locks. That's all thanks to all-star ingredients like argan oil, green tea extract, and quinoa protein that come together to ward off bad hair days. And while most hair types and textures can benefit from this mask, it's worth noting that keratin-treated tresses don't mesh well with the seawater formula.
Should you use heat with protein treatments?
Yes since heat may amplify the effects of a protein treatment—just don't overdo it. Opt for a low heat setting since high heat can damage hair.
How can I tell if my hair needs protein?
If you gently pull healthy hair, it will stretch before bouncing back to its normal state. However, hair that lacks protein will stretch and then break.
Should I wash my hair before a protein treatment?
Yes, for best results, protein treatments should be done after shampooing hair.
Sci Rep. "Fusion Proteins With Chromogenic and Keratin Binding Modules." 2019.