Proteins in hair care was a subject I had little or no education about before transitioning to natural hair. I knew people did homemade hair treatments with egg because they were supposed to benefit our hair but I never knew why. In fact, buying a moisturising or reconstructive deep conditioner was the same to me. I know we are all very educated on how much our hair needs water, but how educated are we about the role proteins play in our hair care?
WHAT ARE PROTEINS
If we talk about proteins people can easily identify it as a macronutrient in food alongside carbohydrates or fat, however, a significant part of us humans is also made of proteins, about 15% to be more precise. On the big picture, proteins are the building blocks of our muscles, cartilage, skin, nails and hair. But other important functions are also maintained by smaller protein molecules such as insulin or haemoglobin.
To keep our bodies functioning well we need proteins in our diet. Now, when we talk about hair and proteins it is important to understand the latter is very important because they are the main component of hair at approximately 91% with water, lipids, traces of minerals and melanin being the other constituents.
Proteins are made of small amino acids joined together to form long chains. Picture a train and its carriages, where each carriage is a small amino acid held together by peptide bonds and the whole train forms the long chain of amino acids. Now, you can have just a few hundred carriages (blocks of amino acid) or several thousand and each protein will have its own unique and complex combination since there are 20 different amino acids.
WHY ARE THEY IMPORTANT TO OUR HAIR?
Well, we have already established that proteins form the majority of out hair, so its importance is undeniable. Proteins we ingest in our diet are important to support our hair health and growth, having a poor diet can result in dry and brittle hair and even hair loss. Proteins have an important function in our hair and can affect the structure of our hair. So where exactly are they located, how easily are they affected and by what?
The human hair shaft has three layers the cuticle, the cortex and the medulla. The Cuticle is the external part of the hair and is formed by several layers of overlapping scales whose function is to protect the cortex. Next comes the Cortex which forms the bulk of our hair and is made of several protein bonds of which keratin is the main one. They provide our hair with its strength and elasticity making it pliable and resistant to breakage. This is where you will also find what gives our hair its colour – melanin. The innermost part of the hair is the Medulla and the cells that form it can be present or absent, its function is still not clear to scientists. Read Understanding You Curly Hair.
DAMAGE TO HAIR STRUCTURE AND PROTEIN
Despite being protected by a thick layer of 3 to 10 overlapping cuticle scales water can indirectly inflict damage to the cortex. When we wet our hair it swells and forces the cuticle layers to open outwards, in this condition they can be chipped, broken or ripped just from friction or manipulation leaving a dent or hole on the hair shaft that exposes the cortex and leaves it vulnerable to damage. Once damage to the cuticle scales progresses the integrity of the cortex is compromised and your hair will break easily, lack shine, strength and elasticity. This is how easy it can be to damage the protein in our hair!
WHAT CAN CAUSE DAMAGE TO PROTEIN IN HAIR
Many things can damage the proteins in our hair as we’ve seen just water alone can do that, and water is what natural curly hair most craves. Diet also has an effect on our hair proteins, but other external factors can damage the hair such as:
– Manipulation (i.e. hands, brush, comb, tight hairstyles)
– Friction (with clothes, hair, bed linen)
– Regular use of heat styling tools and/or use at high temperatures (i.e. blow dryers, curling and iron tools)
– Chemical Procedures (Relaxer, Perms, Bleach, Dye)
– Environment (the wind, low or high temperatures, air-conditioned, the sun)
– Weathering of the hair, especially at the ends
Because at any given time we expose our hair to one or several of these factors, it is very important that we are able to repair and even prevent injury to the protein bonds in the cortex. This can be done with protein treatments that you can do at home or in a salon by a professional and they can be light or very intense depending on the health of your hair. These treatments have the ability to temporarily repair damage to the hair shaft by covering holes on the cuticle layer and strengthening protein bonds in the cortex. Let’s just say it fixes what needs fixing!
WHICH PROTEINS TO USE
Proteins are present in many foods and you’ve probably slathered your hair with a few homemade treatments with ingredients containing protein such as eggs, coconut milk, avocado or mayonnaise. And these are OK to use if your hair isn’t really damaged and you use them as a maintenance treatment or you believe it makes your hair feel better. There’s no harm doing here. However, if you bleach, dye, use regular heat and/or have severely damaged hair D.I.Y mixtures are simply not enough.
This is so because proteins from eggs and like ingredients are too big to penetrate the hair shaft and help repair the protein bonds in the cortex. At best, these big protein molecules will only repair damage at the cuticle level and they can possibly be removed once the hair is rinsed. However, if you feel your hair benefits from it keep doing it, I know I do! I love how my mayonnaise mix makes my hair feel.
For proteins to be able to penetrate into the cortex these have to be broken down into smaller pieces since the amino acids that composed them can have hundreds to thousands of bonds. These broken protein molecules are called hydrolysed proteins which are essentially made of two or more blocks of amino acids are small enough to “pierce” through the cuticle layer.
Hydrolysed proteins can adhere and form temporary bonds with proteins in the cortex and can also lay on the hair shaft to mend holes, chips and cracks. In doing this, they can be considered conditioning agents because they make our hair feel softer. They also have hydrating properties as the amino acids in it attract and retain water.
According to findings in a study (only abstract is available now), hair treated with hydrolysed proteins (wheat in this study) is able to retain moisture for long periods. Why is this important? It’s important because if the hair is severely injured it means it’s more porous, it’s brittle, dull, stiff and breaks easily. Hair treated with hydrolysed proteins is “mended” and retains water, and hydrated hair is flexible, has more shine, better definition and less frizz. What curly girl doesn’t want this!?
HYDROLYSED PROTEINS COMMONLY USED
Not all hydrolysed proteins have the same size and as such some will work better on the surface of the hair shaft while others will work both on the hair surface and in the cortex. Generally, hydrolysed silk, soy and keratin proteins have a low to medium size working on and in the hair, collagen has a medium to high size depositing on the cuticle layer and somewhat in the cortex, wheat and oat hydrolysed proteins have a high size and will work on the cuticle layers.
However, we can never be sure about the size of these proteins because it can be altered and the size is never specified on hair care product labels. How they’ll work on the hair depends on many factors, but overall proteins will do their best work, or their work will be more noticeable, on chemically treated hair. This hair has had the cuticle scales raised so the chemicals could work and damage to the cortex is irreparable, therefore, proteins will make a major difference.
HOW OFTEN SHOULD THEY BE USED
How often you should apply protein treatments on your hair depends on the unique health of your hair and what it is exposed to as I mentioned previously on damage to protein in hair. Once you have this information you will be able to assert the type of protein treatment you need and how often to do it. If you need help consult a trusted professional. Read more about deep conditioners to find the right one for you and how to add heat to increase its benefits.
DIFFERENT PROTEIN TREATMENTS
Protein Packs – these are appropriate if your hair is relatively healthy and you just need to maintain the integrity of your hair. They can be used every 4 to 6 weeks.
Light Protein Treatments – if you have some light damage these are ideal and you can use them every two weeks.
Deep Protein Treatments – they are best for moderately damaged hair and you can be used them every other week.
Intense Protein Treatment – use them every week if your hair is severely damaged.
Note – Always follow these treatments with a moisturising deep conditioner as they can be hard on your hair. Any indication of the frequency of proteins treatments is just a suggestion. If you feel your hair is too stiff or hard even after a moisture treatment increase the time between treatments.
Are proteins a part of your hair care? How often do you use them?