The Top 8 Nourishing Protein Treatments for Natural Hair

May 15, 2021

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Fact: having a protein treatment in your routine is essential for breakage-free coils.

Unlike deep conditioning, where the aim is conditioning the hair, natural hair protein treatments are to strengthen and support the cortex and cuticle layer, which helps to strengthen the strands, reduces breakage and increase elasticity.

a GIF of a man exclaiming "Science!"

Not all protein treatments for natural hair work the same, so it’s important to understand which type of protein will work best for your hair and create a protein regimen that caters to your porosity, curl texture, hair width and density.

Here’s the skinny on the best natural hair protein treatment for your curls and coils!

What Are Protein Treatments for Natural Hair?

Protein treatments are just as the name implies – the act of applying protein-based wash off conditioners to our hair. 

The main difference between protein treatments and regular treatments is that, fundamentally, protein is used for strength and shine rather than conditioning and softening.

More specifically, proteins can:

  • Penetrate into the cortex and support your native proteins;
  • Coat the cuticle, conditioning the hair and adding shine;
  • Fill in gaps along the cuticle layer, encouraging moisture retention and reducing frizz

Remember, natural hair is incredibly sensitive and proteins aim to mitigate damage. Damage to our curls and coils can occur in many different ways, including:

  • Using heat tools;
  • Chemically manipulating the hair (bleaching, dyeing, relaxing)
  • UV rays from the sun and other types of environmental damage
  • Mechanically manipulating the hair (normally through detangling)

As such, protein upkeep is important for all naturals. But, not all proteins will work for your hair. It’s important to understand how proteins work and your key hair characteristics to properly personalize your protein regimen.

Can I Use a DIY Protein Treatment?

Most of the protein in natural hair products are hydrolyzed – meaning that they’ve been broken down in smaller molecules, unlike the proteins found in food, which have a higher molecular weight.

This is why “DIY protein treatments” using eggs, mayonnaise and other protein-containing foods are ineffective as protein treatments – the food molecules have not been hydrolyzed and formulated to fit into your hair strands.

Your hair may seem more shiny and conditioned after a DIY protein treatment, but this effect is surface level only and unfortunately will not be as reparative as a formulated protein treatment.

Signs You Need A Protein Treatment, STAT

Some example warning signs you need to protein treatment include:

  • Frizzy curls that cannot hold a style;
  • Excessive breakage;
  • Hair is increasingly dryer than usual;
  • Cannot hold water as easily as it once used to;
  • Turning light coloured, especially at the ends

You should also include protein treatments in your routines if you:

  • Use heat tools (ex: flat iron, blow dryer) on your hair;
  • Bleach or dye your hair regularly;
  • Go out in the sun;
  • Relax or use texturalizer on your hair.

This will ensure you are replenishing your lost protein stores and keeping your hair strong enough to withstand the manipulation.

Before You Use Protein, Know This

To customize your protein routine, the most important factors you should consider are your porosity and your hair width.

How Porosity Influences Your Natural Hair Protein Treatment

Hair porosity is defined by how porous your hair strands are. This is a direct indication of how much water is either retained or absorbed.

Natural Hair Porosity

Natural hair porosity is the ability of your hair to absorb water and/products.

Low porosity natural hair has a low absorption rate, because the cuticles are stubbornly closed. It is difficult for this hair porosity to absorb moisture.

High porosity natural hair has a high absorption rate, because the cuticles are always open. It is difficult for this hair porosity to retain moisture.

Some porosities respond better to protein than others.

an infographic of the best proteins for natural hair per porosity

High porosity hair fares very well with all sizes of protein. Larger sized protein molecules, such as keratin and collagen, create a film around the hair that encourages moisture retention. This is critical for high porosity hair that experiences rapid water loss.

The smaller sized proteins (think amino acids and peptides) are able to penetrate into the hair strands and support the native proteins in the cortex, which is great for all naturals.

Low porosity hair, on the other hand, may experience “protein-sensitivity” when using larger-sized proteins.

The key with low porosity hair is to use smaller-sized molecules that can go through the cuticle wall and enter the cortex and do not leave a film behind, such as amino acids.

Protein-sensitive naturals should also slowly incorporate protein into their routines to avoid overloading the hair.

How Hair Width Influences Your Natural Hair Protein Treatment

Fine to medium hair strands may find protein treatments effective in strengthening their hair and providing support.

The image below shows a typical cross section of hair. We can see that the bulk of our hair’s diameter size comes from our hair’s cortex. The size of our cortex determines how strong and supported our hair strands are, as this is where our keratin is stored.

an image of a cross section of hair showing the cuticle and the cortex layer

In other words, the finer your hair, the smaller your cortex, resulting in hair that is more prone to breakage.

Smaller-sized proteins that penetrate into the cortex is best for fine to medium hair and will not leave behind a heavy film, which will weigh down fine-stranded hair.

For coarse strands, protein may make the hair feel more rigid, so it’s best to opt for larger-sized proteins, less frequently.

Best Protein Treatment for Natural Hair

an image of olaplex no 3 hair perfector

Olaplex No 3 Hair Perfector

Best for all naturals

Olaplex’s Hair Perfector No 3 Repairing Treatment has a patented agent that is chemically similar to the disulfide protein bonds in our hair. Using it monthly prior to your wash day (low porosity) or every 3 wash days (high porosity) as a pre-poo will replace broken bonds in your cuticles caused by sun damage, dyes/bleach, heat tools and manipulation. Great for all porosities.

an image of mielle babassu and mint deep conditioner

Mielle Babassu & Mint Deep Conditioner

Best for TYPE 4, low porosity

One of Mielle’s most popular products, the active ingredient in this mask is babassu seed oil, a significant source of Vitamin E and fatty lipids. The protein source in this formula, amino acids, are small enough to penetrate into your hair strands and fortify your cortex. A great light protein boost for low porosity naturals but high porosity naturals can use it as a weekly deep conditioner.

a photo showing aphogee two minute reconstructor how to take care of natural hair monthly

Aphogee Keratin 2 Minute Reconstructor

Best for TYPE 3-4, all porosities

This protein treatment is amazing for a protein up-keep, reversing mild heat damage and strenghtening high-porosity hair. Your hair will be defined and bouncy immediately after washing it out. For best results, use for 10-15 minutes in the shower for Type 4 hair, and wash out with cool water. Follow up immediately with a moisturizing deep conditioner.

an image of tgin miracle repairx curl protein reconstructor

TGIN Miracle Repairx Curl Protein Reconstructor

Best for TYPE 3-4, low porosity

A gentle protein treatment, this product contains a plethora of conditioning fatty alcohols and conditioning agents to soften the hair and strengthen it at the same time. Great for protein-sensitive low porosity naturals who are getting their feet wet with protein treatments.

an image of palmer deep conditioning protein pack

Palmer’s Deep Conditioning Protein Pack

Best for TYPE 3-4, high porosity

The most affordable protein treatment on the market, this product contains larger-sized protein molecules that will aid porous cuticles in moisture retention in the long run. A great protein treatment for high porosity naturals who experience excessive dryness.

an image of aphogee two minute reconstructor

Aphogee Two-Step Protein Treatment

Best for TYPE 3-4, high porosity

This treatment is the older, more mature sister of the Aphogee Keratin 2 Minute Reconstructor treatment. It is a very intensive treatment made for naturals dealing with extreme chemical damage from dyes, bleach or relaxers. It has been known to revive lost curl patterns just after one use! Follow the directions on the back of the bottle and always follow up with a moisturizing, protein-free deep conditioner.

an image of shea moisture jamaican black castor oil strengthen & restore treatment masque

Shea Moisture Jamaican Black Castor Oil Strengthen & Restore Treatment Masque

Best for TYPE 2 -3, high porosity

This masque contains strengthening oils in addition to the proteins and conditioning ingredients that will soften the hair simultaneously. Great for waves and curls that need a little pick-me=up..

Final Thoughts on the Best Protein Treatment for Natural Hair

Protein treatments are essential for strong and supple curls and coils. Because our hair is made up of protein, it’s important to replenish our lost protein stores with well formulated protein treatments.

Be sure to understand your porosity and hair width before choosing a protein treatment. Remember to follow up your intensive protein treatments with moisturizing deep conditioners to maintain your protein-moisture balance.

The Curl Market is a natural hair blog catered to helping black naturals grow their curls into a long, luscious manes.

We use the latest evidence-based scientific research to provide you with the top tips on growing your curls, regardless of hair type.

We also provide lifestyle tips, both self care and mental care, to ensure you are optimizing your body’s natural hair growth cycle – because you can’t grow natural hair if you’re stressed out!

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WRITTEN BY

Ayana Aden

Ayana is The Curl Market’s brand founder. When she’s not deep in natural hair research or creating content, she’s hanging on the couch with her husband and her cat, reading a book or scrolling through TikTok. Follow her on Instagram at @tothecurlmarket.

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Learning your curl type is an important step in learning how to take care of your natural hair. It can help you understand what products will work best for you, how often to shampoo, how to style your natural hair, and other key information.

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