Protein sensitivity is a relatively under-researched topic in the natural hair world.
Many naturals often cite adverse effects after using protein treatments and protein-based products, such as brittle, stiff hair.
To be clear: this is the opposite of what a protein treatment is supposed to do!
Protein treatments are meant to strengthen the hair, not dry it out. If this sounds like you, you may be “protein sensitive”.
Here’s what you need to know about protein sensitivity, including the best products for protein sensitive hair.
The Importance of Protein in Natural Hair
Protein, as we know, is one of the most important cornerstones of healthy natural hair (after moisture).
Simply put, our hair is composed of up to 95% of keratin proteins (located in the cortex) that provide strength and elasticity to our curls and coils.
Without protein, our hair would be weak and lifeless.
Remember: natural hair is incredibly sensitive to damage from both mechanical (detangling, manipulation) or chemical weathering (dyes, bleach, relaxer, sun damage).
It’s important to remember that hair is dead cells. Unlike skin, our hair is unable to regenerate or heal itself after experiencing damage.
As such, we need to replenish our hair with strengthening proteins that can replenish our lost protein stores and keep our hair fibres strong, using replenish protein treatments.
If you experience dryness after using a protein treatment, you may have protein sensitivity.
What Is Protein Sensitivity?
Protein sensitivity occurs when the hair has an adverse reaction to protein-based leave-in and wash-off products. Many low porosity naturals, or naturals with coarse-stranded hair, are also protein sensitive.
Here are some common signs of protein sensitivity.
- Brittle hair that starts to break
- Legions or bumps at the scalp
- Extreme frizz
- Cannot hold water
Now logically, as natural hair is made up of proteins, it’s technically impossible to be protein sensitive as a natural.
The real trick is to use the right type of proteins for your hair to make sure you don’t experience any of these issues.
Generally speaking, smaller-sized proteins such as amino acids and peptides work best for protein-sensitive hair, as they actually penetrate into the hair fibre, supporting the native proteins in the cortex.
How Do I Know If I Am Protein Sensitive?
The best way to know if you are protein sensitive is to do a patch test. Take a small section of hair near your ear, where the hair is hidden, and apply a protein treatment for 20 minutes.
Wash it out and take stock of your hair. If your hair is dry, limp and breaking, you have protein sensitive hair.
Another effective litmus test to know if you are protein sensitive is to know your porosity.
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.
High porosity hair, as it has gaps and breaks along the cuticle layer, can be more liberal with protein-based products as they will fill in cuticle gaps and increase moisture retention.
If you are low porosity, you want limit the use of proteins and protein-like molecules, such as coconut oil, which create films around the hair.
The best way to do this is to use small-sized protein treatments monthly, and ensure that your regular leave-in products contain little to no protein/protein-adjacent ingredients.
Best Products for Protein Sensitive Hair
The below products are protein-sensitive friendly and also contain little to no coconut oil, which we know is a protein-like ingredient.
Mielle Pomegranate & Honey Shampoo
Best for TYPE 4
This shampoo is one of the most moisturizing shampoos on the market. Key ingredients such as honey and panthenol reduce friction between hair strands, providing additional slip for detangling and does not overly strip the hair once rinsed. A must try for Type 4 naturals!
TGIN Miracle Repairx Deep Hydrating Hair Masque
Best for TYPE 3-4
This mask is loaded with a healthy balance of strengthening and conditioning ingredients that will soften your coils and keep dryness at bay. A great protein-free deep conditioner for boosting moisture in low porosity/protein-sensitive hair.
Camille Rose Curl Love Moisture Milk
Best for TYPE 4
This buttery-soft leave-in contains incredibly moisturizing ingredients such as avocado oil, macademia oil and green tea. The minimal protein formula works well with low porosity naturals, yet contains film-forming humectants that will help high porosity hair with moisture retention. Plays well with creams and gels for defined twist-outs.
Camille Rose Naturals Almond Jai Twisting Butter
Best for TYPE 4
If you’re looking for a setting cream for your twist-outs and braid-outs, look no further: this twisting butter is so rich and creamy, your hair will feel supple and soft after taking down the style, especially if you have dry hair. Plays well with their Curl Love Moisture Milk.
Kinky Curly Curling Custard
Best for TYPE 3-4
This gel is a cult classic. Long before the plethora of hair gels for natural hair, this gel was holding it down for the curls. Jam packed with film-forming plant extracts such as marshmallow root and aloe vera, it will keep your coils hydrated and ensure every coil is defined. A fan fave!
Protein Treatments for Protein Sensitive Hair
As mentioned, you should still try to incorporate proteins into your routine. The trick is to use small-sized protein molecules, at least once a month, that can actually penetrate into your hair strands without leaving a film.
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 as a pre-poo will replace broken bonds in your cuticles caused by sun damage, dyes/bleach, heat tools and manipulation.
Mielle Babassu & Mint Deep Conditioner
Best for TYPE 4
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.
Final Thoughts on the Best Products for Protein Sensitive Hair
The important thing to take away from all of this is that protein sensitive hair still needs some protein in their routines, but in a very controlled setting.
The best products for protein sensitive hair on a day-to-day basis (i.e. leave-in products) are entirely moisture based with little to no protein and protein-like ingredients, such as coconut oil.
On a monthly basis, using smaller-sized molecular proteins on your hair, such as amino acids, will keep your protein stores strong and solid without causing brittleness or dryness.