Ahh, protein moisture balance – the biggest curly hair mystery of all!
If you’ve spent any amount of time among the curly hair communities of Instagram, Tik Tok or even YouTube, then chances are you’ll have heard of the term ‘protein moisture balance’. But what exactly does it mean? And, how do you know if your hair needs protein or moisture?
It’s certainly a topic that took me a while to get my head around when I first started looking after my curls, but now that I’ve got a better understanding of it, I wanted to put a guide together that you can refer back to.
If you’ve ever wondered why your fine curls suddenly started falling limp and feeling really soft after deep conditioning twice a week, or why your coarse hair feels straw-like after using ‘strengthening’ products, this post is for you!
I’m going to be splitting this guide into the following sections, which you can jump to:
- What is protein?
- What is moisture?
- How to re-balance your hair when it’s in overload
Let’s dive into the deep deep depths of protein moisture balance…
What is protein moisture balance?
All curly hair needs protein and moisture. In fact, our hair is made up of a protein called keratin. But the amount you need of each will depend on your hair type (i.e. texture/thickness and porosity).
As described by Science-y hair blog, protein moisture balance is a balance between strength/stiffness and softness. We get strength from protein and softness from moisturising/softening ingredients (more on that below).
There’s a few things to keep in mind when thinking about protein moisture balance:
- Everyone’s hair is different, so will need a different amount of protein and moisture
- It’s possible to need both protein and moisture at the same time
- A product that contains protein can be moisturising – it may contain lots of moisturising ingredients (e.g. protein deep conditioners)
- With all the moisturising curly hair products on the market these days, it’s fairly easy to overmoisturise some hair types – especially once your hair is healthy or if your curls are naturally fine or soft
- When referring to moisture and moisturising products in relation to protein moisture balance, we usually mean ingredients that make our curls feel soft and smooth. Also referred to as conditioning or softening ingredients (more on that in the ‘what is moisture?’ section)
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“Do I need to worry about protein moisture balance?”
Protein moisture balance can be hard to get your head around. And it’s particularly overwhelming for those at the beginning of their curly journey.
If you’ve just started caring for your curls, don’t worry about protein moisture balance. Just focus on getting a curly hair routine together.
When you first start caring for your curls after years of neglecting them, your hair is more likely to need moisture (skip to the ‘what is moisture?’ section and watch my winter haircare video on YouTube for tips).
However, if you’ve been looking after your curls for a while and have started noticing some changes, or finding that what once worked no longer does, it may be time to look into protein moisture balance.
What is protein?
Protein helps strengthen our hair, adds structure, stiffness and shine and keeps our hair hydrated. It does this by filling in gaps in the hair’s cuticles, which helps temporarily repair damaged areas and lock moisture in.
What hair types need protein?
As a general rule of thumb, fine and medium hair will usually need more protein than coarse hair. This is because protein gives fine-medium hair a level of stiffness, support and structure.
However, coarse hair doesn’t really need the extra support, so using too much protein can cause it to feel dry, brittle and tangly.
Damaged, colour treated and high porosity hair is also likely to need more protein.
It’s not true that low porosity hair doesn’t need protein. It usually just needs smaller proteins to penetrate the hair (more on protein sizes below).
Signs hair needs protein
- Struggles to hold a curl – falls limp easily
- Minimal elasticity – if you pull a curl it doesn’t bounce back
- Feels overly soft and mushy, with no substance to it
- Snaps and breaks easily even after using conditioner
- Won’t behave as normal, though you’ve tried everything (‘everything’ usually includes deep conditioning – which may have made it worse)
- Lots of wet frizz
Note: When someone describes their hair as ‘overmoisturised’ they’re usually referring to these symptoms, and it’s usually down to using too much moisture and/or not enough protein (more on moisture overload below).
How to identify protein in curly hair products
Common protein terms and ingredients to look for in your hair products include:
- Hydrolyzed (e.g. hydrolyzed wheat protein)
- Amino acids (e.g. silk amino acids)
- Peptides (e.g. methiopeptide)
Remember: Just because a product contains protein, it doesn’t mean it’s ‘high’ in protein. Generally, the first five or six ingredients of a product ingredients list are the most concentrated, so if a protein appears within the first five or six, it’s going to be higher protein than one that contains protein at the end of the list (which is hardly any protein at all).
How to give the hair protein
The main ways to give hair protein are to:
- Use products that contain protein
- Do a protein treatment
Use products that contain protein
If you want to introduce protein into your routine, start by using products that contain protein.
This can be through any hair product, including:
- Styling products (e.g. cream, foam gel)
Take a look at your existing products and see if any contain the protein ingredients mentioned above. If they do, take note of where in the ingredients list the proteins are so you can determine whether it’s high or low in protein.
Do a protein treatment
If using protein-containing products isn’t working out for you after a few wash days, you may need something stronger, like a protein treatment. Protein treatments contain a higher concentration of protein, so make sure your hair definitely needs protein before doing one, or you could end up with protein overload (more on protein overload below). Some people may need to do monthly protein treatments, while others may rarely – or never – need to.
Protein treatments for curly hair include:
- DIY Gelatine Treatment (partly hydrolyzed collagen) *my fav as it’s cheap and easy*
- Aphogee 2-step Protein Treatment (contains hydrolyzed collagen)
- Botanika The Mender (contains hydrolyzed collagen)
- At home beer rinse (contains protein from grains and yeasts) *vegetarian option*
- Rice water rinse (contains some protein and inositol, a carbohydrate with protective benefits) *vegetarian option*
A deep conditioner or hair mask that contains protein is not a protein treatment. Deep conditioning treatments generally contain lots of moisturising ingredients, which can send your hair even further into overmoisturised territory.
Protein types and sizes
Proteins come in a range of sizes. The size and type that suits your hair best will depend on various factors, including your hair properties and how well that protein type can bond to your hair.
Here’s a look at different protein types and sizes:
Amino acids and peptides
- Size: Smallest
- Good for: Most hair types, including low porosity hair
Hydrolyzed silk, keratin and collagen
- Size: Small
- Good for: Most hair types
- Size: Medium
- Good for: High porosity, damaged/brittle and fine-medium hair
Hydrolyzed wheat, oat, quinoa, corn, soy proteins
- Size: Medium-large
- Good for: High porosity, damaged, chemically treated and fine-medium hair
What is moisture?
In a nutshell, moisture = water. To moisturise the hair, we need to add water.
But it gets a little confusing when we talk about moisture in relation to protein moisture balance. When we say our hair is moisturised, we usually mean it feels soft and smooth. And when we say products are moisturising, we mean they make our curls feel soft and help the hair retain moisture. Some may refer to these kinds of products/ingredients as ‘softening’ or ‘conditioning’ to prevent confusion.
What hair types need moisture?
Curly hair is naturally drier than straight hair, which means it needs more moisture. The reason for this is because the scalp’s natural oils can’t glide down curly hair as easily. If you’re just starting out looking after your curls, you’ll usually need moisture rather than protein.
Generally, coarse hair will need more added moisture than fine hair because it’s naturally drier.
Signs hair needs moisture
- Feels brittle and dry
- Breaks easily
- Gets very tangled
- Lots of ‘angry’ frizz
How to identify moisture in curly hair products
To achieve moisturised hair, i.e. get water into your curls and keep it there, there are certain ingredients that can help. These include:
Humectants, which attract moisture to hair
- Aloe vera, glycerin, honey, panthenol, propylene glycol and hydrolyzed proteins
Emollients, which seal moisture in
- Oils, ‘butters’ (e.g.) shea butter and fatty alcohols (e.g.) cetyl alcohol
To stop hair losing moisture, humectants need to be used in conjunction with emollients.
How to give the hair moisture
Luckily, most products for curly hair are designed to moisturise the hair (which is why lots of us end up overmoisturising our hair after using these products for an extended period of time).
The kind of products to look for when your hair needs moisture include:
- Conditioners (regular, deep and leave-in conditioners)
- Curl creams
- Water: Dry hair is thirsty hair, so using things like the squish to condish method and styling on soaking wet hair can help get water into the hair, and your products will seal it in.
Just because a product contains protein, doesn’t mean it’s not moisturising. For example, the Bouclème Intensive Moisture Treatment is super moisturising and contains wheat bran extract – a protein.
Balancing moisture and protein in your hair
As well as following the advice in this guide, the best way to figure out what your hair likes and find the right balance for you is through trial and error.
- Use protein-containing products and see how your hair responds – if your hair becomes more structured and bouncy, it probably likes protein. The number of protein products you should use each wash day will vary from person to person, so you’ll need to experiment with this.
- Do a protein-free wash day and a protein wash day and compare the difference in your results.
- Remember that your hair’s needs can change – especially as the seasons change. You may find you get great results with a protein line-up in summer but need to introduce more moisture in the winter.
How to re-balance your hair when it’s in protein or moisture overload
The ultimate goal is to get to know your hair and how it acts when it needs protein or moisture so you can catch it before the overload happens.
However, if you think you’ve used too much moisture or too much protein, and your hair is showing signs of overload, here are some tips.
Curly hair moisture overload
Moisture overload is when you have too much moisture (from conditioning products) in the hair. From my experience, it’s pretty easy to overmoisturise the hair. That’s because it’s been ingrained into us that curly hair is dry and needs moisture. And, while it’s true that curly hair needs more moisture than straight hair, not all curly hair needs the same level of moisture. Curly hair that is healthy, naturally fine, soft or low porosity (once healthy) doesn’t need all that much moisture.
If you use too many moisturising products for your hair, after a while, your hair can become overmoisturised.
If you suspect your hair has moisture overload, follow these steps over your next few wash days:
1. Clarify your hair
Whenever your curls aren’t ‘behaving’ the first thing to do is clarify. This will ‘reset’ your hair and remove any build-up.
2. Pull back on the moisturising products
- Stop using deep conditioner
- Don’t leave your regular conditioner on for as long
- Use less curl cream and leave-in (you don’t need to use both curl cream and leave-in – one or the other is fine for most hair types)
3. Use products that contain protein
Take a look at the ingredients of your products and try to incorporate ones with protein into your routine.
4. Do a protein treatment
If the above steps didn’t help re-balance your hair, try doing one of the protein treatments mentioned earlier in the post.
In most cases, it’ll take a few wash days to re-balance your hair when it’s overmoisturised, and I wouldn’t recommend doing all the steps in one wash day. Perhaps do steps 1 and 2 on one wash day, steps 2 and 3 on the next, and if it’s still overmoisturised, steps 2-4 on the next. You may even need to clarify a couple of times.
Curly hair protein overload
Protein overload is when you have too much protein in your hair. It can happen when you use too many products that contain protein or products that contain too high a level of protein for your hair.
It can make your hair feel dry, brittle and straw-like. When your hair feels like this it can be pretty scary.
In most cases, and in my experience, protein overload can be resolved by simply washing your hair. This is because the overload is from protein product build-up. It may take a few washes to remove the overload, depending on the severity.
If you suspect your hair has protein overload, follow these steps:
1. Clarify your hair
This will remove any build-up from the protein products you’ve used. As above, you may need to clarify a couple of times (over a couple of wash days).
2. Use protein-free products
If you suspect you have protein overload, take a look at the ingredients in the products you’re using and temporarily omit the ones with protein.
3. Deep condition
If your hair still feels dry after doing steps 1 and 2, deep condition.
Protein overload on one wash day doesn’t mean your hair doesn’t like protein. It might just mean your hair didn’t need that much protein on that wash day, or that you used a type of protein your hair didn’t like. Following the advice throughout this article should help you determine how much protein your hair is likely to need.
So that’s it, protein moisture balance 101! Hopefully I’ve broken the subject down for you and made it a little less daunting.
Let me know in the comments if you found it helpful or if you have any more questions on the topic!
Watch my protein moisture balance video on YouTube:
*Everything I’ve included throughout this guide is what I’ve learnt and researched throughout my curly hair journey – special thanks to science-y hair blog for helping me understand protein moisture balance in-depth!*