Signs of Protein Overload and 3 Ways to Fix It

Hair requires a good protein-moisture balance to retain its softness, elasticity, and strength. That’s why protein treatment can help improve detangling and add structure and support to your locks.

Unfortunately, too much protein in your hair due to the wrong haircare routine or protein buildup can become as nasty as a lack of it. This article will help you identify and fix the protein overload problem.

Signs of Protein Overload

Protein overload is an imbalance of the moisture to protein ratio in your hair. The lack of moisture is a common reason for brittle hair; likewise, too much protein in your hair strands will make it break easily and be difficult to manage. Thus, if your hair feels hard, looks dull, dry, and frizzy, or you notice that there are signs of breakage in your brush, protein overload could be the culprit.

Protein Overloaded vs Balanced Curly Hair

Instagram / @genamarie.co

Mind that certain proteins in haircare products and ingredients that behave like proteins (such as coconut oil) have the potential to build up on the hair shaft. When not dissolved with moisturizing shampoos or co-washes, these layer on top and prevent moisture and additional protein from entering it. Thus, it is worth distinguishing between protein sensitivity (hair tendency to be stressed out by protein products) and protein buildup. The porosity and elasticity test, below, can help you tell if your hair is receiving more protein than it actually needs.

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Moisture Overload vs. Protein Overload

Just like protein overload, moisture overload is an imbalance of the moisture to protein ratio. Hair that has moisture overload will look frizzy and weighed down, with limp, lifeless curls. It will feel greasy, and possibly sticky, even after just being washed.

If you are wondering if your hair has moisture or protein overload (or both), you are not alone. The internet is full of frustrated curlies trying to find answers, with lots of variations of the following question: “I am Caucasian (Italian) with 2C/3A curly hair that looks frizzy when I use a strengthening masque. Do I have protein overload or moisture overload?”

If it helps, when you are trying to determine if your hair has either moisture or protein overload, there are only two factors you need to consider: hair’s porosity (more on that below) and elasticity. Elasticity is a hair’s ability to stretch before breaking. Hair with healthy elasticity has just the right amount of stretch and can be detangled easily. Hair with poor elasticity is brittle and breaks easily. Hair with too much elasticity will stretch and stretch before disintegrating. If you have ever experienced overprocessed hair that feels mushy and gummy, this is an example of too much elasticity.

To determine the elasticity and porosity of your hair, conduct this simple test:

  1. Place a white piece of paper on a hard surface.
  2. Pluck 3-4 clean, product-free hairs from various locations on your head and place the strands on the paper.
  3. Grasp the first strand of hair with the index finger and thumb of one hand, and slide the index finger and thumb of the other hand up and then down the hair shaft. The smoother, thicker, and denser the strand, the lower the porosity. The rougher and thinner the strand, the higher the porosity.
  4. Now pull the strand from both ends until it breaks. Notice what happens. Does it stretch too much or does it break instantly? The more elastic, the more the need for protein.
  5. Repeat with the other strands to confirm the result.
Elasticity Test to Determine Protein and Moisture Needs

Instagram / @kayscurlies

The Relation Between Too Much Protein and Hair Porosity

Hair porosity refers to hair’s ability to accept and retain moisture. This is determined by the outermost layer of the hair shaft, the cuticle.

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Often, we think of healthy, non-processed or damaged hair as having medium or normal porosity. This porosity-type thrives with a small amount of protein in products but often does not require heavy masks and layers of strengthening products. In other words, trying to fix normal healthy hair with protein products will rather make hair lose its luster.

Low-porosity hair has cuticles that are close together. This is hair that requires a little extra TLC to give it enough moisture, as products are slow to absorb into a hair strand. It also tends to retain moisture the longest of any porosity type. Because of its tightly bound cuticle layer, low-porosity hair can appear to be protein-sensitive.

High-porosity hair is often damaged because of chemical services, environmental stressors, styling practices, or even changes in hormones due to menopause. It lacks protein, and it may actually look crying for help, just like hair that has excess protein in it: high porosity hair tends to stick to itself, tangle easily, and be prone to split ends.

How do you tell the difference then? Analyze what has happened to your hair recently. Have you had a dramatic blonding session? Then, your hair is probably suffering from increased porosity and needs keratin or bond-strengthening protein treatments to bring it back to the norm. Have you been using some keratin products on your virgin locks? Then, it’s sound to check if your hair is not getting too much of a good thing.

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Mixed-porosity hair is also very common. It can happen naturally when your hair starts to go gray, or as a result of virgin and damaged hair on the same head. This means that you need to apply the product strategically, not all over your head.

Three Ways to Reverse Protein Overload

Thankfully, reversing protein overload is doable, but it will take some adjustments to your regimen. Ask yourself the following before moving forward:

  • Do you regularly clarify your hair using an effective clarifying shampoo or treatment? If you use a gentle clarifying treatment that contains micellar water or bentonite clay, is it getting the job done?
  • Is there too much protein in your products? Protein-rich products list protein as one of the top five ingredients on their labels. These ingredients could be clearly identified, think of such buzzwords as protein keratin, amino acids, silk protein, or wheat protein. Other can be less obvious. For example, bond-repair products including Olaplex and K18 have small proteins that penetrate deep into the hair shaft, but they wouldn’t necessarily come to mind as protein-rich products.
  • Are you using the products correctly? Are you following the instructions on the label? For example, are you leaving the product on longer than recommended hoping for better results? Are you rinsing with tepid water when warm water might be more effective? Are you coating your entire head with protein-packed product when only the damaged areas of your hair need it? Have you gotten into a regular routine of doing strengthening treatments when your hair doesn’t really require them?

Really give some thought to these questions. It is so easy to overdo it in the quest for healthy locks and quality curls! However, if you are able to pinpoint why the protein overload is happening, it will be much easier to fix it.

Fix #1: Clarify

If there is one thing that every curly-haired gal (and guy) should do, it is to clarify regularly (about every four shampoos). If you are avoiding harsh sulfates, you can get a fresh start using a shampoo that contains ingredients such as:

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  • C14-16 olefin sulfonate
  • Cocamidopropyl betaine
  • Lauryl betaine
  • Sodium cococyl isethionate
  • Sodium lauryl lactylate

Fix #2: Eliminate the Culprits, At Least Temporarily

When experiencing protein overload, it is better to adopt a protein-free styling routine for a while. However, if you once loved that protein-rich hair masque, it doesn’t mean you should never use it again. Try to use it again in the future, just not as frequently as you used to or not in tandem with other protein products to prevent protein buildup.

Fix #3: Overhaul Your Product Stash

If your products are too protein-heavy, look for ones that contain hydrolyzed protein as the sixth or later ingredient on the label. If you have adopted certain practices like leaving products on too long or not rinsing thoroughly with warm water where required, make some changes as needed. Remember that it is all about the balance, so using a moisturizing cream or getting a hair spa to let the treatment penetrate your low-porosity hair might also help.

Periodically, you will need to adjust your routine to accommodate your hair’s changing needs. Learning the signs of protein and moisture overload can save you a lot of time and effort, but it will improve the health of your hair long-term!

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