SO FINE: Protein. How a good thing can be too much.

For some of us with fine hair, protein-packed deep conditioners can work MIRACLES.  If you’re like me, protein conditioners clump our coils together, strengthen our strands, and give weight to our otherwise lightweight strands.  However, for others, protein  can wreak havoc their heads by making their strands brittle, stiff, and rough.    If you have experienced either end of this spectrum you’re probably wondering one question: WHAT’S UP WITH PROTEIN?  And why does it have such an awesome/horrific effect on my hair?

Protein’s affect on your hair has everything to do with the porosity of your hair.  To explain this more in full, we’re going to bring back our old friend Mr. Sponge.  In today’s little lesson, we’re going to have the part of protein played by Elmer.  Yes, as in the glue.

This sponge represents hair with low porosity.

This sponge represents hair with high porosity.

In each of these sponges, the holes represent the hair’s cuticle.  (Think of a cuticle like shingles on a roof).

When protein is applied to the lo-po sponge, the holes in the surface of the sponge pull in small amounts of protein relative to the size of the entire sponge.

When you apply protein to this hi-po sponge, the protein seeps into the larger holes on the surface of the sponge.  Because the holes are larger, the sponge has more surface to absorb the protein.  In fact it absorbs TOO much, leaving it stuffed with protein like a Thanksgiving turkey.

As you can see there is a lot more protein intake in the hi-po sponge than the lo-po sponge.
Now applying this logic to actual hair, low porosity fine hair does well with protein because there are not as many cuticle openings.  High porosity hair gets crispy because it takes too much protein in because it has more cuticle openings.

Of course there are exceptions because like glue, proteins come in many different forms and sizes.  Some proteins, such as hydrolysed proteins, can actually benefit high porosity hair by working to fill in the cuticle layer.  So if you have high-po hair, be sure to take a look at the product label and see if this type of protein is on there before judging it too soon.

Lo-po naturals should try using a heat cap, hooded dryer, or steamer with their deep treatments so that you can raise the cuticle layer get maximum protein benefits.

By using the right technique with and type of protein, you can be sure to find the right type of strengthening conditioner for your So Fine strands!  In the next installment of the series, I’ll be going over deep conditioner how to’s and product recommendations.

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  1. this is a great visual… so since i have fine high-porosity hair, i’ll be looking for hydrolysed protein ingredients. no wonder my hair has been so straw-like lately. thanks!

  2. What are the names of hydrolysed proteins?

  3. good information, but way too much for me. I couldnt tell you if my hair is high or low porosity; I do know that anytime I do a protein or henna treatment, I must DC so I dont have that straw like feeling. So I deduce I’m high porosity. Would definitely love to know the names of products that contain hydrolysed proteins.

  4. So the big question for me is how is one to know the porosity of their hair?

  5. This makes so much sense. I recently switched to a new deep conditioner that doesn’t contain any protein from one that did. Now I am experiencing breakage because I don’t have any protein in my products. I believe I am sensitive to soy protein and mostly low porosity. I had one strand that half of the strand stayed on the surface of the water and the other half was in the water and the rest stayed on top of the water. Thanks for doing this series.

  6. Love this and the post from a few weeks ago about porosity and how to know which you are changed my life!!! I have adjusted my routine and my baby is thriving. Thank you!

  7. I’ve been debating on doing a protein treatment, but didn’t really understand what it would do for my hair. Thanks for putting it in layman’s terms. I’ll be doing a protein treatment this weekend. :)

  8. “Now applying this logic to actual hair, low porosity fine hair does well with protein because there are not as many cuticle openings. High porosity hair gets crispy because it takes too much protein in because it has more cuticle openings.”

    I really appreciate this series, but I believe proteins (hydrolyzed or otherwise) actually benefit high porosity hair. High porosity hair has a much wider cuticle opening than low porosity hair, meaning water absorbs and exits the hair shaft quickly. Proteins help make the cuticle opening smaller and allow water to enter and leave at a slower pace. Think of protein as putty for a hole in the wall. Now, coarse high porosity hair will require weaker proteins than fine high porosity hair. Conversely, those with low porosity hair (even fine) have more protein naturally than normal to high po hair. The cuticle opening for lo-po hair is smaller, so less protein is absorbed and the remainder just sits on the outside of the hairshaft causing the hair to be stiff. Unabsorbed protein makes hair stiff and crunchy, not absorbed proteins. As a result, it’s generally recommended that low porosity hair focus on widening the cuticle opening with alkaline (high pH) solutions or heat to absorb more moisture (water +humectants) rather than filling it in with proteins. However, light proteins may benefit fine lo po hair. Fine low porosity hair would use gentler proteins than fine high porosity hair. The goal is to make the cuticle opening smaller (proteins on high porosity hair), but not to cover up the hole completely so that nothing can get in or out (proteins on low porosity hair).
    Look at this chart in post #6 of this thread:
    This chart has been floating around the natural hair community for many years explaining what each hair porosity needs (i.e. low porosity no proteins ; high porosity proteins). However, I do believe there are exceptions to every rule and one must do what is best for them.
    Once again, I love your blog. We’re all trying to share info and learn more about our hair in the process.

  9. I’ve had the Aphogee products for a couple of months. I’m debating on trying these products or a homemade treatment.

  10. This information was extremely helpful in understanding the works of protein on our hair. From the article regarding porosity, my hair is normal as far as how porous it is. My question is, how does protein work for norma; porous hair?

  11. Pingback: SO FINE: The Protein Posse | Natural Selection

  12. This has helped me understand my hair. Thanks so much for posting the whole fine hair series!

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