When it comes to hair care, one topic that gets a lot of attention is the infamous protein/moisture balance. And there is a good reason for this.
Our hair is made up primarily of protein and moisture, and both elements are held together in a careful balance. The hair breakage we experience is most often the result of an imbalance between the protein and moisture elements that make up the hair strand. The relationship that exists between the protein and moisture balances within the hair strand is not simply a case of balancing opposing forces one over the other to prevent hair breakage. These two components work together to produce a healthy head of hair, and neither can work well without the other.
Moisture is basically water, not oil or any other substance. Our hair needs water to maintain its elasticity, or ability to stretch. Without it, our hair feels dry and produces a snappy kind of breakage. Since water is the ultimate moisturizer, water-based products are best for really getting the greatest moisture benefit.
Moisturizers are simply products that are water-based and nourish your hair deep within the strand. Products with moisturizing properties tend to be conditioners, leave-ins and other moisturizer sprays or creams. Moisturizers may also contain large amounts of protein, but these protein-based moisturizers do not have the moisturizing benefit that moisture-based moisturizers have. Check labels to gauge protein content. Good moisturizers will not contain cheap, filler ingredients like petrolatum, mineral oil, or lanolin. Avoid products that claim moisturizing benefits and contain these ingredients. There is nothing moisturizing about them! Petrolatum and mineral oil are sealants that seal out the precious moisture our hair needs.
All throughout the day, our hair loses moisture to the outside environment. In order to keep our moisture in our hair, it’s a good idea to seal in the moisture with a heavier product. Oil.
Natural oils like jojoba, olive, carrot, and coconut oil work best.
Oils are made of molecules that are too large to be absorbed by the hair strand. An oil (grease) can only coat the outside of the strand, and give it shine- the illusion of moisture. Oil molecules are hydrophobic which means they repel and do not readily mix with water. Applying oil to the hair coats it and traps the moisture that is inside, inside and the moisture that is outside, outside. If you use oils without a moisturizer (or before one) the oil will seal the moisture out of the hair strand and lead to a coated feel and eventual dryness. Fighting hair breakage and achieving moisturizing success is all in the order in which you apply your products.
Remember, if you apply an oil product to your hair before you have added a moisturizing product, you have created a seal on your hair strand that water and moisture cannot penetrate.
Protein is what gives the hair its strength and structure. Hair is about 70% keratin protein by nature. Proteins serve different functions and roles in hair care. Some enhance elasticity, while others reduce it. These proteins bind to the hair cuticle and help temporarily rebuild any weakened areas. Protein-based products reinforce the hair shaft, and help it remain strong enough to fight breakage.
Some proteins are stronger than others, but daily or even weekly use of even the milder protein treatments may result in an imbalance between the protein and moisture levels within the hair strands in some people. This is where product percent composition really plays an important role. For example, every product that contains keratin protein is not going to feel the same way across the board, the same way that every product that contains glycerin or water is not going to feel the same either! The protein in question could make up 30% of the product or 0.3%! Who knows! You have to play around with different products to know how strong they are on your particular hair. Your hair protein tolerance will vary from product to product, not necessarily protein to protein. Protein is found most prevalently in products like instant conditioners (bargain brands like Suave and V05), leave-in conditioners, protein reconstructor conditioner treatments, and even some moisturizers.
Women with relaxed or color-treated hair need more protein than others. If you are relaxed or color-treated, those processes have compromised the protein structure of your hair. Relaxing and coloring breaks protein bonds, and depending on the type and strength of the relaxer, and level of bond breakage you incur, you will need more or less protein than someone else. There are also some people whose hair is more protein deficient by nature (genetics, low protein dietary intake), so they require more regular protein than others to keep the balance intact. At the end of the day, you must experiment and get to know your own head of hair.
Working the Balance
The hair’s moisture content depends on its protein content. Protein loss from chemical treatments is almost always followed by a moisture loss of some degree. Hair that is properly proteinated absorbs moisture more efficiently because water molecules bind easily to a sound protein structure within the hair. Achieving the proper balance involves using the right combinations of protein and moisture based products for your hair type. Consider the following scenarios:
Scenario 1: Kim’s hair is breaking like crazy and feels like a brillo pad. It is just plain crunchy and dry! Every time she touches it, pieces seem to just pop right off. Snap, crackle, pop. Combing is impossible without tons of little hairs covering her sink and back. Her hair feels hard and rough even when wet. She’s given it protein treatments because the product says it is supposed to stop breakage in its tracks and rebuild the hair. But so far, nothing is working and her problem is getting worse.
Scenario 2: Trina’s hair is breaking like crazy as well. Her hair feels dry, looks dull, and is very weak. Her hair is too weak to withstand simple combing. It feels extra stretchy when wet and almost follows the comb as she pulls through to detangle. Her hair is just limp and has no life. She’s deep conditioned and done hot oil treatments on her hair once a week. Since her breakage began, she has stepped up the conditioning but her problem has gotten worse.
Same Problem- Different Solutions
Both of these women have issues with hair breakage, but the solutions to their individual problems require two very different approaches. The two scenarios above perfectly illustrate what happens when the balance between protein and moisture is tipped too far in either direction. This article will teach you to effectively recognize the difference between protein based and moisture based hair problems and help you can organize your hair regimen to effectively combat these issues as they arise.
When the Balance Tips, You Must Wet Assess
Too much of a good thing can be a bad thing. Hair is not exempt from this old adage. Growing out your hair is a constant battle between maintaining even protein and moisture balances. Hair breakage is the result of the hair chemistry being thrown off balance. Remember Kim and Trina from the beginning of the article? Hair that is shifted too far on either side of the balance (too much protein or too much moisture) will break.
The Importance of Wet Assessment
Though hair health assessments can be performed on dry hair, determining your cause of breakage is often easiest on wet hair. Hair in its wet state exudes the basic properties of elasticity and strength excellently. In fact, these qualities are often exaggerated on wet hair. Thorough and frequent wet assessments will help you maintain your hair’s health and condition.
Hair in its optimal condition will not break when wet unless undue stress is placed upon it through aggressive combing, detangling, or unusual types of pulling stress. Balanced hair will feel soft and supple, yet strong while wet. When you comb through it, it should resist excess stretching and will hardly break if you are careful. Over time, and with trial and error, you will be able to tell what is normal stress for your hair.
If your hair does indeed break when wet, the way the hair breaks under these conditions will give you a sure indication of whether more moisture or protein is required to regain the proper balance.
How Do I Perform a Proper Wet Assessment?
It would be difficult for you to wet assess your hair by holding a single strand and pulling on both ends. That type of stress would be considered “undue” stress, because no single hair is ever really subjected to that sort of tension at one time. Any strand of hair (healthy or not) that you pull on by both ends has the potential to snap depending on the pressure you apply to it. Hair should be wet assessed by the normal act of combing though it or touch-testing it.
Wet Assessment Hair Breakage Break Down
If your hair:
(When Wet or Dry) Stretches slightly and returns to its original length without breaking, you are balanced! Stick with maintaining!
(When Wet or Dry) Stretches a little more than normal then breaks, you need more protein in your regimen.
(When Wet or Dry)Stretches, stretches, stretches with no significant breakage yet, add a bit more protein to your regimen.
(Wet)- Feels weak, gummy, mushy, or limp, you need to add more protein to your regimen.
(Wet or Dry) Experiences very little to no stretching, and simply snaps or breaks, you need to increase the moisture in your regimen.
(Dry) Feels rough, tough, hard, dry, tangly, brittle, or any combination of those, you need more moisture in your regimen.
Unsure? Err on the side of caution and give your hair more moisture.