Getting To Know Your Hair – Balancing Moisture & Protein

In the last post i shared with you, what i feel, are the characteristics of healthy hair and the three key areas to focus on to maintain it which are – moisture, protein and pH. In this post, i’ll be discussing what i have learned about moisture and protein and how balancing these two elements will allow you to see a MAJOR difference in the health of your hair.

What Is Hair?

First of all we need to understand the hair structure itself. I will do a quick summery here.

In the picture you can see an example of a cross section of the hair shaft. The Medulla is at the very centre of the shaft (which, interestingly enough, is mostly only present in thicker hair types). Next we have the Cortex, which is the main structure of the hair and is where the hair’s strength and elasticity originate. It’s made up of bunches of long, fibrous chains of proteins that twist around each other to create the hair’s basic structure and here is where the colour of the hair is found. Lastly we have the Cuticle, which is the part of the hair that is visible. The cuticle is made up of several transparent layers of interlocking scales made mostly of the protein keratin, which serves to protect the hairs main structure. The cuticles can lift or close depending on pH, chemicals and heat. The condition of the cuticles is what mostly determines the hairs healthy appearance. The hair is made up of mostly protein (around 90%).

The Role of Protein

As mentioned above, protein makes up the bulk of the hair and is what provides the hairs basic structure and strength. Over time, the cuticles become damaged, either by natural weathering, excessive use of heat, chemicals and/or rough handling. Protein loss is a natural matter of fact. Even rinsing the hair in plain water causes some loss of protein. Although hair can never be permanently repaired, it can be temporarily patched up and strengthened with the use of protein. That’s why it’s important to supplement your hair care with regular protein treatments. Hair that has the right balance of protein is able to hold onto moisture well.

Natural hair or hair that has not been chemically processed is naturally stronger, as the protein structure of the hair has not been compromised. Natural hair requires less protein supplementation to stay healthy. Chemically processed hair including relaxed and dyed hair is relatively weaker as the chemicals in these treatments break up the protein structure of the hair and cause significant damage to the shaft. Chemically processed hair requires more protein to maintain a healthy state.

The size of the protein seems to make a difference too. It seems as though hydrolysed proteins are the best proteins to use in hair care as they are the right size to really stick to, and form temporary bonds with the hair (known as adsorbing). Click HERE for more on that.

The Role of Moisture (Water)

Water is very important in the composition of the hair. It gives hair it’s flexibility (elasticity), bounce and vitality and promotes normal and healthy hair growth. The proteins present in the hair are hydrophilic (water loving) and attract and bind to water. The absorption of water gives the hair its required moisture content which is essential for healthy hair appearance. Over the course of time hair loses its water content and needs to be replenished. Black hair in general is dry in nature. Because of the bends and kinks in our hair the cuticles at these points are always slightly open. Therefore water easily escapes, which can lead to dryness and breakage. It’s very important then, to keep our hair hydrated with water to maintain healthy, flexible hair.

A Balancing Act

It’s important to keep the hair’s protein and moisture content nicely balanced. Lack of moisture will leave the hair dry, brittle and dull and the shaft itself will appear thin. Imagine a carrot. With the right moisture content, it’s nice and plump. When that same carrot loses it’s moisture content, it becomes very shrivelled and much thinner in appearance. The same goes for hair. The right amount of moisture will create a fuller, healthier strand. Lack of protein will cause the hair to lose it’s structure. Hair will appear limp and will lose it’s ability to return to it’s normal shape when stretched.

Understanding Breakage

Hair breakage occurs when this delicate balance of protein and moisture is thrown off (aside from rough handling). Most of the time we are told that we need protein if our hair is breaking. Although this might be true, it may not always be the case. Our hair care practices have, over time, caused us to become very afraid of water. We see water and run a million miles. lol. We ‘moisturise’ with oil instead of water and don’t wash our tresses often enough. Most black hair types are so deprived of moisture that chronic breakage sets in. We will then run to all the protein treatments to correct the issue, which often makes things worse because our hair isn’t lacking protein, it’s lacking MOISTURE! Correcting your moisturising habits often solves the issue of severe breakage as the balance of protein and moisture begin to come in line.

On the other hand, once we get into the right moisturising habits we can easily forget about protein. Washing, co-washing, deep conditioning, misting, leave-ins, moisturising and sealing. All these techniques are great, however if not supplemented with protein, can begin to tip the balance to the side of too much moisture which then causes breakage as the hair’s structure becomes compromised.

Maintaining the right balance of protein and moisture will keep the hair strong yet soft and flexible. The perfect formula for healthy hair.

How To Balance Moisture and Protein

Most products fall into either of these two categories and organising your products into each one is a great place to start. Most hair products contain protein of some kind, including shampoos, conditioners, leave-ins and moisturisers but depending on where they are on the list will determine whether the product is more moisturising or more strengthening. Protein nearer the bottom of the ingredients list suggests a relatively low amount and a more moisturising product. If the protein is listed nearer the top (especially in the first five ingredients) than the product is more strengthening than moisturising. Ultimately you will have to experiment to see which ones make your hair softer and which ones make your hair harder (stronger).

Bring more moisture into your routine by moisturising with water and/or water based products and sealing with oils/butters on a daily basis (learn more about proper moisturising techniques HERE). Washing your hair more often (every three to seven days is recommended for black, curly & Kinky hair types, including those who are relaxed) with the use of moisturising shampoos (followed by a moisturising conditioner of course), co-washes or even just warm water rinsing, will help tremendously on the quest to gaining more moisture. Harsh shampoos strip the hair of vital moisture and can leave the hair dry, so be sure to use mild and gentle formulas that are Sulfate free and suitable for daily/weekly use. Moisturising deep conditioning (especially with heat) is also an invaluable moisture source and really helps to replenish moisture deep within the strand and keep it there for longer. Look for moisturising ingredients in your moisturising product range such as water (obviously), glycerine, fatty alcohols like cetyl and cetearyl alcohols, Aloe, panthenol (vitamin b5), honey and polyquaterniums, to name a few.

When it comes to protein, the mistake that most of us make is only scheduling it into our routine, using protein once or twice a month or even once every two months according to the timetable we have set ourselves (so very guilty of this, lol). Scheduling hair treatments is great and allows us to have a well thought out, systematic approach to hair care, however, we must be sensitive to the ever changing needs of our hair. We should be able to read the signs and adjust our hair care maintenance according to the hairs needs. Some of us don’t even use any kind of protein treatments at all. Keeping a selection of protein-rich products on hand including a protein moisturiser or leave-in conditioner and a rinse-out protein conditioner/treatment gives us the flexibility to use protein whenever our hair requires it. Look for hair strengthening ingredients in your protein product range higher up on the ingredients list such as amino acids, hydrolysed proteins (such as oat, wheat and corn), cholesterol and keratin to name a few.

Naturally we will use more moisturising products than protein, as moisture is more volatile and is lost more easily.

The best way to determine what our hair needs is to pay close attention to it. Does it feel soft or unusually hard/wiry? Does it break easily when handled? Does your hair retain moisture well or does moisture evaporate too quickly? Does it feel crunchy or limp and mushy? Noticing the little signs of moisture or protein imbalance will allow us to treat the issues quickly and effectively.

Wet testing is a great way to monitor your hairs health to determine whether it is balanced, needs more moisture or more protein and I will discuss this in more detail in the next post along with how to cater to your hairs protein/moisture needs by relying on the signs of the hair and not necessarily by just following a set routine.

I hope you’ve found this post helpful. Until next time!

5 thoughts on “Getting To Know Your Hair – Balancing Moisture & Protein

  1. Great post! We see so much about protein, moisture, balancing the two and more on so many blogs and in books about hair care. But, it was really nice to have one article put it all together and talk through this issue step by step like this, because even when you feel like you have the info, it can become very scattered and muddled after a while. Great refresher course!

    • Thank you very much. Just trying to share what i myself have been learning lately. Yes itt can all get a bit muddled and confusing after a while and i realised that these principles are the very FOUNDATION of good and successful hair care practices, and that not everyone fully understands them clearly. I’m glad this post was helpful!

  2. Pingback: Getting To Know Your Hair–pH & Hair « Nadia's Notes

  3. Pingback: Getting To Know Your Hair–Understanding Porosity « Nadia's Notes

  4. What a great site.. very impressed with the way it is put together. Love all the information about the plants, herbs, oils, hair solutions. Spent over an hour reading about different ways to become healthier inside and out. Thanks!

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