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Treating Protein Overloaded Hair


Protein overload can cause the hair to become coarse, stiff and prone to breakage. But, as awful as it sounds, there are ways that protein overload can be fixed, returning your hair back to its former glory.

Protein treatments and protein-infused haircare are great at helping to refresh and repair damaged hair, creating stronger, healthier strands. As hair is mainly made up of keratin (a protein); when it becomes damaged there is no way to add the body’s specific type of protein back into the hair. Hair colour, bleaching, chemical treatments, and heated styling all cause, to some extent or another, damage to the hair. And so, protein treatments are a great tool to use to help restore the hair’s health, shine and elasticity. Your stylist may also recommend products that contain keratin and wheat protein, as these serve a similar purpose to the natural protein that is found in the hair.

What do protein treatments do to the hair?

Protein treatments and products wrap around the exterior of the hair to create strength and a barrier to damage. Although protein treatments have a purpose and a place in haircare routines for those that need it, too much protein can cause more harm than good. Adding an excessive amount of protein to the hair can create an intense barrier and coating on the strands. This barrier then blocks water and other moisturising ingredients from entering the hair, leading to dull, coarse, stiff feeling hair.

What causes protein buildup in hair?

The biggest culprit of protein buildup is overusing haircare products that contain protein and oversaturating strands with these products. If your shampoo, conditioner, and styling treatments all have protein in them you’re probably using too much. While these products can target damaged hair, using all of them at the same time can cause major protein overload, creating product buildup on the individual strands. This doesn’t mean you should skip hair treatments altogether. Instead, use products in moderation and have a balance of protein and moisture to improve the condition of your hair. Whereas protein treatments strengthen hair to help reduce damage, deep conditioners add hydration and nourishment. 

What are the signs of protein overload on the hair?

Protein overload and damaged hair look similar, so the signs are not always easy to spot. Some of the major signs of protein overload are:

  • The look and feel of the hair will be dry, dull and brittle.
  • The hair will feel coarser to touch.
  • The hair will have no elasticity to it, but instead will snap.
  • The hair will not a hold a curl and will be harder to style.
  • Split ends and breakage may become more visible. 
  • The hair will have more frizz than normal, a wiry, stringy type of frizz.
  • Additional hair shedding may also be present, due to the hair breaking when brushing.
  • Hair can also feel heavy, oily, and greasy due to the weight of the protein.

One way to determine if it’s damage or protein overload on the hair is to use a protein treatment. If after using the treatment your hair still feels dry and coarse, then it’s a good bet that you are dealing with protein overload. If it’s damage you are dealing with, then after using the protein treatment your hair will look and feel slightly healthier. If you have determined that it is protein overload, then your hair has lost its protein-moisture balance, and you will need to take steps to correct this.

How to fix protein overload

A few key steps and tweaks to your haircare will help to restore the moisture-protein balance… 

  • Firstly, check your current haircare products to see if they include protein ingredients such as amino acids, Hydrolyzed collagen, Hydrolyzed rice protein, Wheat quinoa, Soy protein, Oat flour or keratin. These products you want to use sparingly. 
  • Use a clarifying shampoo to gently cleanse your hair and remove product overload. A cleansing/clarifying shampoo will remove any build-up leaving you with clean, soft, moisturised hair and scalp. Every few wash days, replace your current shampoo and conditioner with a cleansing shampoo – using it around once or twice a month to prevent product and protein buildup.
  • You want to balance the protein with moisture – this will keep the protein from drying out your hair. Using a deep moisture shampoo and conditioner for most of the time, and then using protein-based ones here and there, will help to keep your hair balanced and healthy looking. A moisturising mask too is also a must!
  • If your hair is heavily overloaded, then it is best to put to one side any protein products for now and focus on moisture. When you’re ready to use them again, start adding a protein product slowly to see its effect on your hair. To start, opt for a lightweight styling product instead of a concentrated protein treatment.
  • Protect hair from heat, and this includes from the sun too, as protein overload can occur when hair gets dried out from environmental stressors like weather. Keep this in mind during hot temperatures to limit the amount of protein you add to the hair, opting instead for a moisturising and hydrating product.
How to prevent protein overload

Prevention is always better than cure, so to prevent protein overload you want to use these types of products and treatments sparingly. As a general rule, deep protein treatments are safe to use about once a month but can be used more frequently depending on the condition of your hair or at the direction of your hairstylist. If you’re unsure, try using protein treatments and products every four to six weeks and pay attention to how your hair reacts. Hair is a very personal thing in both style and texture, so what works for your specific hair type may not work for a different hair type. Remember, balance is key! Keep your hair balanced by using moisturising and clarifying products. This keeps any buildup at bay and helps to penetrate the hair strands with moisture. 

If you are concerned about protein overload on your hair and are unsure of what products are right for you, we suggest heading to your local salon and asking your stylist for their advice and what they would recommend. Every hair type is unique and individual, but they key to healthy hair and scalp is to always work in balance. Working in balance will restore your locks to their former glory in no time!