Protein Overload: How To Tell & The Best Products To Fix It


Your hair is made up of protein—about 95% of it, in fact, comprises the protein keratin. It's quite literally what gives hair its structure; just as protein is critical for building muscle mass, it also strengthens hair and gives it a healthy bounce. That's why experts are quick to recommend a nutritious, balanced diet for healthy, thriving strands, especially one filled with amino acids to provide the building blocks of keratin. 

And as you browse the hair care aisle, you may come across products with keratin or bond-building slapped on the label—these protein-infused formulas promise to rebuild broken hair bonds, but (sigh) you can get too much of a good thing. 

Here's how to tell if your hair actually has too much protein, a concept known as "protein overload." 

What do protein-infused products do for hair?

Again, your hair is made up of amino acid chains (the building blocks of the protein keratin), and when they become brittle—by heat styling, chemical processing, and other physical stressors—protein-infused products can help reconstruct those bonds, thus leading to stronger, smoother, and more defined strands. "We can't recreate the exact protein that is in our hair [with topicals], but synthetic and naturally sourced proteins can repair and stand in place like a Band-Aid," explains NYC-based hairstylist Matt Newman

As you coat the strands with these bond-building ingredients, you protect them from further breakage and strengthen their ability to withstand those aforementioned stressors. "Topical protein treatments such as keratin or bond-strengthening shampoos revitalize hair and promote stronger hair strands," adds hairstylist Miko Branch, co-founder of hair care brand Miss Jessie's. "Adding protein to hair is a terrific way to restore and nourish hair follicles, fostering hair health by protecting tresses and helping to prevent breakage. 

While protein-infused hair care can help rebuild broken bonds and strengthen your tresses, it is possible to go overboard. "Protein and keratin products are really popular right now, but too much of a good thing can leave the protein-moisture balance out of whack," notes Branch. And that protein-moisture balance is a delicate one: To prevent breakage, your hair requires a proper amount of hydration and nutrients, and it's easy to tip the scale one way or the other. Of course, everyone's hair has different needs: Your curl pattern, porosity, and styling habits can all affect how much protein and moisture you should include in your routine. 


How to tell if you've overloaded on protein.

Think about what happens when you wrap multiple thick, warm blankets around your body: After a while, things can get pretty stiff and heavy, no? When you continuously envelop the strands in these bandage-like products, they can easily become weighed down, which makes them more rigid and prone to breakage. "You still have to do the things to break it—it's not like protein overload just inherently makes your hair snap in half," says Newman, but it does make it easier for other stressors to worsen it. And that's the exact opposite goal of using a bond-building formula in the first place.

"If your hair has too much protein, you can expect the look and texture of strands to feel dry, brittle, and straw-like," Branch explains. "Split ends, tangles, and a lack of luster are also indicative that your hair may have too much protein." So you may need to focus on moisture instead to nourish the cuticles: "When your hair gets super tangled easily, that's when you know you need a little daily moisture in the routine," adds Newman. 

If you're an avid mbg reader, the subject of protein overload might make you wonder: What about consuming collagen powder, which contains amino acids that help build keratin and support hair growth?* Can you get too much protein that way? And that concern is totally valid, but let's circle back to Newman's point about topical protein products acting like a Band-Aid for your hair bonds—you're physically covering the strands with protein, which is why it's easy to go overboard. 

Rather, when you consume collagen peptides and the short-chain amino acids are absorbed, they're able to travel around the body and exert their beneficial effects (hair, skin, nails, joints, gut, etc).* Meaning, they won't only send love to the strands—they will simply move on to wherever they're needed most in your body.* Whereas when you manually coat the hair with protein-infused products, that's when protein can build up on the hair cuticle and weigh it down.

How to tell if your hair needs more protein.

OK, we just explained that If your hair has too much protein, it can appear dry, brittle, and straw-like. But if your hair doesn't have enough protein? Guess what—it can also appear dry, brittle, and straw-like. This is where the protein-moisture balance becomes confusing, as both ends of the spectrum can lead to breakage. 

A lack of protein can affect the strands' elasticity, so Newman recommends what he calls the "stretch test." Take a strand of hair from your brush and tug it gently: "It should have a little bit of stretch, and it should resist your tug," he says. But if the hair instantly snaps in half somewhere in the middle, that's a sign your strands may need more protein. "At a perfect, balanced state, hair should have a mild elasticity, and it should be able to be detangled properly without breaking," he adds.  

What products should you look for? 

Again, both too much and too little protein can lead to breakage—which makes it quite difficult to get to the bottom of your brittleness. That's why Newman suggests checking your products, too: "If you're feeling that your hair is brittle, look back at your ingredient lists and think: Am I using things that are all really protein-heavy? That could be the problem. Am I using no protein in my routine now? Maybe that's the problem." 

If you have an inkling you're overloading on protein, look out for buzzwords like keratin, biotin, hydrolyzed quinoa, amino acids, bond-building, or silk protein on your hair care products. "You will literally see the word protein in the ingredients," Newman notes. You may also want to opt for a clarifying shampoo (Miss Jessie's Co-Wash is great for curls), as these can break apart the proteins bonded to your hair. 

Then to fold in some much-needed moisture, seek hydrators like glycerin, hyaluronic acid, aloe, as well as a blend of oils to nourish the strands—feel free to check out our favorite shampoos and conditioners for dry hair. Consequently, if you're in need of some bond-building, look for those protein-heavy buzzwords on your labels. 

The takeaway. 

Determining your own protein-moisture balance takes a bit of detective work, considering both too much and too little protein can result in dry, brittle strands. If you're facing straw-like strands and are suspicious about protein overload, check your products to see if they feature any protein-heavy buzzwords, and maybe focus on just moisture for the time being.

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