When To Use Moisture Or Protein (Or Both!) To Deep Condition Your Hair

Moisture and protein require balance in your hair because too much of one or the other can easily cause harm. Here's how to figure out what you need.
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Publish date:
September 25, 2013
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How-To, deep conditioners, protein

Hair is a lot more morbid than we give it credit for. It's already dead, and then it offs itself out of your scalp at a genetically predetermined time.

Sometimes it really seems like fighting an uphill battle to keep the hair on your head soft, shiny, and intact. It is unbeknownst to many that moisture and protein are really important to balance, as too much of one or the other can harm the hair more easily than you think. Weekly, biweekly, or monthly conditioning treatments are essential to keeping your zombified keratin fibers attached to your brains.

So, I went to Ricky’s to point out some of my old favorite treatments as they start to put out the Halloween decorations.

My love for Halloween AND products lured me to work there as a fresh-faced 18-year-old living in Manhattan for the first time. When the season was over, my talent for selling people armloads of crap for their bodies kept me on staff permanently. They provided product training, as well, which I soaked up like a young impressionable, sample-loving experimenter. My hair was carrot orange for my passport photo, where I discovered that, no, you could not wear a headscarf, and no, they do not care if your hair is covered in deep conditioner because you bleached it for the fourth time in two weeks trying to get it pale white from box black.

Not a good look, unless you are me, in which case, it is a good look, because it gave me experience to learn what NOT to do so I could help others avoid my mistakes. Damage, box color, extensions and all kinds of haircare methods were like enigmas--I had to figure them out.

So instead of signing on to another 40k in debt to FIT for arts and crafts time (don’t get me wrong, I LOVE learning, but it is expensive!), I signed on to go to beauty school, hoping to make money until my fashion career took off (never give up on your dreams--I fight for that dream every day!). In salons, I learned how to help people get their best look. Hair goals can really be achieved with patience, product, and pampering.

Now, I love a good Ricky’s trip, but when it comes to certain salon brand product lines, they are receiving diverted stock. Over at xoJ, my real life buddy and hair colleague Kristen wrote about diversion. Get familiar. These brands are best, safest, and cheapest when purchased from a salon. Brands like Moroccanoil, Phyto and Fekkai are safe to purchase, as they are retail brands, made for selling at stores such as Ricky’s and Sephora.

Choosing a treatment is as simple as determining your hair’s needs. Moisture is considered the water that remains in your hair after it is dried. This acts like motor oil in the engine of a car. If there isn’t enough, the cells of your hair will creak together and create friction, tangles, and breakage.

Proteins, on the other hand, are molecules that will last from one shampoo to the next, filling in spaces where the hair is missing some amino acids, giving it less porosity. Improving the porosity of your hair is important to keep length. Hair breaks when too much protein fills a strand, and when moisture isn’t available to lubricate hair bonds.

For a weekly moisture treatment, I love two products. When my hair was oh so crappy around my 20th birthday, Phyto smartly gave me a bag full of samples, and I used the ULTRA-nourishing mask, Phytokarite. Generally the words "nourishing, softening, or hydrating" mean you have a moisturizing product. I used this shea butter and egg yolk based formula to soften the blow from all of the protein I was using to repair my poor poor locks.

The other is Moroccanoil Intense Hydrating Mask. This mask is so potent that it can take the rattiest hair piece and make it look silky again. Perfect for post-sex hair tangles.

When the hair has too much moisture, grease, dirt and sebum accumulate. When dirt accumulates on the scalp, follicles become clogged, and can sometimes cause the strand to shed. Dirt and product buildup can also cause acne, dermatitis, and psoriasis or reactions in those with existing conditions such as eczema or rosacea. When product and sebum accumulate on the hair strands, the become oversaturated and oily, and can be damaged if heat is applied. Products containing silicone and glycerin will actually suck the moisture out of your hair strand and into the atmosphere if there is too much of a coating.

Glycerin can be moisturizing when diluted, but at full strength is too much of a humectant for hair and skin. Silicones, on the other hand, can only seal existing moisture into the hair, they cannot penetrate the cortex. Most natural oils like olive and coconut are also sealants. Only castor, jojoba, argan oil and similar oils contain enough fatty acids and vitamin E to actually enter the cuticle to moisturize it.

Shea butter and cocoa butter are also options for moisturizing, but these should also be blended to work with your texture and porosity, dry hair can take lots of butters, while fine hair will become oversaturated quickly. Deep conditioners that claim to moisturize the hair are great for weekly treatments. Any more frequently could be damaging unless your hair has gone through a trauma and needs intensive care.

Protein-replenishing products can be very helpful; again, in cases of severe trauma, these can rescue fried hair, and with religious care in a few months all can be well. BUT protein can also harm even healthy hair if abused. Amino acids and protein molecules can penetrate to the cortex and permanently attach to areas of damage, essentially filling them in. If the cortex and cuticle become overfilled with these molecules without "grease" for the moving parts, the hair can become too rigid and break, splinter, or bead.

Split ends can be temporarily mended with a product that has protein fibers. Oils such as coconut, sweet almond, and avocado are full of protein and can cause breakage if not diluted or rotated with other more moisturizing and therefore balancing oils.

Moroccanoil also makes a Restorative formula of their treatment, but for intense repair, I like Paul Mitchell’s Hair Repair Treatment for biweekly protein boosts. This is great for those who lighten their hair, use daily heat to style, and/or chemical treatments. It contains panthenol, which is a temporary-acting thickening agent. If the words "Restorative, Intensive, or Repair" appear on the bottle, it usually means your product contains proteins.

In my horrible but liberating passport photo, my hair is covered in Ojon’s Restorative Hair Treatment. Greasy, but it smelled good and was able to be left on while you go about your business if you wore a hat or scarf or braids; you can’t really do that with most deep conditioners, as they would dry all gross and attract dirt.

If you aren’t sure if your hair is lacking either moisture or protein, refer to my guide on hair analysis. Hair with high porosity needs protein. Hair with low elasticity needs moisture. Thicker strands need more moisture than thin, and thinner strands need more protein than thick. Curly hair needs both from time to time, but benefits the most from being in balance.

No matter what your conditioning needs or method of achieving it, learn to pay attention to the ebb and flow of your individual conditioning needs, as they can change from season to season. Other factors such as chemical processing and color damage can also create a need for a change in your routine. Excess lightening, relaxers or perms, or frequent heat damage can all zap BOTH protein and moisture from your locks, so it is important to use a dual action weekly treatment if you have any of these processes in your repertoire.

Soon you will have things down pat, and your hair will be in much better shape! If your hair is already healthy, a nice balancing treatment once a month will always keep it that way, as even minerals in your shower water, sun, incorrect brushing, and ponytails can harm the hair. Use the winter to amp up your routine, and see lots of healthy new growth by spring.