This Ingredient In Your Shower Could Be Damaging Your Hair

Photographed by Lauren Perlstein.
Of all the in-salon and at-home treatments on the market, those packed with protein could be the most confusing to understand. Often promising better health and smoother results, they're miracle workers for many, but cause serious issues for others, including breakage and dry, brittle strands. Confused as to how this is possible? Not for long, because we're going to break down this polarizing hair ingredient right here, right now.

We enlisted the help of several industry experts to find out when protein treatments can work, when they absolutely don’t, and what you can use instead.
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It’s easy to see why everyone once raved about and recommended protein treatments. According to Anessa Daviero, founder of Headdress Hair Salon, 91% of your hair is comprised of a fibrous protein called keratin — long chains of amino acids that eventually disintegrate due to any number of reasons. “Exposure to harsh chemicals and poor maintenance can break [them] up and lead to brittle, dull, and damaged strands,” explains Kelly Sayers, a stylist at Marie Robinson Salon.

The perfect solution (or so everyone thought)? Adding protein back into your hair to repair the keratin. These treatments penetrate to the cortex of each strand to strengthen hair; afterward, they’re sealed in with a flat iron to make tresses look extra-smooth and shiny. “Since hair is made of protein, it makes sense to want to replenish the hair with what it has lost,” says eSalon’s color director Estelle Baumhauer. “Originally, these treatments were intended as fillers for weakened hair, but were overused and ended up having the opposite effect.”
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When Protein Is Good
Don’t get us wrong: Protein treatments can work wonders — just not in excess. “They’re good [for fortifying] hair,” explains colorist Christophe Robin. “For instance, we use wheat proteins in our wheat-germ shampoo and mask and other color-protecting products, because they are known to strengthen hair and give a lot of shine.”

Who benefits the most from protein treatments? Those who live in humid areas, where hair is more likely to frizz or puff up. The treatments can also work well for extremely fine or chemically damaged hair. "A general rule of thumb is that if your hair is rough, brittle, or dry, it needs moisture. If, on the other hand, your hair is chemically weakened or extremely fine, protein treatments are the best way to go,” Baumhauer says.

So if you are in dire need of a protein treatment, how often should you get one? According to Sayers, every three to four months. “You’ll notice over time the treatment will gradually wash out,” she says. “Moisture treatments should be done once a month. Also, instead of protein treatments, you can use products day-to-day to help manage your hair, like moisture creams, serums, and protein sprays. It won't have the same strength as protein treatments, but can help.”
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When To Avoid Protein
Robin says it’s always important to go to someone who knows your hair very well for an in-salon protein treatment — since any treatment can damage the hair if not done correctly, he explains. “Personally, I am usually against keratin treatments as they make your hair more prone to breakage... More often than not, they create damage to the hair.”

Although the treatments were originally designed to temporarily strengthen and repair keratin, Daviero warns that overuse or improper use hardens the hair too much, causing it to snap.

Moral of the story: Unless your hair is chemically weakened, you don't really need protein — as it can often do more harm than good.
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The Alternatives
Think you need protein? Talk to your stylist to get the one suited for your 'do. Don't fancy yourself a protein person? Robin advises simply taking good care of your tresses with a non-protein mask and natural oils. “Use oils to protect strands, and avoid using too many heat tools,” he says. “Any hair treatments enriched in vitamins A, B, or E are also excellent for the hair — anything that’s nourishing and repairing will strengthen hair and help prevent breakage.”

A few of our favorites, ahead.
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If you haven’t heard, coconut oil works wonders as a hair mask — and this one by Kopari is made with 100% pure, organic, and unrefined coconut oil packed with fatty acids to deeply moisturize chemically treated tresses.

Kopari Coconut Melt, $36, available at Sephora.
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Part of Living Proof’s silicone-free Restore line, this weekly treatment promises to repair damaged hair — and prevent further breakage — thanks to a proprietary molecule that strengthens strands, restores moisture, and resists dirt, so you can go longer between shampoos.

Living Proof Restore Mask Treatment, $42, available at Living Proof.
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Made with cold-pressed organic olive oil, this 100% vegan formula works to protect the shine and radiance of color-treated hair. (Plus, it smells exactly like a tropical rainforest — or so we think.)

The Body Shop Rainforest Radiance Hair Butter, $14, available at The Body Shop.
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Infused with algae-based extracts, this water-based gel formula conditions your hair overnight. Simply leave it on as you sleep, and wake up with healthier and more hydrated locks — plus, you don’t even have to rinse it out in the morning unless you’d like to.

Sachajuan Overnight Hair Repair, $66, available at David Pirrotta.
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This mask from Australian hair-care brand Kevin Murphy contains ingredients like rose-hip and evening-primrose oils to help smooth and repair your strands, as well as add elasticity and shine.

Kevin Murphy Hydrate-Me.Masque, $39, available at Kevin Murphy.
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This deep-conditioning treatment promises to hydrate even dry, damaged 'dos in just three minutes with an effective combination of aloe, jojoba-seed oil, and sea kelp.

Aussie 3 Minute Miracle Moist Deep Conditioning Treatment, $2.97, available at Target.
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The star ingredient in Christophe Robin’s hair mask is prickly-pear-seed oil, which is loaded with vitamin E and antioxidants to help revitalize your locks. The formula works for all hair types, in addition to protecting and reviving the pigments in colored hair.

Christophe Robin Regenerating Mask with Rare Prickly Pear Seed Oil, $71, available at Sephora.
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