11 Best Protein Treatments for Hair of 2021 — Strengthening Treatments

With much bigger things top of mind at the moment, keeping our hair healthy may be a priority that’s fallen by the wayside. Totally understandable. The good news is that getting back to voluminous, shiny, and moisturized hair is as easy as a good at-home protein treatment — no matter what your hair type or texture. 

While protein treatments are a great option for hair fortifying, they’re also complex, and not to be approached without caution. “A protein treatment is a chemical process for your hair that reinforces the exterior structure to improve texture, strength, and appearance of the hair,” says William Gaunitz, WTS, certified trichologist and founder of the Gaunitz Trichology Methods. Often also referred to as a keratin treatment, the most well-known form of protein that already exists in healthy hair, the treatment strengthens the outermost layer of the hair cuticle by incorporating hydrolyzed proteins, which are proteins comprised of amino acids and peptides.

Let’s look deeper at the composition of hair to better understand how protein treatments work. “Hair is made up of water, keratin, lipids, minerals, and pigments and divided into three parts, the cuticle, the cortex, and the medulla,” says Annie Chiu, a board-certified dermatologist and founder of The Derm Institute. “The cuticle is the outside wall of hair and is the first part that becomes damaged when hair is mistreated. Keratin is found in the cortex and is composed of 18 amino acids. Keratin can become deformed with water vapor, it can also be affected by dietary deficiencies which can lead to structural defects in the hair shaft,” Chiu explains.

Keratin treatments work by smoothing down the cuticle. “This seals the cuticle and makes hair smooth and shiny and less frizzy. Over time the keratin [treatment] wears away and your hair goes back to its original form,” says Chiu. Depending on how you treat your hair this can be anywhere from three to six months. “Since it is a coating, it’s not really improving your hair structure, it is a temporary fix.”

If you’ve been leaning into at-home hair dyeing, you should definitely keep reading. Due to their potency, protein treatments have proven incredibly beneficial to damaged or chemically treated hair. Additionally, “heat products and sun exposure are two of the biggest contributors to hair damage,” says Morgan Parks, senior stylist at NineZeroOne Salon in Hollywood, California. Parks also suggests an increased repair for those with an affinity for heat tools. “If you tend to use a curling iron, blow dryer, or flat iron most days of the week, that’s another reason to protein treat your hair,” she says.

David Petrillo, chemist and founder of skin-care brand, Perfect Image also says that people typically use keratin treatments to smoothen and straighten their hair in a way that is weather-proof and more manageable. “Keratin is also used to fill in the gaps of protein in the hair, which helps give it a fuller, ‘healthier’ look,” says Petrillo. And according to hairstylist Kiyah Wright, natural hair, being more vulnerable to dryness and breakage, is in even bigger need of consistent protein treatments. Curly and more textured hair can benefit not only from the hydration that keratin offers but also for increasing manageability. “It’s made to help relax the cuticle, which in turn makes curls more tamable,” says Wright.

Sounds like protein treatments are a quick fix, right? If used correctly, they can be. However, applying too frequently, especially when not at the hands of a professional can have adverse effects. That’s why, salon-grade protein treatments, which contain much more potent chemicals, are only accessible to licensed professionals, and not recommended for at-home use. “Many harsh chemicals that are used in structural changes for the hair will actually negatively impact the scalp and in some cases cause a chemically induced minor shed,” Gaunitz says. “That said, you should beware of overusing protein treatments. This is not a conditioning treatment.”

However, some lower-level protein treatments do in fact come in the form of deep-conditioning treatments, leave-ins, and post-wash reconstructors. Petrillo adds that while the smoothing results may be the same between products, the chemistry of each can differ drastically between treatments — so ease into it if your first time trying one. Parks concurs, too much protein is a major no-no. “Protein treatments can easily be overdone,” she says. “Too much protein can cause the hair to become brittle and weak. I recommend clients start out these treatments by doing it once a month and seeing how the scalp and hair react.” 

Wright says the frequency can increase depending on the potency of the at-home treatment you’re using. “If it’s a low-level protein treatment and your hair is in recovery mode, I suggest once every two weeks,” she says. However, she’s emphatic about ensuring that the product used must have only a small amount of protein. 

For those with a healthy and hydrated head of hair, you’re in luck. According to Gaunitz, non-damaged hair should only use up to three protein treatments a year to minimize any unnecessary impacts on the scalp, which can lead to excessive inflammation, irritation, or ultimately hair loss.

If you’re ready to give at-home protein treatments a try, a specific regimen must be followed. “You want to shampoo well first,” Wright says. “Then, apply the protein treatment and place your hair under a plastic cap so it can truly penetrate the hair follicle.” And if you have one at your disposal, Wright suggests sitting under a heated dryer for about 30 minutes to further reap the benefits. From there, you can rinse and condition as normal. However, don’t rush into styling the day of. Parks advises staying away from hot tools as a way for the hair shaft to truly absorb the formula without disruption.

Ahead, some of our favorite at-home protein treatments to take care of all different levels of hair damage.

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