Ingredient Talk: Is Hydration or Protein Better for Your Hair?

October 17, 2023
Alexis Gaskin
By: Alexis Gaskin | by L'Oréal
A close up of a person with wet hair in the shower

For many, hair care styling and maintenance are crucial parts of a beauty routine. Even if you keep your hair short or throw it up into a sleek bun most days, you’ll still want to take care of your hair and scalp for healthy strands. Moisture, hydration and protein are key components needed for healthy hair and with the latter, there seems to be a lot of confusion about its role when it comes to tresses.

To decipher between protein versus hydration hair needs, we tapped a roster of hair experts to give insight into keeping hair moisturized and healthy. Below, hear from hairstylists Rogério Cavalcante of The Second Floor Salon, Kevin Kelly, founder of Kevin Kelly Luxe Extensions, Jennifer Korab, owner of the Renaissance Salon & Spa and Alyssia Dotson, Alterna Haircare Creative Team Lead Stylist.

What is Hydration for Hair?

Hydration for the hair is all about keeping water in your strands and having it penetrate deep for your mane's overall health. You can add hydration to your hair through the regular use of deep conditioning treatments, hair oils or leave-in conditioner, confirms Cavalcante. These products add moisture and help keep hydration in the hair cuticle for healthier hair. 

Sometimes hydration is confused with moisture, says Dotson, however, they are two (subtly) different things. “Hydration primarily focuses on keeping your hair well-watered, whereas moisture encompasses the broader concept of maintaining a balance of both water and oils. This harmonious balance is what you should strive for to keep your hair healthy and well-moisturized.” 

What is Protein for Hair?

Protein and hair are truly best friends, mostly because hair is made up of protein. The protein that is in your hair (along with your skin and nails) is called keratin, our experts confirm, and is an essential component for maintaining healthy hair. “Keratin is a protein that gives hair its strength, elasticity and texture,” says Korab. 

This type of natural protein is not the exact same as the protein found in hair care treatments or products (however, both repair, strengthen and smooth strands). Once the protein in your hair is damaged, it can’t be replicated until strands grow back. Protein found in hair care is usually listed as keratin, wheat protein, soy protein, collagen, amino acids or oat flour on product labels.

What Hair Types Benefit from Protein and Hydration?

All hair types need protein and hydration to retain hair strength for smoother, more resilient strands. However, some hair types benefit more from protein and hydration and need them both for overall hair health. 

If you have a standing salon appointment to change up your hair color every season or constantly reach for heating tools to style your hair, you’re ultimately causing damage to your hair and depleting protein in strands. Damaged hair needs protein treatments (and hydration), confirm our experts, to repair hair for healthier strands.

When it comes to hydration, Cavalcante and Kelly recommend those with dry hair, especially coily and curly hair, keep extra hydration in strands to combat frizz and maintain moisture in the hair. According to the American Academy of Dermatology (AAD), thick, curly hair types are most prone to breakage and dryness, compared to other hair types. These hair textures struggle to retain moisture, confirms Dotson, which can lead to dryness, frizz and breakage. “Regular hydration is essential for maintaining softness and preventing these problems,” she says.

When Should You Use a Hydration or Protein Treatment?

You should use a hydration treatment any time your hair is feeling extra dry or starts to frizz, no matter how much moisture you give it. Hair that needs hydration often deals with flyaways, strands that easily tangle and undefined curls or waves. When you touch dehydrated hair, it’ll feel drier and have a less shiny appearance. 

To minimize damage, keep your hair hydrated constantly through the daily use of styling products like the L’Oréal Paris Elvive Hyaluron + Plump Moisture Plump Serum or with hydrating shampoo and conditioners like the L’Oréal Paris Elvive Hyaluron + Plump Hydrating Shampoo and L’Oréal Paris Elvive Hyaluron + Plump Hydrating Conditioner, which won’t strip your hair and keep hydration locked in with the infused hyaluronic acid. 

If you have damaged hair then you need to add protein to your hair care regimen. By keeping the right balance of protein in your hair, you can minimize signs of damage like hair breakage, frizz and stringy hair. Cavalcante recommends those with damaged hair and healthy hair use a protein treatment. “For those with healthy hair, a protein treatment every two weeks works well, but if your hair is damaged, a weekly treatment can make a significant difference,” he says.

L’Oréal Paris Elvive Hyaluron + Plump Hydrating Shampoo and L’Oréal Paris Elvive Hyaluron + Plump Hydrating Conditioner

Can Hair Have Too Much Protein or Hydration?

While you may be tempted to coat strands in a protein or hydration treatment in an attempt to repair hair quickly, you’re actually overloading strands with these nourishing ingredients. In general, too much of a good thing is true with protein and hydration. “Too much hydration or protein could cause hair to become very frizzy and frail and break off,” Kelly says. 

Protein overload and buildup occur when you go overboard with a treatment and hair is left feeling rigid and weighed down. Excessive hydration can also make hair feel overly soft and susceptible to breakage. Dotson says, “Achieving the right balance between hydration and protein treatments is essential. It's crucial to tailor your hair care routine to your specific hair type and texture to maintain healthy and beautiful hair.”

How to Fix Protein Overload and Hydration Overload?

The easiest way to address protein overload is to cut back on protein-rich hair care products. “Focus on moisturizing your hair with hydrating shampoos, conditioners and [hair] masks. A clarifying shampoo can also help remove excess protein buildup,” recommends Cavalcante. If you’re dealing with hydration overload, he recommends switching to lighter, water-based products and avoiding over-conditioning. It’s always wise to follow the directions of the specific product you’re using to avoid over-using anything that could lead to protein overload or too much hydration in hair.

The 4 Best Hydration Hair Products

Carol’s Daughter Born to Repair 60-Second Moisture Treatment with Shea Butter

Flood hair with intense hydration using this in-shower moisture treatment formulated with shea butter, babassu oil and Amazonian nut oil. These moisturizing ingredients help instantly repair damaged, processed or color-treated hair that is thirsty for hydration. Ideal for curly and coily hair types, use this treatment once a week to retain moisture or whenever your dehydrated hair is in need of a pick-me-up.

Carol’s Daughter Born to Repair 60-Second Moisture Treatment with Shea Butter

Matrix Food For Soft Rich Hydrating Treatment Mask

You can use this lightweight treatment mask every time you wash your hair for a balanced dose of hydration. Simply let the creamy mask sit on your hair for three to five minutes, then rinse hair completely before continuing with a hydrating conditioner. Hair will feel more hydrated and smooth, with softer strands and an incredible shine. For a more intense treatment, allow the mask to sit on your clean hair for 10 to 15 minutes once a week to remedy dehydrated tresses.
Matrix Food For Soft Rich Hydrating Treatment Mask

Pureology Hydrate Shampoo

Korab recommends the complete Pureology Hydrate System to keep the perfect dose of hydration in your hair. This sulfate-free shampoo gently cleanses your hair while providing superior moisture with the formulation of jojoba, green tea for scalp care and sage to support hair follicles. Complete the hydration system by adding the Pureology Hydrate Conditioner from the same collection to your in-shower routine. 

Pureology Hydrate Shampoo

Alterna Haircare Caviar Anti-Aging Replenishing Moisture Masque

Deeply hydrate and condition hair with this replenishing moisture masque from Alterna Haircare that Dotson recommends for all hair types. The creamy blend of caviar extract and antioxidants melt into strands to penetrate the hair's natural lipid layer so hair can better retain moisture. As a bonus, this hair masque also wraps hair in protein to nourish and fortify each strand, making this an excellent choice for hair that needs hydration and protein. 

Alterna Haircare Caviar Anti-Aging Replenishing Moisture Masque

The 4 Best Protein Hair Products

Carol’s Daughter Goddess Strength Fortifying Shampoo With Castor Oil

To avoid protein overload in strands, use this shampoo that is formulated with ingredients like castor oil, black cumin seed oil and ginger to keep hair moisturized for stronger strands. This shampoo helps build protein in strands to minimize hair breakage and frizzy hair. 

Complete the regimen with the Carol’s Daughter Goddess Strength Fortifying Conditioner With Castor Oil to revive dry, weak hair. This shampoo is ideal for wavy, curly and coily hair types that need constant protein without overdoing the ingredient. 

Carol’s Daughter Goddess Strength Fortifying Shampoo With Castor Oil

Kérastase Resistance Ciment Anti-Usure Conditioner

Formulated with protein and amino acids, this conditioner rebuilds weak damaged hair leaving it softer and stronger after one wash. Cavalcante recommends this conditioner for anyone who needs the added protein and wants a lightweight formula. Damaged hair is restructured from within to repair hair with the added protein and ceramides. 

Kérastase Resistance Ciment Anti-Usure Conditioner

L’Oréal Paris Elvive Total Repair 5 Protein Recharge Treatment

One main takeaway from this story is to avoid protein overload that may leave your hair stringy, limp and undefined. You still need to keep protein in your hair, especially if your strands are damaged. Pack hair with protein using this leave-in conditioner treatment that’s formulated with almond oil and protein to repair hair without weighing strands down. The creamy texture minimizes flyaways and adds moisture for silky straight hair and defined curls. 

L’Oréal Paris Elvive Total Repair 5 Protein Recharge Treatment

IGK Good Behavior 4-in-1 Prep Spray

As previously mentioned, heat styling can cause damage to your hair and minimize the protein in the strand. That doesn’t mean you have to skip your silk press or voluminous curling style. Instead, limit how often you use heat tools and when you do always use a heat protectant like this prep spray from IGK. This styling spray protects your hair from heat up to 450 degrees while detangling and adding shine. Kelly recommends this spray which is formulated with spirulina protein to nourish hair and coconut oil to deliver shine and detangle. 

IGK Good Behavior 4-in-1 Prep Spray
Photographer: Chaunte Vaughn

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