Moisture, moisture, moisture… and protein!

12 Jan

photo by Andersen Ross

One of the first things I learnt about African hair is the importance of moisture.  Our hair needs water to maintain its elasticity, or ability to stretch.   African hair craves and thrives on moisture.  For African hair in particular, hair breakage is typically a result of an imbalance of important forces within the hair strand: moisture and protein levels.  Growing your hair is a constant battle between maintaining even protein and moisture balances.  Hair breakage is often the result of the hair chemistry being thrown off-balance.  Some amount of hair loss is natural, but most hair loss in African women stems from mistreatment of the hair or from a disproportionate amount of moisture or protein.

Protein is what gives the hair its strength and structure. Hair is about 80% protein.  Women with relaxed or colour treated hair need more protein than others. If you are relaxed or colour treated, those processes have compromised the protein structure of your hair.  Relaxing and colouring breaks protein bonds.  Depending on the level of protein bond breakage you incur, you will need more or less protein than someone else.  Protein-based products reinforce the hair shaft, and help it remain strong enough to fight breakage.  Some women with natural hair do not use protein based products at all.  The key is to learn what your hair needs.

Hair in its optimal condition will not break when wet unless undue stress is placed upon it through aggressive combing, detangling, or unusual types of pulling stress. Balanced hair will feel soft and supple, yet strong while wet. When you comb through it, it should resist excess stretching and will hardly break if you are careful.  Maintaining a proper moisture protein balance within your hair is probably the most critical aspect to growth retention.  If this balance is disturbed, interrupted or weighted too heavily to one side or the other, the result is breakage.

So how do you tell whether your hair requires moisture or protein?  I’m still trying to figure this out!  I have learnt though that when in doubt – go with moisture!  African hair tends to suffer more from lack of moisture than from lack of protein.

When hair gets too many protein based products it will break easier – when wet or dry – because it lacks elasticity.  Elasticity is what allows us to style, stretch, and manipulate our hair without breakage.  Hair that breaks with very little tension or stretching is a sign of an overabundance of protein, and a deficiency of moisture.  Any type of stretching or tension will break it because the protein goes in and adds structure to the hair. Too much structure makes the hair rigid and decreases its elasticity leading to brittle, breakage-prone hair.

It is also possible for hair to get too much moisture!  This hair will be “super-elastic” and stretch more because it lacks a sound protein structure.  The hair will be “mush-like” or “overly soft,” especially when wet.  Protein deficient hair will tend to pull and stretch along with the comb and then break. It will always stretch first then break because of the low structural protein stores, and overabundance of moisture.

The source of moisture for our hair comes from water (both drinking and washing) as well as from hair products that we use.  The source of protein is from the food we eat as well as hair products we use.  Since water is the ultimate moisturiser, water-based hair products are best for really getting the greatest moisture benefit.  A water-based moisturiser will work well to add moisture directly into hair because water itself is the best moisturiser there is.  In order to make sure you’re using a water-based moisturiser, you simply need to look at the ingredients list.  Water should be listed within the first few ingredients, usually as the first.  I use a moisturiser each morning before I comb or style my hair.  I have several different ones that I like.  I will name them in a later post about how I look after my hair day-to-day.  Some women moisturise twice a day, in the morning and just before they go to bed at night.  Some women with natural hair carry a spray bottle with water (and sometimes a bit of oil added) which they use to spritz their hair throughout the day to keep it moisturised.  It’s a matter of knowing what your hair prefers.

You will also notice many oil moisturisers on the shelves.  You probably even have a few at home!  In these moisturisers, oil will be among the first ingredients on the list and water will be much lower down.  Oil moisturisers work well for women with natural hair that has been straightened.  On such hair water based moisturisers are likely to cause the hair to revert.

Protein can be identified on product ingredient lists by looking for wheat protein, soy protein or animal protein.  Just about any ingredient that has the word “hydrolyzed” before it will be a protein.  Hydrolyzed itself does not mean protein, but hydrolyzation in hair products world often means that a large protein has been broken down into a smaller one to make the protein more easily used by the hair.  Hydrolyzed wheat, soy, and silk are common.

So what can you take from all this!!  Well it’s important to know that in African hair:

  • Moisture = flexibility / elasticity
  • Protein = strength / structure
  • To reduce hair breakage there must be a balance of moisture and protein in the hair.
  • Protein treatments can be done once in a while to balance out the protein and moisture.
  • Moisture treatments need to be done regularly.  Most African women’s hair seriously lacks moisture!
  • Deep conditioner / treatments are a great source of both protein and moisture (yes I will do a post on treatments!).
  • When you go for a treatment at a salon, know what the treatment is.  Is it protein or moisture?  Ask for the treatment you think your hair needs.  Most hairstylists will not examine your hair and recommend one – they will just do whatever treatment they have.



10 Responses to “Moisture, moisture, moisture… and protein!”

  1. nillionaires 15 February, 2011 at 11:05 pm #

    Hi Tendayi

    It’s Agnes, well done on such an informative blog. I am also on an interesting hair journey, though now having read your blog, i realise that maybe i need to be more dedicated.

    The moisture story is a huge one for me – i hate using moisturisers as my experience has been of heavy products, often oily. I am interested in research into a moisturising shampoo and consitioner for black hair. are you now in Jozi?? please send me your number and we can chat more on this.

    great blog!

    • Tendayi 16 February, 2011 at 12:21 pm #

      Hi Agnes!!
      Thanks for the compliments to the blog. I posted a blog post a few minutes ago that includes a section on moisturising shampoos. you should check it out. Also check out my previous post on deep conditioning.

      As for moisturisers, a lot of them are heavy and it takes time to find one you like. I bought Yes To Cucumbers Leave in Conditioner in Clicks a few days ago. You might like it. Its very light and moisturising. The only problem is that it will cost you R99 to see if you like it. You can view this link for a picture I will do a product review of this in a later post. Some women also use braid spray as a moisturiser. It wont work though if you like wearing straight styles as it will cause the hair to revert.

      I will email you my number. Alternatively you can email me on

  2. Carole 16 February, 2011 at 9:41 am #

    Hi Tendayi
    very interesting articles. i’ll be honest, being so busy nebasa, i find weaves easier…which means washing and conditioning twice a week does not happen easily 😦 moisturizing i do, but i guess i’m adding oil on top of oil hey….until the next wash…kunzima!

    • Tendayi 16 February, 2011 at 12:33 pm #

      Hi Carole!
      Many women succesfully grow and take care of their hair using braids and weaves. The idea is just to remember that there is hair underneath that needs to be taken care of! I will research and do a post on weaves and braids so we can learn from others how they do it!

  3. Layara 23 July, 2012 at 7:21 pm #

    Hello guys. I’ve doing a lil bit of research on hair and hair products. What my research is based on is the harmful products that we and our salons put on our hairs, mineral oil and petroleum seem to be the worst for hair as it cause build up and clogs the hair pores, keeping hair from shooting out/ simply growing. I’ve been buying ORS products: uplifting shampoo, replemishing deep conditioner, water based moisturisers- carrot oil and air fertiliser and hair mayonnaise, because they do not have petroleum and mineral. at times i use Dr miracle hot gro hair and scalp treatment conditioner, and now i wonder to myself why do so many products contain mineral oil and petroleum if they weigh hair down and clog hair follicles? is there any benefits to it?

    I also go natural or maybe transition but how do i straigten my hair without use if relaxers and does detangling products work on kinky (type 4) hair??

    • Tendayi 24 July, 2012 at 12:54 am #

      Hi Layara
      Mineral oil / petroluatum etc is mainly used as a cheap filler in hair products. It has no benefit for hair really though some women use products with mineral oil to seal in moisture into the hair ie on wet hair or on hair that has been moisturised first. I personally prefer to use natural oils for this eg coconut oil.

      If you decide to go natural you would then straighten your hair using braids, twists etc. You could also use a hairdryer and flat iron though heat can be damaging to hair.

      Detangling products do work on type 4 hair. They make the hair soft whcih makes it easier to detangle.

  4. Ciku 02 November, 2012 at 1:03 pm #

    I am just starting my hair journey and trying to find a good moisturizer. Is pink lotion a moisturizer?

  5. chercy 26 November, 2013 at 12:11 am #

    thank u so much 4 this post i stumbled on your blog nd am so glad i di. Please can u give the names of water based moisturizers i can use cause my hair doesnt seem to grow much

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