Healthy hair contains protein that adds fullness, bounce, and sheen. However, having too much protein can cause it to become dry, dull, and brittle — a condition known as protein overload.

Keratin, the main protein in your hair, can be added to your hair to strengthen your strands. Products like leave-in conditioners and deep conditioning treatments coat your strands with keratin to make them stronger. It’s only when keratin builds up that it can weaken your hair shaft and result in split ends and hair that’s harder to style.

Let’s take a look at the science of protein in your hair, how to know if your hair has too much protein in it, and how to fix it if it does happen.

There’s plenty of research that helps us understand the important role that the keratin protein plays in our hair structure. Keratin is the inner coil of your hair’s cortex, or center. It’s literally at the heart of each strand.

The cortex is surrounded by a layer of dead cells, known as the cuticle. Yes, the visible part of your hair strand is actually dead cells.

Protein treatments are used to coat your hair strands with keratin, adding strength to the bonds between your hair molecules. This protein can actually build up on the cuticle of your hair, making your hair heavier. This can wear out your hair strand as it works extra against the effects of gravity.

It’s certainly possible that hair with too much protein in it can be more prone to damage. However, there aren’t many studies into the ways that too much protein can damage hair. This side effect of so-called “protein overload” is mostly anecdotal as of now.

Certain types of hair seem more prone to this happening. People with hair that tends to be dry, and hair that’s textured or curly seem to be at higher risk for protein buildup.

When your hair appears to be damaged, “too much protein” is probably not the first thing that comes to mind. So how can you know if it’s happening to your hair?

The tell-tale signs of protein overload seem to be split ends and limp strands. Hair that feels brittle or sheds more than is normal for you can also be signs that your tresses have been exposed to too much keratin.

Hair that has been damaged from dye, bleach, heat styling, and other chemicals is prone to frizz, breakage, and split ends, which can make it hard to spot the difference. The thing to remember is that protein overload in your hair doesn’t happen as the result of a high-protein diet or other lifestyle choices. A protein overload only happens after treating your hair with protein in some way.

Check the ingredients in the hair products that you use to see if they contain proteins or keratin. Look for words like “silk protein” or “hydrolyzed collagen.” If you’ve been treating your hair with care but one or several of your hair products contain keratin or another protein source, protein buildup could definitely be a factor. If you haven’t been treating your hair with protein, you can probably rule it out.

Once you’ve figured out that protein buildup is the reason your hair is looking a bit damaged, you can start the process of fixing it. This process may take some patience, and you may want to try a few different methods of repairing your hair.

Cleansing with clarifier

Soaking your hair in regular warm water is a great start to rid your hair of excess oils and buildup, but you’ll probably need a clarifying shampoo to really break apart proteins that are bonded to your hair. Look for a gentle clarifying shampoo made specifically for your hair type.

Getting a trim

If your hair is feeling heavy and hard to maintain, trimming off an inch or two of split ends may help. Protein may have been building up in the very ends of your hair for some time, and those split ends are not going to fuse back together.

Essential oils

You can also try to strip some of the excess proteins out of the roots of your hair by using essential oils.

Peppermint, clary sage, and lavender oil can all be applied to your scalp to cleanse the area. The oils can also be used increase blood flow to your scalp to encourage new growth. Make sure to use a carrier oil to dilute any essential oils before you apply them directly to your scalp.

Give your hair a break from styling

If your hair is showing signs of damage, it’s time to take it easy with heat styling, hair dye, and most hair products. Wear your hair loose or pull it back gently, and let it take a breather in its natural state.

If you have protein building, you won’t be able to use a deep conditioning treatment or hair mask to get rid of the problem, because those products are probably what caused the buildup in the first place.

The best method of treating damage to your hair is to prevent it from happening altogether. This is true even about protein buildup.

Some tips to prevent protein buildup include:

  • Follow package instructions for any hair treatment that includes keratin. Don’t layer two products with keratin on top of each other, and don’t use the products more than recommended.
  • Wash your hair once or twice a week with a clarifying shampoo made for your hair type.
  • Don’t overwash or overcondition your hair. Limit conditioner to the ends of your hair; it typically doesn’t need to be applied to your roots.
  • Visit a stylist regularly to get feedback and advice on how your hair looks and feels.

When you have concerns about your hair, seeing a professional stylist is never a bad idea.

See a professional if your hair:

  • breaks easily or is shedding a lot
  • is brittle and tangles easily
  • has visible split ends

Remember that a sudden change in your hair health can be a sign of an underlying health condition. If your hair starts to come out in clumps or bald spots appear, those are symptoms that should be addressed by a medical professional. Speak to your doctor if your hair is changing drastically.

There’s not a lot of research into protein buildup or keratin overload in your hair. Anecdotally, people seem to experience it when they use a lot of hair products that contain keratin.

Cleaning your hair and giving it a break from styling and hair treatments is the first step to repairing hair that has too much protein in it. In some cases, a trim from a stylist and a little bit of patience may be required.