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Large and small proteins: the difference for your curls

Protein is used in hair products for strength, shine, hydration and to reduce breakage. But did you know that there is a difference between large and small proteins? In this blog we’ll explain that difference! And of course we’ll share some tips on how to find out which protein suits your hair best too.

Also read: What does protein mean for a curly girl?

In this article:

In this article:

What does protein do for your hair?

First, we’ll explain what protein, also called keratin, does for your hair. It’s one of the most important building blocks of your hair. 

Protein helps temporarily repair damaged areas in hair by filling in gaps in the cuticle. It keeps hair hydrated by slowing down the loss of water from hair. 

Protein is used in hair products to make it stronger, more elastic, and give it shine. Your hair will be shiny again, it will feel more bouncy and your curls will have better definition. 

In addition, protein stimulates hair growth and determines elasticity. As a Curly Girl it’s very important that your hair has the right elasticity so that your curl curls back when you stretch it.

Also read: Hair elasticity: what is it and how do you test it?

The difference between large and small proteins

Protein is in a number of foods that can nourish and/or cleanse your curls. Think of wheat, soy, egg, coconut milk, yogurt and mayonnaise.

But the protein in these products is too big to actually penetrate the middle layer of your hair. As a result, this (large) protein cannot really restore your hair. 

The protein-rich foods can temporarily make your hair feel fuller, thicker and softer, but this effect will wear off after a while as the protein can’t penetrate the middle layer of your hair. 

The best proteins to look for are hydrolyzed proteins (small proteins). This is protein that has been broken down into a small size – smaller molecules – that is able to penetrate your hair. 

Hydrolyzed proteins can form a clear, flexible film over your hair that slows down water loss. Some proteins penetrate below the outermost cuticles to keep hair hydrated at slightly deeper layers.


  • Large proteins = protein in foods
  • Small proteins = hydrolyzed protein; it’s broken into smaller pieces

The different types of protein

Which protein is most suitable for your hair? In general:

  • Low porosity hair → small proteins
  • High porosity hair → large proteins

These are the different types of proteins:

  • Amino acids and peptides

These are the smallest of all proteins and therefore are suitable for almost every hair type. From fine to thick, and from high to low porosity hair. 

On the ingredient list you can recognize them as: Amino Acids or Peptides.

  • Hydrolyzed Silk, Keratin and Collagen

These proteins also have small molecules and are therefore suitable for many hair types. On the ingredient list you can recognize them as: Hydrolyzed Silk, Hydrolyzed Keratin or Hydrolyzed Collagen.

  • Gelatin

Gelatin  is between medium and large and is therefore more suitable for porous hair, fine hair or damaged hair. You can recognize this on the ingredients list as Gelatin.

  • Hydrolyzed vegetable proteins such as wheat, oats, soy, lupine and quinoa

These molecules are even larger and are therefore suitable for porous hair, fine hair, damaged hair or chemically treated hair. You can recognize these proteins on the ingredient list as: Hydrolyzed Wheat Protein, Hydrolyzed Wheat Starch, Hydrolyzed Soy Protein, Hydrolyzed Quinoa or Hydrolyzed Lupine.

How to recognize protein in hair products

Protein has been used in hair products for years. Do you want to check whether a hair product contains protein? Then search the ingredients list for hydrolyzed protein, amino acids or peptides. Below is a list of forms of protein that can be an ingredient in a hair product:

  • Protein 
  • Keratin
  • Amino acids
  • Cocodimonium hydroxypropyl hydrolyzed casein
  • Cocodimonium Hydroxypropyl Hydrolyzed Collagen
  • Cocodimonium hydroxypropyl hydrolyzed hair keratin
  • Cocodimonium hydroxypropyl hydrolyzed keratin
  • Cocodimonium hydroxypropyl hydrolyzed rice protein
  • Cocodimonium hydroxypropyl hydrolyzed silk
  • Cocodimonium hydroxypropyl hydrolyzed soy protein
  • Cocodimonium hydroxypropyl hydrolyzed wheat protein
  • Cocodimonium hydroxypropyl silk amino acids
  • Cocoyl hydrolyzed collagen
  • Cocoyl hydrolyzed keratin
  • Hydrolyzed Keratin
  • Hydrolyzed oat flour
  • Hydrolyzed silk
  • Hydrolyzed silk protein
  • Hydrolyzed soy protein
  • Hydrolyzed wheat protein
  • Potassium Cocoyl Hydrolyzed Collagen
  • TEA-cocoyl hydrolyzed collagen
  • TEA-cocoyl hydrolyzed soy protein

Usually, you can tell that there is protein in a product by terms on the label such as: strengthening, toning and repairing. But don’t trust this blindly. 

In addition, you can see how much protein is in a product based on the indication on the ingredients list. The higher the ingredient is on the ingredient list, the more of it it contains. 

If protein is in one of the first five ingredients, it’s a high protein hair product or protein treatment. The further down the list, the lower the protein content.

To assess your protein hair needs, you need to consider your hair’s current health and your hair routine habits – like the use of heat, dyes or bleach, chlorine, etc.. 

There are only a few hair types that can tolerate too much protein. So the biggest mistake you can make is to use all types of protein at once, or to use protein in all your skincare products. 

It’s better to start with one product with protein, such as a deep conditioner. Do you have very fragile or chemically treated hair? 

Then you are an exception to the rule and it can be very good to use protein in all your hair products.

Hopefully everything about large and small proteins is now clear to you! If you have any questions, feel free to ask them in a comment!


  1. This article was super helpful!!!! Thank you so much

  2. I would love to find a product that includes all the ingredients you mentioned, such as gelatin, amino acids, hydrolyzed silk, collagen, keratin, and vegetable proteins. Currently, I am using a shampoo that contains keratin. However, I have to purchase a separate conditioner with gelatin and collagen because there are no shampoos in Sweden that offer everything in one bottle. Before I started using a shampoo with gelatin, my hair was falling out all the time. I was so obsessed that I had to search for the spiritual meaning of finding hair in your food but now, with my new hair products, I am satisfied!

  3. Thank you soooo much for the info. Even down to making sure to use one and not several at one time. I’m in the thick of my natural hair journey and wanted to know how to treat my hair considering my interest in learning to straighten my hair on my own. I have not been successful at…straightening or being able to pull it back for a neat ponytail…I have sooo much hair!

    • I have come to the end of my search for what type of protein to incorporate in our hair care journey( I have 2 daughters). This article is so informative 👏 👌 👍.

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