If you’ve recently started your natural hair care journey, it’s probable that you’ve got some hair damage. Whether that be build up and moisture loss from conventional hair products, or damage from heat styling and chemical dyes, deep conditioning treatments can provide some benefit when selecting the right ingredients for your hair. Even if you’re a natural hair care veteran, it’s possible to have dry, damaged locks from exposure to the sun, wind and extreme temperatures, from frequent washing or swimming, or even from the “natural” (but still damaging) oil-stripping surfactants in your organic shampoo.
There are many components to full hair health – scalp health (microbiome, oil production, texture of skin, proper pH), and elasticity, porosity, cuticle health, and moisture content of the hair itself. Your daily hair care routine should contain products that provide nutrients from herbs and oils to nourish and protect the hair, but extended oil or protein treatments are beneficial to use less frequently (anywhere from once a month to once a week) to deposit specific nutrients deeper into the hair strands.
Signs that you may need to do some extensive hair treatments include dryness of the shaft and tips of the hair between washes, dull appearance with poor flexibility, excess frizz and weightlessness, loss of curl pattern, and hair absorbing large amounts of oil easily without looking “wet” or greasy. Finding whether your hair needs more moisture or more protein is a matter of trial and error, so have fun experimenting with the following recipes!
Individuals with very porous hair, or those who have chemically or heat damaged hair may benefit from extra protein. Likewise, those with dehydrated locks from excess sun exposure, frequent washing or swimming, or those using alkaline hair products such as baking soda, castile soap, or shampoo bars, as these situations all entail increased damage, dryness, and protein loss. Symptoms of protein deficiency in the hair include extreme dryness that does not get better with oil application, breakage, dullness, limpness and inflexibility. Protein is the nutrient responsible for providing structure within the hair. Adequate protein within the hair promotes strength, softness, shine, and helps reduce water loss, which preserves moisture. It is equally important to ensure adequate protein in the diet,
Many commercial hair care products contain different refined proteins such as hydrolyzed oat protein, keratin, and other plant based amino acids. Because the proteins in these products are already broken down, they are able to absorbed into the hair by penetrating the hair shaft. Unfortunately, many of these hair products also contain synthetic ingredients like waxes, silicons, alcohols, and oil-stripping surfactants.
Common DIY ingredients for natural protein treatments include egg whites, mayonnaise, and coconut milk (which is beneficial for its saturated fats, but not its proteins) but unfortunately these whole-food proteins are too large to be useful to the hair. Using a high quality hydrolyzed collagen or grass fed gelatine powder topically is the best way to provide the hair with absorbable protein, as the amino acid molecules are already broken down and small enough to be penetrable. In the case of collagen, this is due to the hydrolization – the proteins are broken down using fermentation and an acidic substance, which pre-digests the amino acids. This makes the molecules small and uniform. In the case of gelatine, the protein molecules actually vary in size because they are not denatured, but are still small enough to be absorbed.
For my medium-coarse, high density, loose curly/wavy, shoulder-length hair, I mix 2 Tablespoons of grass fed gelatine, 2 Tablespoons of grass fed hydrolyzed collagen, and about 1/4 cup of hot water to make a paste. Starting with the ends of my hair, I smooth on the mixture, making sure to get full coverage on all my hairs. I work my way up to about 3/4 of the way up the hair shaft – my healthy virgin hair and roots will need less protein than the damaged shaft and ends of my hair, and more protein is not better. I leave this mixture on up to 60 minutes before washing out, but individuals with normal or less damaged hair may need less time.
Usually in my hair treatment recipes, I add raw apple cider vinegar to adjust the pH to that of the scalp and hair, but in this case, you want the positive ionic charge of the proteins to bind to the slightly negative charge of our hair, and adding an acid can inhibit this beneficial reaction.
There is such a thing as too much protein for the hair. For fine hair, this could manifest as limp, flat hair with extreme softness and loss of curl pattern, or for coarse hair, it may promote brittleness, stickiness, and extreme tangling.
When you’re experimenting with this recipe, try using varying quantities of the ingredients and varying amounts of time to see exactly how much protein your hair needs. When you’ve found the perfect concoction, your hair will have good weight to it with volume, it will be soft and supple with a healthy shine, and if you have curly or wavy hair, you may see improved curl definition and reduced frizz.
Henna is an ancient middle eastern herb traditionally used for body art and hair colouring, often in ceremonial settings. Henna is still very commonly used for temporary tattoos and hair colour, as it is non-damaging and actually nourishes the skin and hair, and is long lasting. Henna can be used by anybody to promote stronger, healthier more nourished hair. Although traditional henna has a distinctive copper-red hue, you can get henna mixed with other herbs such as indigo and chamomile to create varying shades of blonde, brown, red and black. For those looking for the strengthening properties of henna without the colour change, you can try cassia, commonly referred to as “neutral henna”.
The conditioning properties of henna come from its ability to lift the hair cuticle and deposit herbal dyes and nutrients deep into the hair strands. A monthly henna treatment can promote strength, flexibility and help repair damage to the cuticle by filling in gaps or holes in the strand with proteins. It’s best to use henna on a regular basis to experience its full benefit.
If you’re using henna with the goal of dying your hair, the herb must be mixed in advance and let sit overnight to release its dyes. The amount of henna you will need depends on the length and density of your hair. Take your quantity of henna powder, mix with water until it forms a pudding-textured paste, and cover. Make sure you never use metal utensils when you’re using henna, as it may react with the herb – stick to glass, ceramic and wood. Once your henna mixture has rested for 8-12 hours, you may apply it as you would conventional hair dye. Working in sections, start at the tips of the hair and work up towards the roots. Depending on the intensity of colour you’re hoping to achieve, leave the herbal paste on from 2 hours to overnight. Because henna can be slightly drying (yet still repairing), 2-3 hours is ideal for most hair types.
If you’re using cassia (neutral henna), follow these same steps with the exception of letting the henna rest – there is no dye to release, so you can mix and apply immediately.
Extra proteins and penetrating oils can be applied with the henna, if desired. Due to the nature of henna lifting the hair cuticle, this can help these nutrients deposit deeper into the hair strand than when used alone. My favourite recipe uses henna, full fat coconut cream, and greek yogurt. See more about my personal henna protocol here.
Warm Oil Treatments & Pre-Shampoo
See part 2/3 of the Holistic Hair Care series for details on different oils and their application in hair care.
Warm oil treatments can be a beneficial intense conditioner to add into your routine as needed. Choosing the right oils will be important, as only certain oils actually penetrate the hair – others can help seal and smooth the cuticle, and some simply add slip and softness to prevent friction and help line up individual hairs. Penetrating oils are the most beneficial to use during a warm oil treatment, as they absorb deep into the inner layers of each strand, and help promote moisture and protect the hair from damage.
The best penetrating oil for your individual hair will vary depending on the thickness, density, and texture of your hair, and these variables will determine how much and how often to use these oils as well. The oils with the highest penetrating ability include coconut oil, olive oil, avocado oil, and sunflower seed oil.
Coconut oil has the highest percentage of penetrating oils, and provides the extra benefit of containing saturated fats, which are a very important nutrient for the hair. However, not all hair loves coconut oil – some hair types may become overly greasy, or alternatively dry and brittle with regular use.
Sunflower oil is a good choice for hair that tends to appear wet and feels overly greasy with an oil application. This oil is light and well absorbed, and when using the raw, unrefined variety, provides omega fatty acids and minerals to the hair.
To a lesser degree, castor oil can penetrate the hair as well, and provides extra benefit if applied to the scalp – castor oil is a purgative and stimulating oil, helping draw toxins out of hair follicles, stimulate the scalp, and increase circulation and lymphatic drainage. This can provide benefit for those with slow growing hair, and help unclog hair follicles from buildup of conventional hair care products on the scalp. Used regularly, it can help modulate oil production on the scalp – but for this reason, it can be drying to the shaft and ends of hair, so watch carefully how your hair reacts to this oil. Make sure you use cold pressed, organic castor oil, as it is often extracted using chemical solvents such as hexanes.
Olive oil and avocado oil tend to be heavier oils that work better on extremely dry, porous, thirsty hair, however, they are well absorbed. Due to its high oleic acid content, olive oil can worsen acne prone skin. If your pores tend to clog easily or you suffer from frequent breakouts, make sure your hair is pulled well away from your face or avoid this oil completely.
Generally speaking, the penetration of these oils increases with heat. Gently warm your oil in a double boiler (not a microwave), apply, then wrap your head with a towel or scarf made from natural fibres. A leave in oil treatment is best done the evening before washing your hair, and left on overnight. This allows ample time for the oil to be absorbed, and will help protect your hair from the swelling and cuticle lifting as a result of being saturated with water during washing. The amount of oil your hair needs will vary – start with less and increase as needed. My hair doesn’t tolerate more than a quarter-sized amount of oil at a time, but some hair needs a quarter cup, depending on length, porosity and texture. If you’re finding your hair still looks and feels oily after washing post-oil treatment, half the amount of oil you’re applying.
Using oil treatments can help maintain moisture of the hair, increase softness and manageability, reduce breakage and damage from detangling, and add shine.
Oil treatments are beneficial for most hair types, but if you’ve experimented extensively with different penetrating oils in varying quantities for different lengths of time and are still not seeing benefit, your hair may simply need protein instead.
Do you have any favourite deep conditioning treatments? I’d love for you to share your experiences with oils, proteins and henna below!
Kayla MacDonald, R.H.N.