By Audrey Sivasothy, author of The Science of Black Hair: A Comprehensive Guide to Textured Hair Care
Interestingly, overconditioning is not so much a problem among newbies, but rather among those who’ve been around hair care much longer. Now before I get into the meat of the discussion, let me preface my statements by giving the mandatory “what works for some, may not work for all” speech. Obviously overconditioning, and the product usage patterns that tend to encourage it, vary from person to person. There are no official normative standards here, and as with all things hair– the only hard fast rule is that there are no hard fast rules. “Too much” for one head may be “too little” for another, etc. Therefore, all suggestions and advice, including this article, should be taken with a grain of salt and weighed and evaluated against your unique situation. With that said, let’s talk overconditioning!
Out in the “real world” overconditioning, or “tipping too far” on the moisture side of the protein/moisture balance, is virtually rare. Most ladies who aren’t particularly into hair care rarely use true moisturizing hair products, and when they do-it’s often sparingly. When hair breakage problems arise, this group tends to reach for heavy protein reconstructors that clearly state that they are formulated to prevent breakage. Because most moisturizing products do not tout their breakage reduction or strengthening capabilities on their bottles and packaging, these ladies tend to skip them over when breakage problems arise. Later, when these ladies find their way onto hair forums around the web, they are typically instructed to reduce their use of proteins and increase their moisture levels. 99.9% of the time, this infusion of moisture and increase in washing and deep conditioning frequency stops the breakage and gets their hair growing and healthy.
The problem of overconditioning seems to arise once the individual has been indoctrinated into all things hair. By now, she has figured out which products are protein-based and which are more moisture leaning-and here, the tendency to over moisturize tends to develop. She develops an aversion to protein and throws all of her resources into achieving a perpetual “moisture high.” The proliferation of true “protein overload” stories may have gotten her to this point! She knows that there is a gentle, often tricky balance to maintain but she puts all of her eggs in her moisturizing basket just to be safe. She may even realize that different proteins have different properties, and some actually improve the hair’s elasticity rather than toughen the strands-but she’s not taking any chances with protein period. This aversion causes her to moisturize and overcondition her hair until the cows come home often through:
• overzealous “baggying”
• back-to-back conditioner washes that don’t allow the hair to ever dry
• regular lengthy/ overnight deep conditioning
• keeping the hair wet in general (water or oil) for extended periods of time without a break
• the complete elimination of protein products altogether
She may have taken my “err on the side of moisture” advice to heart just a little too much! Yes, protein overload is problematic-and it can take a while to correct, but overconditioning also has its own set of issues.
We are indeed dealing with a precarious balance, and we have to keep in mind that each product session affects this balance in some way. If you are “erring on the side of moisture” with each and every product you are using in a given period, it stands to reason that eventually you will have gone too far over into overconditioning land. The same can be said for overzealous protein users. The thing is, choosing moisture when in doubt almost always works for “newbies”-ladies who are just in the initial weeks and months of getting into their hair regimen. It can also work in those uncertain clutch situations for hair vets too, but it should not itself be the basis for your balance and regimen. It is simply a temporary strategy, and those who’ve been around a bit must be careful to avoid falling into the overconditioning trap. It is not a difficult trap to fall into either. Hair that is getting infused with moisture on a regular basis tends to feel really soft and nice-at first. This softness contrasts greatly with the beginnings of protein overload which tend to have the hair feeling crispy and dry much sooner. The softness can become addictive, but a strong protein infrastructure is needed to offer support/strength to that softness, improve the hair’s porosity, and increase the likelihood that moisture gets in and stays in where it needs to be.
Then over time, overconditioned hair becomes porous and starts to develop its own sort of dryness as a result. Excessive conditioning with only moisture-based conditioners weakens the hair’s protein binding structure which in turn increases the hair’s porosity. The increased porosity causes moisture to pass in, then right back out just as quickly. Hair that is overconditioned then begins to feel dry, weak, limp and flat, no matter how much additional conditioning is done to it. The key is to use protein and moisture together, varying the ratios to keep your hair balanced.
How do you know if you are overconditioning?
1. Stretchy, gummy, limp/lank hair.
The number one sign of overconditioning is simply limp, stretchy, gummy feeling hair. This stretchiness can occur with or without hair breakage. Though the hair is typically very soft when it is in an overconditioned state, it is this softness that can cause it to eventually break, often with little manipulation. Stretchiness without breakage is the first warning sign that protein is needed to strengthen the hair. When your hair reaches a degree of pliability (stretch factor) that is acceptable to you, introduce a bit of protein to help your hair maintain this level of moisturization. Remember–The protein/moisture balance is not about having to experience breakage on one end before correcting, and then starting to feel breakage on the other side before correcting that. What you do NOT want to do is wait for the breakage to happen before you start correcting with protein. Breakage is the final warning sign.
2. No moisture retention, chronic dryness
One other sign of overconditioning is that your hair is not retaining moisture, and feels porous. As stated above, overconditioning leads to porosity issues- though, in a less invasive way compared to chemical treatments like chemical relaxing or coloring.
3. Low protein use and chemical use
You may be over-conditioning your hair if your hair is relaxed or chemically colored, and you haven’t given your hair even a light protein boost in months.
Who needs more restructuring proteins?
Chemically treated hair needs more moisture and protein conditioning than non-treated heads of hair. If you are relaxed and/or color-treated, and you’ve been several weeks and/or months without some form of protein conditioning you should anticipate problems with overconditioning to eventually arise. Those who’ve undergone chemical services need extra protein supplementation with their moisture on a regular basis. The schedule of product use will vary from head to head as always; however, the basic nature of those services makes protein restructuring a necessity for chemically treated populations. Overconditioning chemically treated hair almost always results in porosity isssues down the line if regular protein is not added to regimen to provide strength to the hair’s infrastructure.
How I Balance with Protein
I use two product lines exclusively on my hair-Kenra for moisture and Joico for protein. When I plan to deep condition my hair, I often use a combination of these two lines for a customized conditioning experience. So on hand, I’ll have:
You can use whichever products you like for your moisture and protein needs. The ratios of the products you use will help you achieve a customized balance, and will depend on your exact mission at the time.
For example, If I’m using protein just for moisture assistance-meaning my hair needs a more moisture-focused conditioning session — I use just a little of the lighter protein conditioner. (For me that is about a nickel sized amount of Joico Moisture recovery mixed with a bunch of Kenra). If I’m using protein to try to maintain my regular moisture/protein balance when its fairly balanced right where I want it, no breakage — I’ll add a bit more of the Joico Moisture Recovery to the Kenra generally at a 50/50 ratio, or a bit less. If I am trying to correct a balance that has starting to edge a bit too far over onto my moisture side, I’ll use the stronger protein conditioner from Joico’s K‑Pak5f line and will up the ratio of Joico to Kenra.
Ladies, have you ever been guilty of over-moisturizing? How did you know you were going overboard?
Audrey Sivasothy is a Houston-based freelance writer, health scientist and author of The Science of Black Hair: A Comprehensive Guide to Textured Hair Care (available on Amazon.com & Barnes&Noble.com).