Silicones in hair care – all you need to know

By April 1, 2019 April 3rd, 2019 Chemicals, Science of hair growth

Silicones have been incorporated in personal care products since the 1950s. Initially used in skin care products, and more recently in hair care applications, silicones are recognised for their lubricating properties and for the characteristic soft smooth feel they create. While silicones that made it to your product shelf are considered safe to use, not all silicones have been created equal. Long-term effects of usage, including build up and hair brittleness have been gaining more and more prominence recently.

In response, beauty industry have introduced what’s known as “water soluble silicones” to address negative effects of non-soluble silicones while also keeping its benefits, especially to those of us with chemically-treated and curly hair. In hair care, cosmetic manufacturers add silicones to shampoos, conditioners, and styling products to help create the slip needed to detangle and give hair a silky shine and manageability. Let’s look at how silicones types differ.

Non-soluble silicones

These are silicones that cannot be removed or penetrated with water, which can inadvertently damage the hair. This happens by silicones “sticking” to the hair surface creating a plastic-like film, preventing strands to absorb water, air and nutrients. Without regular usage of clarifying shampoo, hair becomes dry and brittle – which leads to damage and breakage. These types of silicones do, however, have an advantage when protecting hair against high heat styling, being a lot more efficient in this task than most natural oils.

If you do find yourself using products with non-soluble silicones or only just came about to learning about its culprits, these silicones can be removed from the hair shaft by washing with clarifying shampoos or shampoos with harsh sulfates. These types of shampoos, although sometime necessary, are drying to the strands. The problem with non-soluble silicones is the fact that they seal the hair shaft completely, allowing no moisture to penetrate the hair shaft until you wash out the silicone. As an alternative to clarifying shampoos, you can use apple cider vinegar rinse to remove product build up.

Some non-soluble silicones that are typically found in hair products include:

  • Dimethicone
  • Cyclomethicone
  • Amodimethicone
  • Pheryl Trimethicone
  • Ceteraryl Methicone
  • Dimethiconol
  • Stearyl Dimethicone
  • Ingredients ending with “-cone”
  • Amodimethicone (non-soluble when Trideceth-12 and Cetrimonium Chloride are absent)

Water Soluble Silicones

The name is the give-away – a water-soluble silicone is the one that it is able to dissolve in water. It is a silicone that is easy to wash out of the hair using mild-shampoos or conditioner-only techniques and which does not leave a heavy buildup. Look for products containing cyclomethicone. This is the most commonly used water-soluble silicone in hair-care products, and it does everything silicone promises to do, while leaving minimal buildup on the strands.

Examples of water-soluble silicones are:

  • Dimethicone Copolyol
  • Lauryl Methicone Copolyol
  • Any silicone with PEG as a prefix

Natural alternatives

While silicone-based are a widely available quick fix to protect your hair against heat-damage, ideally, consider minimising regular use of high heat styling altogether. Especially for curly hair, following Curly Girl Method, which leads you onto slowly abandoning shampoo, heat styling and embraces the bouncy nature of your curl. If you want to step off the silicone ladder altogether, first step is clarifying your hair from the product build up using apple cider rinses and then substituting your silicone-based heat protectants with 100% shea butter  – a natural oil is known to lock in the moisture and protect your hair against heat almost on par with silicone-based products.

Finally, to repair damage resulting from silicone-based products and really nourish the hair shaft, consider using suitable natural oils. Take our quiz to find out which natural oil works best with your hair type.

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