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Silicones in hair care – all you need to know

By April 1, 2019May 12th, 2020Chemicals, Science of hair growth

Silicones in hair products

Silicones have been used in personal care products since the 1950s. Initially limited to skin care products, its use spread into hair care products and applications. Silicones have widely recognised lubricating properties and characteristically soft smooth feel they create. Are they safe to use? And why beauty community have recently seen a backlash on silicones?

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, to these issues beauty industry introduced “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 / or 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 take a look at how silicones types differ.

Non-soluble silicones

These are silicones that you cannot remove or penetrate 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. With a caveat, these types of silicones 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, you can remove these silicones from the hair shaft by washing with clarifying shampoos otherwise known, as shampoos with surfactants. 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 mild 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. For a time cyclomethicone was claimed to be water soluble, but in fact its solubility is at the lower end of solubility spectrum: 20mg/L. So if your conditioner / mask contains cyclomethicone, you would need to follow a clarifying routine to remove product build up.

Examples of water-soluble silicones are:

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

How to remove silicones from your hair?

While not all silicones are “evil”, over time without appropriate clarifying routine, it can lead to product build up, breakage and lifeless looking strands. While there is some evidence that apple cider vinegar (ACV) rinse can help remove non-heavy product build up from silicones, the best way to tackle it is to use gentle silicone-free clarifying shampoo. Use it only a few times a month – vary depending on heaviness of your silicone-product usage.

Harsh surfactants you should avoid:

  • sodium laureth, myreth, lauryl sulfate
  • sodium coco sulfate
  • ammonium lauryl and laureth sulfate

Some of the gentler cleansing surfactants that you can use to get rid of product build up. are:

  • sodium cocyl isethionate
  • cocamidopropyl betaine
  • sodium lauryl sulfoacetate
  • sodium lauryl glucose carboxylate

Natural alternatives

To repair damage resulting from silicone-based products and nourish the hair shaft, consider using suitable natural oils, instead of conditioners and masks that contain silicones.

Want more customised advice? Take our quiz to find out which natural oil works best with your hair type.

Take quiz

To “nip it in the bud” – attempt to eliminate, or at least minimise products in your hair care routine that contain silicones. While silicone-based are a widely available quick fix to protect your hair against heat-damage, minimising regular use of high heat styling altogether is absolutely the way to go. For curly hair, following Curly Girl Method, which leads you onto slowly abandoning shampoo, heat styling and embraces the bouncy nature of your curl can be a useful, long-term solution.

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. Shea butter works for blow-drying that uses low to medium-heat. If using a curling iron or hair-strenghtener water soluble serums is still the most effective way to protect your hair without weighing it down. As you would need to use a clarifying shampoo to remove the build up, ultimately there is nothing better for your hair than to just Leave. It. Alone. Consider using heat-styling tools no more than once to twice a month (!) and gradually train your hair to grow out to its natural silky beauty.

Want to learn more about chemistry of your hair health and how to restore its natural beauty? Check out our article about death of a hair follicle HERE >

Join the discussion 13 Comments

  • Ramona says:

    The term is “nip it in the bud” not “butt”… nip it in the bud refers to plant growing… Like the budding of a flower or weed…. to keep a plant from growing, you “nip” or cut off the “bud” or the beginning of the plant growing… this stops the plant from growing.

    • Lina says:

      So according to this article deep conditioners shouldn’t contain any silicones for them to be effective right?

      • thehairfuel says:

        Hey Lina – sorry for delay in getting back to you. Maybe it helps to take a step and think about what deep conditioning is for and how it’s done. Deep conditioning involves the application of a thick and restorative formula to your hair, using heat to encourage the penetration of the formula into your strands. It aims to repair dry, damaged hair by rebuilding the its molecular layer and replenishing moisture.

        So – when it comes to restoration of molecular layers, Olaplex is the only product out there that temporarily restores the disulphide bonds in your strands. But unfortunately once the hair is damaged – the damage is permanent. Much like when you break your nail (which also consists of keratine).
        Replenishing hair moisture can be done with natural oils: make sure you heat up your hair before application – to ensure the hair cuticles are opened up for maximum penetration and absorption!

  • Amanda says:

    Excellent article! I do have a question though… do silicones in shampoos and conditioners prevent water and other beneficial ingredients from absorbing or being effective? So many products contain silicones in the top half of the ingredients list and I wonder if the good stuff like glycerin, extracts, panthenol and absorbant oils are even able to do their jobs effectively. Thoughts?

    • thehairfuel says:

      The non-soluble types – yes. Water-solubles – less so. Also bear in mind that silicones would stay on your hair strands for a while, unless you followed by a clarifying shampoo – so even though you might have switched to a natural product, you might still need to clarify your hair from the residual silicones. And side note – things like heat-protectants and hair sprays often contain silicones – so those also need to be minded (and clarified), too.

  • Kelly says:

    Love this article! Very informative. However, I do have a question. “Cyclomethicone” is under both the non-soluble and water soluble sections. Could you clarify which it is? Thanks!

    • thehairfuel says:

      Hi Kelly! Yes, for some time cyclomethicone was considered as a water-soluble silicone, however its water solubility is at the lower end of moderate solubility range – 20mg / L. Low solubility starts from 10mg/L and below, and Moderate lies between 10mg-1000mg/L, High solubility is from 1000mg/L upwards.

      • zeina says:

        do these silicones( non solluble ones) clog the pores of hair strands or the strand as a whole?

        • thehairfuel says:

          hey Zeina! Sorry it took us a while to get back to you – silicones clog the cuticles of hair strands, but research didn’t confirm that they clog the hair pores (good news!). Having said that, because silicones create a thin film on the scalp, it can trap bacteria, sebum, dead skin and other impurities which can lead to bad cases of acne on scalp. Something to bear in mind!

  • Shweta says:

    Beautiful article, very informative .

  • Dee says:

    I keep reading articles about looking for water soluble silicones such as dimethicone copolyol, Lauryl Methicone Copolyol, etc, but no article ever mentions any hair serums or glosses that use these silicones. I’ve searched everywhere for a water-soluble hair serum/gloss but I don’t think it exists…. Can you please name a few hair serums (finishing products for shine) that use ONLY water soluble silicones? Thanks!

    • thehairfuel says:

      Hey Dee – sorry for late response! Absolutely, silicones lurk around everywhere. Sounds like you’re already on the right track trying to find the silicone-free solutions! Your best bet might be healthfood shops (e.g. Holland & Barrett, Whole Foods and the like). These normally have a section for natural / organic cosmetics. The quality will differ, once you make a switch – so it’s the matter of trial & error. And also, it helps to think about long term changes you can do to add natural gloss to your hair strands: think hair oiling, supplements, reduction of heat styling – to name a few 🙂

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