Silicones in hair care – all you need to know

By April 1, 2019 January 3rd, 2020 Chemicals, 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. 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

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 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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Finally, 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, 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.

Want to learn more about chemistry of your hair health? Check out our article about death of a hair follicle HERE >

Join the discussion 3 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.

  • 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.

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