Are silicones bad for your hair?

What are silicones, why are they in cosmetics, and are they harmful? Good beauty blogger and cosmetics formulator Brianne West explains all.

What are silicones?

Silicone polymers are compounds that contain the element silicon, which is naturally occurring and very abundant. Silica, its most common form, is vital for our health and has a role in the formation of collagen – the loss of which contributes to ageing. As these are large molecules, they do not penetrate the skin or hair.This means silicone compounds in cosmetics are non-reactive and non-toxic.

Anything ending in –cone is a silicone. Dimethicone and cyclomethicone are very common, along with phenyl trimethicone. Others just as common are cyclopentasiloxane and cyclohexasiloxane, which have the –ane suffix.

In hair care products, silicones form a kind of sheath over the hair shaft, resulting in shinier, sleeker hair with less frizz and more manageability. They are often used in products that claim to heal damage (you cannot heal something that is dead) as they seal the cuticle, improving the texture.

They are used extensively in styling gels and creams, de-frizzing agents, shampoos and conditioners. Newer silicone compounds developed in the cosmetics industry have the ability to protect the hair from heat and UV rays. They are often used in heat protectants, conditioners and products with SPF qualities.

In skin care products, silicones prevent products feeling greasy, can be used as an occlusive barrier (prevents epidermal water loss) and as a delivery agent for active ingredients. They enhance spreadability, which is why you can get smooth, even application of foundations and other colour cosmetics. They are fantastic for oily-skinned people as they prevent makeup sliding off your face. Makeup primers are usually around 60-90 percent silicone as they fill in all the little lines and bumps on your face, leaving a smooth canvas for your makeup. Commonly found in moisturisers, makeup removers and makeup.

Do they clog the skin?

The biggest fear people have with silicones is that they coat the skin, leaving it unable to breathe and trapping dirt and oil in pores. Fortunately this isn’t true. Silicone polymers have molecular structures that allow them to be permeable but also air resistant.

Silicones are the base through which the important ingredients (active ingredients, oils etc) are suspended and delivered to the surface. Many of them are volatile, which means they evaporate quickly which aids in quick drying and less of that horrid greasy feel. Others are not and are used in burn units and wound care facilities to aid healing.

Do they cause build-up in hair?

Build-up can occur on hair when products high in silicone (such as some styling agents like de-frizz oils) are used continually without properly shampooing. This can cause dry, dull and limp hair over time. As silicones are water resistant, simply rinsing your hair under the shower will not remove them.

Some ingredients don’t have this problem; if you are particularly worried about it, avoid silicones such as phenyl trimethicone and dimethicone. Opt instead for cyclomethicone or cyclopentasiloxane, which will evaporate.

The benefits silicones provide (protection against frizz, humidity and heat, increase in shine, ease in wet and dry combing) far outweigh the slight possibility of build-up, which can be easily remedied by a good shampoo.

What do we use?

At Salon Sorbet we use two types of silicone; cyclomethicone in our butter blocks and solid conditioners to prevent greasiness (unavoidable with water free products) and aid in wet combing respectively. Our newest addition is amodimethicone which is a fantastic heat-protection agent. It is present in both our solid conditioners and is wonderful for preventing frizz, creating shine and of course, preventing damage from heat styling and UV rays.

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Brianne West

Brianne West is a cosmetics formulator for Christchurch-based Salon Sorbet. Find her on Facebook and Twitter.

Got questions or feedback for Brianne? Email her at [email protected]!

Any question answered on a future blog will win a Salon Sorbet shampoo and conditioner bar of your choice.

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