Thursday, February 3, 2011

The Truth About Hair & Silicone:
Guest Starring Molly Loretta!

Photo by: o5com
Something has been bothering me for a while. I don't know who else has noticed, but lately silicones have been taking a smack-down, especially from hair care companies. Though silicones have been used for decades without concern, suddenly we're being told they're murder on your hair; they weigh it down, dry it out, strip the color- if silicones could, why, they'd punch your mother right in the face.

Oddly, these claims seem at odds with everything I've ever learned about the ingredient. So I ran straight to my own favorite hair guru, my friend Molly Loretta. For those of you not familiar, Molly is a woman after my own heart- a fellow beauty blogger, Molly is a licensed cosmetologist, hair and makeup artist who knows her stuff and isn't scared to site sources to back it up! When I asked her to help me sort out this mystery, she graciously jumped right in. So now, I yield the stage!

Recently, I was commandeered by Jessica to write a post about silicone in hair products. There's a lot of skepticism in this department-fear, even-in regards to what silicone in hair products really does to the user. Is it damaging? Will it cause hair to break off?

There is a lot fear implanted into the minds of consumers regarding hair products, and many common misconceptions. As a hair artist myself, I blame other stylists for perpetuating this fear through misinformation, as well as their lack of explanation in the department of product usage. We're supposed to be knowledgeable, and telling our clients why or why not to use a product without proper reasoning only inflicts fear and confusion upon the user. I think that's part of the reason I started a blog in the first place. [Editor’s note: it’s also why I go to Molly Loretta with my hair-related questions; I know she truly understands the reasons & facts behind her answers and isn’t just spouting some company press release!]

A proper place to begin would be to explain what silicone is. Silicone is a chemical compound created from the most common mineral on the planet, silicon (though where it comes from isn't particularly important.) It is widely used in the beauty industry as a slip-agent and moisture binding ingredient. Silicone is also used for an abundance of other purposes, including medical implants and non-stick cooking sheets. So what does and doesn't it do to (and for) your hair?

Fear of using silicone in hair products is absolutely silly. First, the major complaint is the "product buildup" which will "break hair off." Every product you use on your hair will cause buildup. Hairspray, styling products... Silicone is no different. While an abundance of buildup could cause your hair to break off, it's unlikely in any circumstance that you're going to go that long without washing your hair, and continuously re-apply product to it. Next, saying that is damaging to the hair is a double-edged sword that is going to take me a few moments to explain.

Silicone is not an inexpensive product. It's actually pretty pricey for companies to use. So why do stylists NOT recommend you use mass consumer (drug store, you know, stuff from Wal-Mart blah blah) silicone products on your hair? It's because often the silicone is used in smaller doses, with fillers added to try to get you the results you want. These fillers include inexpensive products like certain types of alcohol (not just the rubbing type), and beeswax. The added fillers will leave a buildup on your hair that can result in a greasy feel or cause dryness.

More expensive products warrant their prices not just by their name, but by using superior ingredients that actually nourish the hair. The silicone used in high-end products is less likely to be diluted with ridiculous, unneeded fillers that prevent the silicone from doing what it is meant to do in the first place. Keep in mind there are MANY types of silicones, and it is highly unlikely that any ingredient list is just going to say “silicone.”

Here are some good, commonly used silicones to look for, along with brief descriptions of what each one does:
  • Phenyl Trimethicone - Water-resistant, adds shine
  • Cyclomethicone, Dimethicone - Adds luster and sheen.
  • Dimethicone Copolyol - Same as above and is water soluble.
Again, some common filler ingredients you’ll want to avoid are:
  • Drying alcohols, including any type of ethanol (ethyl alcohol), often listed as SD Alcohol, Alcohol Denat, also benzyl alcohol, methyl and isopropyl alcohol. Mind you, there are beneficial alcohols that can actually act as emollients, so if the phrase "When You See Alcohol, Steer Left" means nothing to you, read this now!
  • Waxes. You really don’t want that on your hair if it’s not for a styling purpose. I use beeswax when creating dreadlocks, I would never use it in a conditioning product due to its heavy nature.
Of course, if you have a question about a hair ingredient while you’re shopping, you can always pull out your smartphone and Google “What is [insert ingredient here]?" to avoid confusion. Sometimes companies will use the scientific names for ingredients, which is confusing to the average user. Mind you, the average user compiles the majority of the population, so this can make it very difficult to find a good product.

All in all, the positive aspects of silicone in your hair products far outweigh the negatives (which I couldn't find legitimate sources on, anyway). Just remember, sometimes you get what you pay for. To get a great silicone product, shell out a little bit more money. I promise, it will be worth it in the end once you see the amazing results.

One last tip: keep in mind that you should use a shampoo that is comparable to the conditioner you are using. You don’t want to use a mildly cleaning shampoo, then an incredibly thick conditioner that will deposit more moisture onto your hair that you likely don’t need. Many shampoos and conditioners end up getting a bad reputation because they’re mixed with the wrong counterpart! If your hair is dry, use a shampoo and conditioner for dry hair. Want volume? Use a volumizing shampoo and conditioner. The same across the board. You’ll notice there are different consistencies between different lines of shampoos and conditioners. This is because they’re formulated for different things; different ingredients have different molecular weights, and deposit differently onto the hair. Listen to your (hopefully) well-educated stylist to determine what will be good for your hair.

And next time your stylist tells you NOT to do something, ask why. If they can't give you an adequate answer, look it up, and possibly try to find a different stylist who has more knowledge in their field.

Hair questions? Shoot 'em my way at

Sound off in Jessica's comments and tell us what beauty myth aggravates you the most!


MollyLoretta said...

Jeez lady, took you long enough ;)

btw, i am seriously going to start looking up if these word verification words are in fact real words. i don't remember them.

Anonymous said...

While I'm always happy to see people looking more closely at the ingredients in their beauty products....once size doesn't fit all. Notice we don't all have the same hair or skin type? Makes sense we don't all react to the ingredients the same. While I agree that there isn't anything specifically "harmful" in using silicones, they're not for everyone. I've done a fair amount of experimenting with my own hair over the years and while silicones make a glossy coating over hair to hide the damage, the days after their use leave my hair dry, brittle, and tangle-prone (my hair is washed much less frequently than the average "product-laden, daily washed, salon every month" person and it's in damn good shape because of it). Silicones are also relatively inexpensive and are used as a filler waaaay too often. I know your blog post states the contrary, but compared to actual *good* ingredients (like butters and oils), cyclomethicone is cheap as can be - *especially* for a company who would be purchasing it in bulk for their formulations. I've seen plenty of salon and drugstore conditioners alike having silicones (many of which have interchangeable names) as their second ingredient. I've used an array of high and low-end conditioners as well, not being pleased with either.

Also many people may not have a problem using them on their skin either, for others silicones can be severely pore-clogging.

So, yeah, silicones=shiny glossy hair. Also hides damage, but really does cause dryness in others, and leaves a coating some don't care for. You're not going to find much info on that by way of studies. If it's not a carcinogenic, it's not really worth it to run extensive tests when it's already been cleared for use. At best you'll find anecdotal evidence like mine. :)

They simply don't work the same for everyone, if they did, we would all be using the same shampoo and conditioner and getting the same exact results, right? As with anything else, it's all about experimenting with your own routine and ingredients that work with you.

My annoying beauty myth? "If you can't pronounce it, it's bad for you." I hate that we play the dumb card when it comes to scientific names found on the ingredients label. Sure, some of that stuff is crap, but what about things like retinyl palmitate and tocopheryl acetate? Are you going to put a product back when you see those two? Which is why it's good to become familiar with names....or have that handy iphone around.

Unknown said...


Ha! That "don't use ingredients you can't pronounce" myth is hysterical! Like you pointed out, even common vitamins have long scientific names, some of which are the required names for use on ingredient labels.

I totally agree with you about the importance of using products that suit your needs. Of course, no one product will work for everyone- I, for instance, have very fine hair and don't care for silicone smoothing serums, which make my hair look limp & greasy.

I do have to disagree with you one one issue you mentioned. Silicones used in cosmetics and skincare (which probably warrant a post in and of themselves) are actually NOT pore clogging- the size and structure of the silicone molecule is actually too large to settle in the pores. Here's some great info on that explains in a bit more detail:

As always, thanks for the comment! It's always great to hear other viewpoints!

Anonymous said...

I personally need to stay away from silicone in both skin and hair care because it breaks me out - If I use a silicone heat protectant spray, I'll break out anywhere my hair touches - along my back, behind the ear, and on the face. :(

B said...

I used to get the same issue with the silicone-in-hair-product-induced breakouts... at least, I thought I did. Conditioners, leave-ins... if it contained silicones, it was going to break me out on the sides of my face and on my upper back, my neck- anywhere my hair touched. It also itched like crazy. After reading Miss Molly's guest post, I'm thinking maybe it's not the silicones that caused the problem, but some filler (like wax, or heavy oil, hmmm) that did it instead. This was years ago I noticed this pattern, and always attributed it to the silicones in the hair products, never looking for other possible causes. I just figured it was a cheap grade of silicone causing the issue, I never thought that maybe it was another ingredient altogether making my skin freak out :( So, I stopped using any hair product with "-cone" in the ingredients, and it sounds like maybe that was unnecessary.
In fact- I use cyclomethicone in some of my own formulations and have experienced zero breakouts from using them, which only stands to back up the "cheap fillers, not silicones, cause breakouts" statement. I even use one of them in my hair occasionally, with no breakout problems (too much will make my hair look greasy, though, so I do use it sparingly). I use eye primers and eyeshadows with silicones in them, as well, and have experienced no problems.

Thanks for such an informative post, you two!!

misscelestia said...

Personally, I had never heard that silicone was bad. All of my cosmetology training indicated it was good for shine, although, as with any hair product, causes buildup over time.

I use Redken Vinyl Glam daily, and despite containing alcohol, this silicone spray saves my hair all the time. I started using it when my hair was dyed with SFX dyes. I had to lighten my hair from a 2 to a 10 in order to get the color to take, and it was so dry, brittle, and awful. The Vinyl Glam could bring it back to life, no problem.

I have since stopped KILLING my hair with copious amounts of 40v developer, but my love for silicone spray remains. Fantastic stuff.

Thanks for the technical names - it always helps to be a good label reader!

a girl named Sam said...

Oh, this is neat. I just use what works best for me and keep on trucking, silicone or no silicone, lol. I use Pantene Pro V for Volume (medium- thick) b/c it's the only shampoo that actually volumizes my hair to a noticable extent. I have no clue if it has silicones, and as long as they're not going to make me sick I don't really care. I'm glad that there is a post available from some one in the biz that takes the time to explain the role of silicone in hair products- thanks for a great post :)

Gabby said...

ive been searching the net endlessly, for some light into hair products. ive been looking for a heat protectant spray, and my goodness, there is NOOO info about it at all. anyway, this was a step in the right direction and made sense. thanks so much for the insight!!

Anonymous said...

retinyl palmitate is in fact something to stay away from! it's a carcinogen, though only when exposed to sunlight.

Unknown said...

Anon #2

Due to a 2010 report by the Environmental Working Group, there has been some controversy over retinyl palmitate.

I think it's very important that anyone concerned about this widespread ingredient ('s vitamin A) do their own research, but I'd also like to share my own.

Because this is such an important issue, I've written my response in the form of a new post, which I'll be publishing later this week- stay tuned!

Anonymous said...

Thank you so much for this information! It has cleared up some confusion for me, there is so much negativity about silicones ("cones"!!) on the net. Now I know that there are differences between silicones, and that many of them wash out easily, it explains why products such as Pantene have always worked so well on my hair. This week I tried Frederic Fekkai's Salon Glaze which is basically a concentrated cream of all the best silicones and I have movie star hair - my frizzy bouffy Janis Joplinesque hair is now sleek, smooth, shiny and manageable. I just add little to ends of my dry hair before using large heated rollers and voila, fab hair! thanks again for your no nonsense sensible advice!

Anonymous said...

When I read discussion forums about hair it is frustrating to hear so many people afraid of ingredients that have long names, they think they are all nasty harmful chemicals, when in fact many of them are beneficial and as you said, can be vitamins! I recommend the following book for anyone who buys cosmetics: A Consumer's Dictionary of Cosmetic Ingredients by Ruth Winter. It's really handy and comprehensive and is a must if you have any allergies or sensitivities.

Anonymous said...

The silicone issue is many for people with very thick, high porosity, curly hair. It's not that the silicones are horrible for you, per say (though some with curly hair do find issues with different types of cones) it's a matter of build up. One of the worst things a person with curly hair can do is wash their hair with sulfates. Curly hair is naturally dryer due to natural oils having a harder time reaching the length of your hair. Add color treating and heat styling and its a total mess!! SLS's are harsh detergents, for this specific hair type, and do further damage. It is reccomended that people with curly/damage hair avoid harsh sulfates at all costs. It's actually recommended that you wash your hair with a light conditioner that contains a mild sulfosuccinate, and then deep condition, use proteins, etc... The catch 22 with cones is most are best removed from your hair with Sulfates. If you are trying sulfate free measures, to help your distressed curls, you end up with a massive build up of cones. This weighs your hair down, you have to use a purifying shampoo, and there goes your entire corrective routine. Somehow this has gotten twisted into a "cones are bad" perception and has people second guessing cones, who have no need to do so. I have been doing heavy research on this, for days, because I have incredibly thick (I mean thick) 3b, high porosity, naturally curly hair, and it is in horrific condition. Partly thanks to sulfates, natural and enviromental conditions, chemicals and one hell of a hack dye job. I can't remember what soft hair feels like, but I want to. I also have discovered reactions to some chemicals and I have been advised to stay away from bad alcohols (no brainer), propellents, dyes and harsh fragrances. Do you have any idea how hard it is to find sulfate, paraben, silicone, short chain alcohol, propellent, dye, and harsh fragrance free hair care products??? It boggles one's mind. lol Then I'm faced with the possible fact that I might have to succumb to washing my hair with a conditioner no more than twice a week, and I have a mild case of The OCD's :-)

Anonymous said...

It's me again (and I'm not the same anonymous from the start, obviously). One more thing and I'm done... It does stand to reason that those who use sulfate free products, to protect and preserve color only, get a build up (and/or dirty oily looking hair) quickly while using cones. I have recently seen this on several blogs and reviews. If you are not using a stronger sulfate containing shampoo, you are not thoroughly removing silicone buildup. If you have healthy hair, and can take SLS, do so at least once a week. It can even be diluted in water before use, and still work sufficiently. It will make a difference for some. I know others just have hair types that can not withstand silicones and oils, judging by appearance alone.

Anonymous said...

I am personally ( with my long thick curly hair) trying to stay away from silicones and anything unnatural really, my hair can go weeks with out washing ( not that it does) with out a stitch of greasiness. I use baking soda and water for shampoo and applecider vinegar and water for conditioner, I think i will try pure Argan oil rather than moroccain oil ( with all those silicones) so i can use it on my face and body as well as my hair :)
Thanks for the lovely informative post, it has helped me in my Argan oil Vs Moroccain oil desision :)

Unknown said...

I'm a stylist and I'm not sure bout the hole ingredient name and so forth but I do live by brand name product and most times I do a pH test but I happen to grab my cat walk flat ironing spray here and and well it seems to be a very bad drying product for the hair which is interesting

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