Are Silicones Bad For Your Hair?
Silicones in Hair Care: Why The Bad Rap?
What Are Silicones & Their Purpose?
Silicones can be found in shampoos, conditioners, leave-in conditioners, hair serums and masks because of their effectiveness at getting rid of frizz. Silicones are a stronger, organic/inorganic version of hair oil, though much more effective.
They function as powerful emollients and occlusives. Emollients soften and add shine, while occlusives are used to seal and lock in moisture and lock out humidity and frizz. Silicones do both of these really well.
Furthermore, silicones help provide slip so you can run your fingers and brushes through your hair with minimal tangling. All this sounds really good, right? So what’s the problem?
Before we can address the claims outlined above we need a better understanding of silicones.
The claim “all silicones cause buildup” is false. The more accurate claim should be, some silicones cause build up, while some are water-soluble, and some actually evaporate on their own. It all comes down to chemistry, and with most things in chemistry, it’s never black & white.
There are many different types of silicones but for simplicity we’ll divide silicone ingredients into three categories: water-soluble, water-insoluble, & evaporating. In the graphic below you’ll see many of the most common silicones.
In the first column we have what’s commonly referred to as PEG silicones. Since water is polar and oils are non-polar, they don’t mix or dissolve in each other, thus the potential for buildup. However by adding a polar substance like polyethylene glycol, you can make it water-soluble.
This doesn’t mean they will rinse out completely, but the PEG attached to it will significantly reduce buildup while still allowing the silicone to perform its job. These silicones will partially rinse out and partially stay on your hair to perform their occlusive magic.
One thing to pay attention to is the number next to the PEG or PPG. The higher the number, the more soluble it is. Anything under PEG-8 is not very soluble, while PEG-12 is more soluble, and PEG-16 even more soluble, and so on.
Next, in column two, we have the water-insoluble silicones which are the original version of the PEG-modified silicones you see in column one. These are the strong ones that will stick to your hair but do a great job of adding slip, shine, and fighting frizz.
You will see I starred amodimethicone in the middle. This one is supposed to be a special case. It’s a polymer-type silicone that binds to damaged parts of your hair and doesn’t accumulate on top of itself. However, other silicones can build up on top of it.
Finally in column three we have a special group of silicones that evaporate on their own. You commonly see these evaporating silicones mixed into products to help spread other ingredients throughout your hair. You might see an evaporating silicone added to a coconut oil serum to help spread it through your hair and then evaporate.
You will find these in hair serums and leave-in conditioners. They temporarily provide the detangling and slip so you can spread the product through your hair, and then evaporate. Any remaining residue can be removed with any shampoo.
How Much Silicone Buildup is Bad?
In a 1994 article in Skin Pharmacology and Physiology by Rushton, there were some interesting findings on silicones.
First, silicones from a 2-in-1 shampoo accumulated on the surface of the hair for the first five uses, but after that, there was no more accumulation. There is only so much surface on the hair for silicone to bond to, it does not accumulate indefinitely (1).
Second, 90% of silicone residue was removed with one shampooing with a silicone-free shampoo. The detergents sodium lauryl or sodium laureth sulfate, ammonium lauryl or laureth sulfate and cocamidopropyl betaine (possible coco betaine) are most effective in removing silicone residue (1).
Also, I’d say most buildup happens with styling products like hair serums, curl creams, and leave-in conditioners. Many of these products are very silicone-heavy (i.e. silicones are the first or second ingredient). If your shampoo & conditioner have silicones and you combine these with leave-ins with more silicones, you’re likely to see some buildup relatively quickly.
How Do You Get Rid Of Silicone Buildup?
Let’s say you do use silicones or notice silicones in your hair products. How do you get rid of the buildup? There is a common belief that only sulfates are strong enough to get rid of silicone build-up. As the journal said, sulfates are the quickest way to get rid of silicone build-up, but not the only way.
You can also use milder anionic surfactants that are combined with each other. If you don’t know what that means, here is a chart showing you the ingredients.
In the first column you have the strongest anionic surfactants, which are sulfates. In the third column are sulfonates, which are not as strong as a sulfate, but still strong. Any of these will do the job on their own.
But let’s say you want to get rid of silicones while staying sulfate-free. Then you can look at any of the ingredients from the middle column of mild anionic surfactants combined with each other or with the amphoteric surfactants in column three.
The good news is, most shampoos that are sulfate-free will combine 1-2 surfactants in them to still cleanse, meaning you can remove silicone buildup without sulfates.
The Verdict On Silicones in Hair Care Products
First of all, I think we can put to rest the idea that “if it ends in ‘cone,’ leave it alone.” In my opinion, silicones only become a problem with excessive buildup. One layer of silicones can be really helpful in your weekly hair regimen.
With that said, individuals with certain hair and scalp types or specific preferences might be better off avoiding silicones.
For example, if you have curly hair and follow the curly girl method to a T (which calls for not using any shampoo at all), or if you’re someone who subscribes to, “never use shampoo ever” (“no-poo”), and you only do conditioner washes (“co-wash”), then silicones will be hard to remove and should be avoided.
If you have super fine and thin hair, silicones could weigh your hair down with buildup. And if silicones make your hair look too shiny and you don’t like that, you might be better off without them.
For everyone else, I wouldn’t worry about it. Silicones are amazing at fighting humidity and frizz, they prevent breakage by adding slip, and they will come out easily with almost any silicone-free shampoo.
Silicone usage is less about harm and more about personal preference. They’re safe! It’s not something to freak out about and they can have tons of benefits.
- Rushton H, Gummer C, L, Flasch H: 2-in-1 Shampoo Technology: State-of-the-Art Shampoo and Conditioner in One. Skin Pharmacol Physiol 1994;7:78-83. doi: 10.1159/000211278 - https://www.karger.com/Article/Abstract/211278
- Ws, W. (1970, January 01). Silicone Ingredient Solubility List. Retrieved December 07, 2020, from http://science-yhairblog.blogspot.com/2014/04/silicone-ingredient-solubility-list.html
Founder of Mannered Manes, Travis is a men’s style & grooming expert with a passion for helping guys look & feel their best—inside and out. Life and hair growth is a journey, and you’re most fulfilled when you’re always growing.
See all Trav’s guest posts for The Longhairs.
Great article. Thank you for being so thorough. I straightened my hair for years. Being a blonde with thin hair strands but lots of strands to counteract, naturally loose to mid range curls depending on the day, etc…I decided to go “au-naturale” 1 morning 6 yrs ago by doing the scrunching method in front of a small adjustable temp heater placed on my vanity. I put in tgi cat walk curls & a curls mouse beforehand then stand 3’ish min in front of the heater while scrunching with both hands as I pass over 4 sections of hair (front, l & r sides, back). Sometimes I even brush my teeth the final 1 min if I’m in a hurry so I don’t have to do it after. I never let it fully dry as the little bit of dampness remaining will dry in a couple min up to 10 depending on the environment & temperature. I get so many compliments most anywhere I go for such a quick & easy process. Where as I used to spend a lot more money drying out & ruining my hair with a high temp straightening iron just to wind up with a friz mop sometime thru my day.
I’m glad I find know if type of hair needs or doesn’t need silicone. You are the 1st to answer my question. Also I’m a young widow left behind with children & starting a nationwide support group that doesn’t exist in the US. I’m developing my own healthy products to sell in hopes that gets me a financial leg to lift this support group off the ground & allow me to travel to advocate to Government how we are left out of nearly all financial assistance when left with no income, no life insurance, an expensive funeral, no health insurance, many had been stay at home moms or disabled on a limited income, spouses past debt, probate expenses, no access to food assistance or any financialsupport period, etc as the list is a mile long. Too many are faced with living in a homeless shelter as the males typically had been the bread winners. 1 female income is proven to be unable to pay all the debt / bills hence it’s not long before she and her children lose everything. It’s extremely hard for a child to lose a parent then have to struggle through financial poverty as well really makes for extreme mental issues that follow these families for life. Please say a prayer for our new support group that we can get the support and survive to help these struggling families. Even if that means better access to CBT therapy AR best since that doesn’t exist (especially in rural areas) for a majority of the population going thru such a tragedy. Hugs & luv
Thank you for reading our article, and for your insights, Jodie.
Excellent information on silicones and hair products!
However I think going beyond how it makes our hair feel we should start thinking about what does environment.
If you could add a section on environmental responsibility and use of silicones what would you say? What I understand is that they are micro plastic and not biodegradable. So we’re basically washing plastic down our drains and even their production causes toxic pollution.
That’s a great question, Lynns! In my own words, minimizing environmental impact is important for all products. There are several ways to reduce it, but it may be difficult to create or find a quality product that does not contain any materials or ingredients that may potentially affect the environment.
That’s one of the reasons The Longhairs upgraded their plastic haircare bottles to the more recyclable aluminum ones. I hope this helps!
If a shampoo contain both silicone and sulfate, does the sulfate still removes silicone from our hair while we shampooing?
That’s a good question, I would say no, but need to research a little further.
Please answer my question.
If a shampoo that contain both silicone and sulfate, does the sulfate removes silicone eventhough both of them in one shampoo ?
I’m been ‘special’ for a long time (meaning: I saw the first grey hair in high school). So now I wanna recapture my Celt/Tarzan/hippie hair roots. Which products and protocols cause yellowing of grey/silver hair? Which to absolutely avoid?
Great question Steve, something we have not looked into yet but we need to do some research on! If you find any good info please let us know.
If you know what a dermatologist is, you know they are hair experts as well as skin experts. After an illness my hair started falling out. It turned out to be a deficiency of potassium and iron. I asked her what I should use and what I should avoid to give my red hair some love. She pointed out that “cones” actually protect my hair from damage and lock in moisture. She commented on how many women come in complaining about moisturizing conditioners that make their hair dry. This is because of the “cones taboo”, so many brands go “silicone free” and then people expect their conditioners to work, and they just don’t. So I don’t worry about the “cones”, nor do I worry about sulfates (another of the doc’s pet peeves).
Thanks for the insight Dawn, appreciate the comment. Hope your red hair is coming back in flames!
you have forgotten the most common tensive in shampoo bars ( mainly in Europe): sodium cocoyl isethionate nb: there is a little in your shampoo..lol
this tensive, mainly made in Illinois ( i can now reveal it for a try of production have been made in Belgium, and we don’t risk more an embargo) is now used in some main french cosmetic purchasers products: Dop ( https://www.dop.fr/fr-FR/La-Gamme/Shampoings-Solides) and Garnier ( https://www.garnier.fr/tous-les-produits-soin-du-cheveu/shampooing/shampooing-solide) and available in any supermarket; thanks to Lamazuna ( the ancestor, 6 years ago)
it seems that in some continents, a pleasure is using trucks and fuel to send water crossing 2000 miles…lol
in matter of silicones, the water soluble ones aren’t chimically pure silicones for they are water and oils repellents…
in fact, they are emulsion using the XEG emulsifiers, and add very few from butters emulsions…
you have also forgotten the cationic surfactants ( otherly called quats XXXium and their salts) which are also good detanglers and antifrizz, and the quaterniums ( you use the 91 ) and polyquaterniums ( you use the 27), which are quats complexified with polymers; they wash very few, but are the base of the ” low poo” in much ” natural” hair purchasers…….
excuse an reformed belgian chemist…;;;;;;;
FINALLY, somebody said it! I’ve been fighting with people for years over this! Also, thanks for making the awesome graphics! Really awesome article, and I appreciate you adding citations so that I can do some additional reading and research on the topic. I think it’s so important to have an evidence-based approach to topics such as these.
My pleasure man! Glad you enjoyed it. Keep on growing 💪🏼