The Truth about Silicone-Based Hair Products
Everything you need to know about—and avoid—when it comes to the plastic-y polymer.
Let’s face it, unless you’re the Mother Teresa of hair care and have essentially gone without any form of styling and/or sleep—it’s called bed head for a reason, kids—your mane goes through some pretty serious daily wear and tear. And we’re just talking battling the regular day-to-day elements here (ahem, sun, wind, that beast known as winter...); forget that spontaneous pastel-hued dye job—we blame you, Nicole Richie.
So given the constant, predominantly unavoidable daily abuse—OK, so maybe we’re just not quite ready to shed ourselves of our hot tools forever—we figured we should at least start avoiding products with ingredients detrimental to our locks. Culprit number one? Silicone (or so we’ve heard), the plastic-y polymer used in everything from conditioner to household caulking—yeah, doesn’t sound great, right?
Given the popular inclusion of silicone in hair care, however, we thought we’d bring in some backup to properly break down the synthetic ingredient and what it’s really doing to our tresses.
“Silicone is a mineral. It is an effective ingredient commonly used in hair-care products. It provides slip and shine, can help smooth and straighten hair, and gives hair a luxurious, conditioned feel.” —Bridget Brager, Celebrity & Editorial Hairstylist
“Silicones are a large class of materials—not one item. They can usually be recognized by names ending in ‘cone.’ In hair care, they are primarily used to lubricate/condition and to add shine.” —Eric Spengler, Chief Commercialization Officer & SVP of Research & Development, Living Proof
“The positive effects [of silicone in hair care] are plenty, starting with the fact that silicone can actually make hair that is dry and damaged look and feel like it’s healthy by filling in the porosity—what looks like frizz and split ends—and driving and locking in conditioner. Silicone protects the hair from the elements, keeping it smooth and shiny by ‘waterproofing’ each strand. It also gives hair a slippery-when-wet feel because of its hydrophobic coating, which is coveted in our world of brushing and blow-drying—who needs tangles? Not to mention the conditioning benefits.” —Bridget Brager
“Silicone is almost like rubber and/or plastic. It is used as a sealant against water and even air. It is not a natural ingredient, and its side effects are bad for our hair. It gives the hair the illusion of shine, but it is not the shine we want—it is a fake shine from the plastic. The shine we want is when the cuticle layer is sealed and light reflects off the hair. This only happens when hair is properly hydrated and kept as healthy as possible.
“Silicone will weigh the hair down, making it limp, lifeless, and, with time, very dull. It prevents moisture from penetrating the hair shaft and becomes like a magnet for dirt and other ingredients. So in essence, we get a good shine for a couple of days, but over time it will attract more buildup on the hair. With time it will dry the hair out because it won’t allow in the conditioner and it ends up sitting on the surface. Due to lack of moisture, the hair will become very brittle and could lead to frizz and breakage.” —Shai Amiel, Celebrity Hairstylist & Owner, CAPELLA Salon
“The downside to silicone puts us in somewhat of a pickle. Because you have added another layer (or barrier) to your hair strands, it can keep nutrients from getting in or penetrating the hair, which over time can cause the hair to weaken or break.” —Bridget Brager
“We like to look for materials that can help improve not only the immediate look and feel of hair, but also help improve it with time. By nature, many silicones are very hydrophobic, meaning they do not wash out easily, leaving hair feeling heavy and greasy at the end of the day. We’ve found when hair feels greasy, consumers will wash and style their hair more than is necessary. That leads to extra damage, meaning these materials are not helping to improve the condition of your hair over time. We call this the cycle of damage.
“We feel it is smart to reconsider these hydrophobic silicones, for example: dimethicone and dimethiconol. The best option is to find an alternative that doesn’t build up on hair, like Living Proof’s OFPMA technology.” —Eric Spengler
“Because silicone adds another layer to one’s hair, it can make the hair feel heavy, as silicone builds up if not washed properly. Washing the hair properly means stripping the hair or clarifying the hair, which can also make the hair feel dry and limp. So the pickle is, you have to condition again, or use another product along with the silicone in your hair, to bring back the luster and shine you’ve grown to love and need.” —Bridget Brager
“Silicone is really bad for curly hair because most curly hair is on the dry side. Silicones can slide off straight hair more than they can on curly hair. The silicone buildup will get stuck on the curls, weighing the hair down and causing more damage in the long run.” —Shai Amiel
“There are so many types of silicones. Some are water-soluble and some are not, but I recommend staying away from all silicones, or as I call them, ‘silly-cones.’ Common names [for silicones] are cyclomethicone, dimethicone, methicone, amodimethicone, dimethiconol, cyclomethicone/cyclopentasiloxane…and the list goes on. So if you see anything that sounds like a ‘silly-cone,’ avoid it. If you are not sure, you can always do a little research to see what that ingredient is.” —Shai Amiel
“A water-soluble silicone means that it is able to dissolve in water. It is a silicone that is easy to wash out of the hair and doesn’t leave a heavy buildup. Look for products containing cyclomethicone. This is the most commonly used silicone in hair-care products, and it does everything silicone promises to do, but won’t leave buildup on the hair. Dimethicone copolyol is water-soluble, too. It’s a bit more pricey, but it’s lightweight and leaves very little buildup.” —Bridget Brager
“Non-water-soluble means that it does not dissolve in water, so you must use a clarifying shampoo to remove buildup.
“Amodimethicone (also look for ‘amo,’ ‘amine,’ or ‘amino’) is common in leave-in conditioners and can leave the hair feeling heavy and weighed down, which can be great if you have thick, kinky-curly hair. But it also means it’s tougher to wash out—cue: clarifying shampoos.
“Dimethicone is the most common to come by and cheapest silicone, as well as being the hardest to remove. It gives fantastic conditioning benefits and a silky, shiny finish, but while weighing hair down.” —Bridget Brager
Choosing a Product
“It is best to do a little research before you buy anything for yourself. Look at the ingredient list and study the ingredients of the brand. Don’t believe everything they say on the label. It’s best to look at the ingredients to see what’s inside the bottle. The higher on the list the ingredient is, the higher the percentage of that ingredient you will find in the product. If the ingredient is listed towards the bottom of the list, then you are getting very little (sometimes as low as 0.5 percent) of that ingredient.” —Shai Amiel
“Choosing a product with silicone really comes down to what silicone will work best for your hair type and pocketbook. Silicones aren’t scary—they are beneficial. But if you aren’t comfortable using them in your hair-care routine, you don’t have to. There are plenty of products on the market that are silicone-free.” —Bridget Brager
“Living Proof has identified a new material we call OFPMA. OFPMA has many very positive properties for hair. First, it, too, is very hydrophobic; however, we’ve found it creates an extremely pleasant, almost invisible shield on the hair that’s so lightweight it doesn’t create a heavy film. The benefit there is that it controls moisture vapor flux, which means less frizz and your hairstyle lasts longer. Second, it is very oleophobic, so unlike silicone, we have found it repels dirt and oils. In our research, we’ve found this property helps change consumer habits to go longer between shampooing and styling. Net, less styling stress, less damage, and ultimately healthier hair. Lastly, OFPMA helps reduce surface energy, meaning the hair feels wonderfully sleek, more aligned, and less likely to get damaged from styling. Again, that translates to healthier hair.” —Eric Spengler
“I’m actually really loving a new(ish) company called VERB for a silicone-free everyday shampoo and conditioner. Living Proof is a great brand for styling products, and I love Klorane dry shampoo. L’Oréal is a great brand for silicone-free products as well, and they are easy on the pocketbook!” —Bridget Brager
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