Why So Many Curly Girls Insist on Silicone-Free Hair Products – SELF
Until a few years ago, I could count on one hand how many times I read the ingredient list on a hair product. I’ve used relaxers to straighten my hair since I was 7 years old. In my world, applying chemicals on my hair was as common as using deodorant. I didn’t think twice about it; I just did it. But in the fall of 2014, I had a major change of heart. I said goodbye to harsh chemical relaxers that broke down the bonds of my hair, and I began wearing my natural curls. I finally felt free.
I began watching YouTube videos and reading hair forums to help me better care for my curly hair. One tip I constantly ran into was the importance of using silicone-free products. Silicones get a bad rap for coating the hair, eventually causing buildup that leaves hair weighed down, dull, and lifeless. Just search “silicone-free hair routine” on YouTube and thousands of videos from hair vloggers come up, offering countless reasons why silicones aren’t your friend. And it doesn’t end with YouTube. One Reddit user explained that silicones gave her severe acne and another compared the product buildup from using silicones to waxing her floor everyday.
Suddenly I became an obsessive label-reader, carefully poring over every hair product in the store wondering if it was going to sap my curls of their bounce (or worse). But I realized that I didn’t even know what I was worrying about. What even are silicones and are they indeed harmful? I decided to do a little digging.
Here are the basics on silicones, what they do, and why some people seem to hate them so much.
Silicones are synthesized in factories and are made by combining silicon (an element found in sand) with oxygen, hydrogen, carbon, and sometimes other materials. They are created for a variety of industries including household, mechanical, and personal care. In hair care, silicones are often used in shampoos, conditioners, and styling products to help create the slip needed to detangle and give hair a silky shine. Silicones are also used as heat protectants.
They aren’t labeled as simple “silicone” on the bottles. Erica Douglas, a chemical engineer and cosmetic chemist in Chicago, explains the most common ones used in cosmetics are dimethicone, cyclomethicone, cyclopentasiloxane, amodimethicone, PEG-12 dimethicone, dimethiconol, phenyl trimethicone, and dimethicone copolymer. It sounds like complicated chemistry class, but identifying silicones in your beauty products isn’t that hard. A great (but also rather loose) rule of thumb: If it ends in “-cone” or “-oxane,” it’s likely a silicone.
Douglas says silicones in heat-styling products (particularly the ones that end in -siloxane) are more volatile, which means they evaporate fairly quickly. They’re not what people are talking about when they say that silicones build up on hair. Thicker silicones, such as dimethicones, which are often found in leave-in treatments and serums, can build up along the hair cuticle over time like a film, and require clarifying shampoos for removal. Which means if you’re into co-washing and not shampooing regularly (like myself and most members of the natural hair community), you might find that your hair feels weighed down and looks dull because the silicone coating attracts debris and dirt.
(Of all the negatives mentioned, Arun Nandagiri, a cosmetic chemist from Bria Research Labs in Libertyville, Illinois said there’s no scientific backing about the claims that silicone can cause acne.)
So what do you do if you love the silky effects of silicones but not their sticky side-effects?
There are new innovative silicone products coming out all the time that claim to mitigate the buildup problem of traditional silicones. For instance, Dove’s new Intensive Repair Shampoo and Conditioner contains a patented technology that deposits a bit of silicone across the entire surface of the hair, but not too much. “Silicones can make hair feel smooth, soft, and conditioned,” says Ron Robinson, a cosmetic chemist for the brand. “[Our] technology is unique in that the size of the silicone droplets are so small that they provide a thin shield of moisturization without the unwanted sticky residue or heavy weight on the hair.”
Some shampoos and conditioners, such as Yes to Carrots Nourishing Conditioner, use silicone esters (which are compounds related to traditional silicones) as a substitute to provide shine, softness, and detangling. Nandagiri says esters come with an added advantage of providing the hair and scalp with nourishment.
Some people try to get the benefits of silicones from oils and other moisturizers, but Ni’Kita Wilson, cosmetic chemist and CEO of Skinects, tells SELF that silicones are unique ingredients, and it’s very hard to replace the silky, slippery feel they give to hair. Oils, for example, can give you slip, but they can’t offer heat protection. In case you didn’t know, oils are notorious for burning your hair when exposed to high levels of heat. (On the positive side, oils contain vitamins, nutrients, and fatty acids that benefit the hair different ways, says Douglas, so there is an argument for using them in your routine sans heat.)
Personally, I find oils to be a great substitute for silicones when used in moderation on my tight curls. (I don’t heat style my hair very often.) Aside from giving great shine, I use oils as a pretreatment to prevent damage prior to coloring my natural hair. And since it’s hard for me to get through a summer without adding subtle blonde highlights (come on, I know I’m not the only one), oils are more than okay in my book.
On the other hand, if you love the way silicones make your hair look and feel (Nandagiri says it is no coincidence that over 50 percent of hair-care products use some type of silicone), the best way to get the benefits without the buildup is to use a clarifying shampoo every other wash. Because I have tightly coiled and color-treated hair, I use a co-wash on my hair weekly, then once a month I do a thorough cleanse with shampoo. But if you find that shampoo strips your hair and scalp of essential oils and moisture, it may be best to join the no-cone movement. Here, a few good silicone-free products to add to your arsenal.