Silicones; we love to hate you

Alright, I’ll admit that I tried really, really hard to hate silicones. Being that I wanted to pursue an as-natural-as-possible skin-care line, all the hearsay that I gathered about silicones before even researching them made them off-limits in my formulations. I even formulated a silicone-free conditioner for myself to prove a point: I do not need to comb through my hair after showering. Yeah, that was dumb.

So why does everyone hate silicones so much? Do they even know why?

Let’s start at the beginning.

Silicon (Si) is an element on the periodic table, and it is the second most abundant element in the earth’s crust, but it rarely appears as a free element in nature. Silica, or silicon dioxide (SiO2), occurs readily in nature. Quartz, along with most non-tropical sand, is composed entirely of silica. The horsetail plant contains up to 7% silica. It grows in plants, for crying out loud! Did you know that? Silica can be used as-is in cosmetics and even in food preparation. FYI – food grade ingredients are held to much higher standards than cosmetic grade – since they must be approved by the FDA – so if it’s OK to go in my food, I’ll trust it to be safe on my skin.

Now, to get from silica to silicone, the elemental silicon is synthesized into a polymer of varying structure, depending on the type of silicone being produced. In hair and skin care, the one we come across most often is a liquid version, or a silicone oil, called dimethicone.

In skin care, dimethicone is FDA approved as an active skin protectant (as an aside – did you know that cosmetic ingredients do not need to be FDA approved?). It is a highly effective emollient (moisturizer), skin barrier ingredient (to hold moisture in and keep environmental stress out), and lubricant.

Silicones in hair care is where things get a little – ehem – hairy. Dimethicone coats the hair shaft to aid in combing, reduce humidity, protect against damage from heat styling, and add shine. For some, this can add too much weight and cause hair to become limp and lifeless. These poor souls have come up with one solution – GET RID OF ALL SILICONES BECAUSE THEY ARE THE DEVIL’S CONDITIONER! A tad dramatic, but the scare tactics of some product labels actually make us believe this may be true. And for some, this may not even be an issue at all.

There’s more than one way to deal with the weight of silicones. Trial and error is the best way to narrow it down. Firstly, make sure you know how to recognize silicones on ingredient labels. Dimethicone is a common one, but pretty much anything that ends with ‘-cone’ is what you want to look for. Each kind of silicone will come with different properties and effects, so if you use a conditioner with dimethicone that you think is too heavy, try one with cyclomethicone (which is regarded as one of the lightest silicones). Silicones in a rinse-off conditioner won’t suffocate your hair, meaning that it’s not coating your hair enough to stop from attaining moisture as it needs it, so if it makes your hair feel good, don’t worry about it hurting your hair (because trust me, it’s not).

If you really really want to stop using silicones, there are a number of silicone-free conditioners on the market that mimic the emollient and hair-coating effects by using a combination of natural oils and synthetic compounds. I’m currently trying one by TRESemme which works great for wet combing, but as I rarely-to-never use heat styling tools I can’t account for it’s protective qualities.

But how about those silicones trapped on your hair? Are they stuck there for years, like when you swallow chewing gum??

I think I’ll save that discussion for another post when I dive into why everyone hates sulfates.

It’s All About Ingredients

USDA Organic Labeling Guidelines

Beauty buzz-words like “all-natural”, “organic”, and “preservative (or sulfate, silicone, etc.) free” are popping up on the labels of new beauty products – and even on re-designed labels of tried and true brands. Sometimes these tiny attention grabbers can be helpful. Sometimes they’re not.

The problem with marketing campaigns for beauty products is that the majority of them are not run by cosmetic chemists. The campaign writers will grab tech-y sounding words and throw them on the label to entice (or scare and confuse) the consumer into making a purchase. For example, a few months ago I was browsing the high-end cosmetics at my local Ulta store when I saw something very confusing on an eye shadow package: “SULFATE FREE”, it proclaimed, along with a laundry list of other ingredients it wasn’t using. I honestly don’t remember what brand it was, but this is a perfect example of using industry buzz-words to trick consumers. I’m willing to bet that over 50% of people who saw that on the box were relieved that they weren’t using harsh sulfates in their eye shadows (phew!), but the other people who saw it – and who actually know what sulfates are – were confused. Sulfates are used to make soap. There’s absolutely no eye shadow in the world that would use sulfates. So why put that on the label? Because they’re taking advantage of the ignorance of their consumers.

Another example I’ve seen is when companies put things like “made with natural shea butter!” on the front label (for “label appeal”), but upon close examination of the ingredient listing, butyrospermum parkii (shea) butter was close to the bottom of the list, leading me to believe that there’s not a high enough percentage in the formulation to do any good; but it’s in there – and that’s a good enough reason to put it on the front of the bottle.

As a general rule, anything listed below “fragrance” is used at about 1% or less. Depending on the ingredient manufacturer’s suggested usage rate, this can make a great deal of difference. Acne medication that uses 1% salicylic acid is known to be very effective, but a hand cream using 1% shea butter (with a suggested usage rate up to 100%) won’t get you very far.

Obviously I’m all for natural products (and organic, if it’s affordable). Bonnie’s mantra is “Naturally Nourishing”, meaning that the majority of ingredients used (about 98.5%, if I had to guess) are derived from plants and botanical sources. The other 1.5% are synthetic, and this is based on cost for the most part (more on that in a minute).

Cosmetic products use the INCI labeling system. INCI stands for International Nomenclature of Cosmetic Ingredients, which uses standardized scientific or Latin names, rather than ‘common’ names, to identify contents. Ingredients are listed in descending order based on the amount of each ingredient used.

Some ingredients on cosmetic product labels may look scary (did you see the name for shea butter I wrote up there?), but that’s just their INCI name. Some of them are chemicals found in nature which have been isolated in order to harness their full potential. Something like cetyl alcohol, for example, may sound like a drying, synthetic chemical. Actually, cetyl alcohol is derived from coconut or palm oil, which has been used in natural beauty care for centuries. It is a naturally-occurring fatty alcohol with excellent emollient (moisturizing) properties. That doesn’t sound scary at all – in fact, it sounds pretty good!

Now, about those synthetic ingredients (also an aside about preservatives). When it comes down to it, most of my customers are going to make purchases based on product cost. If I use 100% Certified Organic ingredients in my Whipped Body Lotion, for example, you may be paying upwards of $35-$40 for a 5 oz jar rather than the modest $12 that they currently go for. No matter how good the lotion is, if my target market can’t afford to buy it, there’s no point.

Moldy Lotion

The Soap Queen blog shows a very good example of what happens when even salon brands don’t use preservatives.

That Whipped Body Lotion also uses a preservative. As a consumer, you should be VERY wary of any product containing water that doesn’t include a preservative. No matter how careful the manufacturing process, all kinds of funky stuff could start growing in there after you open it. I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to rub moldy lotion all over my legs (see photo – gross). There are a number of very good certified organic preservatives on the market, but they can be very expensive. I currently use a very mild broad-spectrum synthetic preservative, but I recently found and am experimenting with a low-cost certified organic preservative.

EWG’s Skin Deep Cosmetics Database is an excellent resource for finding out what those hard-to-pronounce ingredients are doing in your beauty products. I encourage you to grab the nearest bottle of lotion and type in just one ingredient; you’ll be amazed at what you can learn (for better or worse)!