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.

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