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When I was a teenager (as my natural hair color started turning darker and I promptly started to dye it lighter) I was told at every salon visit that I was using the wrong products in my hair. The combination of regular bleach sessions and a silicone-laden two-in-one shampoo and conditioner wasn't cutting it — or so my hairstylist told me. She explained that while my hair felt silky smooth right now, long-term use of silicones would lead to excessive product build-up, drier strands, and more breakage over time.
Silicones are rubber-like polymers derived from crystal quartz and Vanessa Thomas, a cosmetic chemist, explains that they’re commonly used in shampoos, conditioners, and styling hair products that smooth hair and help with frizziness. Alas, silicone had become my new ingredient nemesis, and even though I thought my hair felt great, I cut her out of my life shortly after that fateful appointment.
In the past few decades, there’s been a lot of fear-mongering around silicones in hair products, some of which is arguably deserved. While cosmetic chemist Vince Spinnato assures Allure they're perfectly safe, he also confirms that long-term use can affect the strength and appearance of your hair. “A weighty feel, dryness, and hard-to-remove build-up are common silicone concerns,” he says, adding that silicone usage is less about harm and more about personal preference.
Shelby Samaria, a New York City-based hairstylist, adds that silicones can give your hair an instant shiny, luxurious feel. The key to deciding whether hair products containing silicone have a place in your routine, she explains, is to get to know what your hair type is and understand why they’re added to hair products in the first place.
What exactly are silicones and why are they added to hair products?
There are three types of silicones used in hair products — water-soluble, non-soluble, and evaporating (sometimes referred to as volatile) — and they're all added for a similar purpose. As for what makes them different, simply put, water-soluble silicones are easily removed from hair with water, non-soluble silicones cannot be removed or penetrated with water, and evaporating silicones (you guessed it) evaporate from the hair 10 minutes to two hours after application.
Silicones go by many names on a product ingredient list. "A good rule of thumb is that most ingredients ending in '-cone' are non-water-soluble silicones, while ingredients containing the prefix PEG are usually water-soluble silicones," explains Spinnato. Examples of water-soluble silicones are stearoxy dimethicone, dimethicone copolyol, dimethicone PEG-8 phosphate, and PEG-7 amodimethicone. Common non-soluble silicones include dimethicone, dimethiconol, stearyl dimethicone, cetyl dimethicone, cetearyl dimethicone, amodimethicone, cyclopentasiloxane, and behenoxy dimethicone. Evaporating silicones are easier to spot because there are just three common names: cyclomethicone, cyclopentasiloxane, and cyclomethicone.
Water-soluble, non-soluble, and evaporating silicones are added to hair care products for the way they create a thin, waterproof coating around your hair cuticle that keeps environmental aggressors (like humidity) out. "This coating keeps your hair hydrated from within, while also preventing moisture from penetrating the hair shaft and causing frizz," explains Spinnato. "Silicones also protect your hair from damage caused by heat-styling tools such as blow dryers and hot irons."
Silicones can help with heat protection.
Evaporating silicones are slightly different from the other two, and are added to formulas to help spread the product through the hair and then quickly evaporate, explains cosmetic chemist Genesis Velazquez. The fact that they don't need to be washed out could be the reason they're often left out of the silicone conversation altogether. Velazquez adds that the silicones specifically used in hair-care products also enhance slip for detangling and add shine by creating a neat surface on the individual strands.
Beyond silicone's frizz-busting capabilities, Velazquez explains that silicones also help to give products like conditioner a smoother and more luxurious feel. "Silicones are raw materials that can be added to formulations to create emulsions in the silicone or oil at very high speeds, forming a creamy, viscous, lotion-like consistency," she says. Thomas adds that it's a relatively cheap ingredient that delivers results without making the formulation super costly.
So, are silicones really that bad for your hair?
There's one piece of good news all our experts agree on: The silicones added to hair products are completely safe to use. "As far as health concerns, there is no indication that silicones are harmful to humans when used as recommended," Thomas tells Allure. But just because silicones are safe, doesn't mean they’re necessarily a great long-term addition to your hair-care routine.
When trying to understand why silicones have such a bad rep, it's helpful to understand how they work in the first place. "Silicones are hydrophobic, which means they repel water," explains Spinnato. "In your body, silicone will displace water and push it away. When it does this in hair, the very precious moisture content of just three percent is reduced, and the protein bonds that make up 97 percent of hair become less stable and more liable to break [in the long term]."
Even still, it's not as simple as classifying them as either "good" or "bad." Your hair type and goals will ultimately determine which silicones might work best for you — and which should be avoided at all costs. "Soluble silicones tend to focus mostly on helping to provide shine and a conditioning effect, while non-soluble silicones are also intended to protect the hair shaft by providing an occlusive coating, reduce frizz, and soften the hair," says Marisa Garshick, a board-certified dermatologist in New York City. She explains that you'll find various silicones on the ingredient lists of many anti-frizz or softening shampoos, conditioners, and hair serums.
Silicones are commonly used to add shine to hair.
Garshick warns that using products that contain silicones too often (particularly those with the non-soluble dimethicone), could eventually lead to build-up on the scalp, which can lead to issues like clogged pores and build-up at the hair follicles, which can cause red bumps and sensitivity. "Other issues that may be associated with the build-up include itching, flaking, and inflammation of the scalp and, in some cases, hair may either get very dry as a result of little moisture getting in, or it can appear more oily if it paradoxically starts to produce more oil," she says.
Samaria tells Allure that she's seen this many times with her clients in the salon. "The instant shine and luxurious body we all love from using products with silicones is usually a temporary fix," she says, explaining that with long-term use, build-up caused by non-soluble silicones can weigh down the hair and elongate waves and curls.
Thomas concurs, adding that when overused, silicones do more than weigh down your hair. "Because they form a 'film' around the hair follicle, silicones can also prevent other beneficial ingredients from reaching your hair, which can actually make your other products worthless over time if not washed out properly," she says. Spinnato adds that since silicones are designed to keep environmental aggressors out of the hair shaft, it means they also lock in some not-so-great substances, like oil, dirt, and dead skin cells. Moral of the story? Moderation and a good cleansing schedule are key.
What hair types tolerate silicones best and who should avoid them altogether?
While silicones won't necessarily cause damage to anyone's hair, Garshick explains that people with coarse, thick, curly, and dry hair will generally see the best results from products that contain silicones. That’s because of their ability to help condition the hair by reducing moisture loss, reduce frizz by making hair less likely to be affected by humidity, and help to smooth, soften and provide shine to the hair by lubricating the surface.
People with hair on either end of the texture spectrum — super thin and fine or super coarse and kinky — may want to proceed with more caution. Garshick also adds that, regardless of the type of silicone or hair texture, it can be helpful to use silicone-free products a few times per week if you are noticing build-up or feel like it's weighing your hair down.
Spinnato explains using hair products with silicones is a balancing act and, though people with curly and Afro-textured hair may benefit from using hair products with non-soluble silicones in the short-term, daily and long-term use is not recommended. "Silicones have a bad reputation for making Afro-textured hair dry by blocking moisture," he says. "Over time, silicone can build up, resulting in a dry feel and dull appearance. You may even notice that your hair becomes weaker and more prone to breakage."
People with curly or kinky hair might see the best results from silicone-based products.
Samaria seconds Spinnato, explaining that when you have low hair porosity — which is more common for people with wavy, curly, and kinky textures — the hair cuticles are already closed, for the most part. This already makes it difficult for moisture to penetrate into the hair, so using a non-soluble silicone such as dimethicone (that creates an occlusive coating on the hair) will just make this even more difficult in the long run. "To help your hair keep a light body and effortless, luxurious movement, it’s important to keep silicones to a minimum," she says.
Although it may sound contradictory, Velazquez caveats, "An exception to this is folks who tend to have more days in between washes because of protective hairstyles." She adds that these people may want to use products with anti-humidity and non-soluble silicone, to help keep styles in place despite the elements.
Meanwhile, Thomas explains that people with thin, fine, and straight hair should not use silicones, or if they do, products with a water-soluble silicone such as cyclomethicone are the best options. "Thinner hair types generally have more oil that moves from the scalp to the hair shaft," she says. "So, applying too many products containing silicones can weigh this hair type down, making it look greasy and unkempt."
Should I use products with silicone?
On the question of whether anyone should really use products containing silicones, the experts are somewhat divided. While some are comfortable recommending silicone products in certain circumstances, others said the risk of build-up, hair breakage, and the continued use of harsher cleansers to remove silicone residue from the hair outweighs any potential benefit. In the end, as Spinnato says, it really comes down to personal preference.
All experts noted the biggest advantages of hair products with silicones are their smoothing and taming capabilities, and the way these formulations protect the hair from heat styling tools. When asked whether he would personally recommend products with silicones, Spinnato said simply, "yes, I would." Meanwhile, Paul Labrecque, a New York City-based hairstylist, says he regularly recommends products containing water-soluble silicones to clients. His favorites are the Olaplex range; the No.4 Bond Maintenance Shampoo, No.5 Bond Maintenance Conditioner, and No.7 Bonding Oil all contain soluble silicones.
Olaplex No. 5 Bond Maintenance Conditioner
Dove Nutritive Solutions Shampoo Clarify & Hydrate
It’s also worth noting that product build-up isn't a permanent condition, so if you prefer styling products that contain silicones, you're not doomed to endure limp or brittle hair. "When needing to remove build-up from using too much silicone, I always recommend a clarifying shampoo, which will remove heavy oils and cut through any build-up," says Samaria. This is seconded by Garshick, who suggests a few clarifying shampoos that will effectively remove product build-up, noting that a little bit goes a long way. "Dove Nutritive Solutions Clarify and Hydrate Shampoo helps to deeply cleanse to help eliminate product build-up without leaving the hair feeling dry or stripped," she tells Allure. "It is charcoal-infused, which helps to gently but effectively remove build-up."
Ouai Detox Shampoo
DevaCurl Buildup Buster Gentle Clarifying Cleanser
Bread Beauty Supply Hair Wash
Another great option, according to Garshick, is the Ouai Detox Shampoo, as it not only helps to eliminate excess oil, dirt, and build-up but can also be used on all hair types and textures. "It combines chelating agents with apple cider vinegar to help remove product and dead skin build-up," she says. Her final recommendation is the DevaCurl Buildup Buster, which she says is a particularly good option for those with curly hair. "It uses micellar technology to help eliminate product build-up, while also offering hydrating benefits through Abyssinian seed oil and jojoba oil."
Redoux Turmeric Botanical Bar
Reverie Milk Anti-Frizz Leave-In Nourishing Treatment
As for Samaria, her ideal everyday routine for all hair textures is silicone-free and would include a sulfate-free clarifying shampoo like the Bread Beauty Supply Hair-Wash Gentle Milky Hair Cleanser or the Redoux Turmeric Botanical Bar, followed by a hydrating repairing mask or treatment (she loves the Reverie Milk Anti-Frizz Leave-In Nourishing Treatment, as well as the shampoo and conditioner from the same range) to retain the perfect amount of moisture.
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