Silicones. The word alone inspires passionate feelings among those following the Curly Girl Method, as outlined by Lorraine Massey in the book she penned over a decade ago, Curly Girl: The Handbook. And I think that’s exactly the way to go. They do a great job of hiding the true nature and health of our hair from us; they can make even the most damaged hair feel soft and manageable. But if it’s true health and deep hydration we’re going for, daily use of silicones certainly won’t help us wavy and curly girls reach those goals. The thing is, using the right silicone at the right time does make sense. And I don’t believe them to be so damaging as they have been made out to be.
Here’s the thing: I’m not a chemist. I’m not a stylist.
I’m just a wavy-curly hair enthusiast with a passion for understanding what I’m reading on the back of the bottle, and an obsession with how it will make my hair behave (or not). My hair has lived a mostly silicone-free life for almost two years, but recently–in this long, dry winter we’ve had–I’ve been doing some thinking on the subject, some digging, talking with experts, and experimenting. So my goal in writing this is not to be the end-all-be-all opinion on this hot topic, but rather to challenge your own viewpoint on ‘cones, just as mine has been, and also to connect you with a few thoughts from people who actually are experts on the subject.
Why are silicones so widely used in hair products?
Silicones have been used in hair products since the 1950s, according to “The Science of Hair Care,” edited by Claude Bouillon and John Wilkinson. “Silicones cover a wide range of compositions and architectures,” they wrote, which lends them a number of uses in hair care. According to scientist and blogger Wendy, in her work on the Science-y Hairblog, as emollients, “silicones add shine and excellent slip/lubrication…Their weight and ability to help seal moisture both in the hair shaft and out prevent frizzing in high humidity.” In my own experience, not only do they have a use in sealing moisture in the hair during peak humidity times, but also in extremely low dew points. This application is where I personally believe their use is most justifiable in an otherwise-CG routine: To prevent moisture loss in extreme dew point situations, especially for those with high porosity hair. As far as different silicone types go, their functions are multi-use, from helping a product to spread more easily over a surface (such as your hair), to targeting damaged areas in a hair shaft, to locking in color, preventing damage, and adding softness to rough, damaged hair.
Two other benefits of silicone usage: Longer-lasting color retention, and heat-damage protection. International hair care brand ApHogee recently completed a clinical study that proved the use of their Two-Step Protein Treatment (which contains ‘cones in both steps) prior to a coloring session resulted in 30% less fading after 10 washes. “It lowers the porosity of the hair and allows the hair to attract and hold color dye within the cortex,” Walt Winslow from ApHogee shared with me. In addition, the silicones included in most of their product lineup are designed to seal the hair, protecting against heat and styling friction.
“Silicone makes life a lot easier on a cosmetic chemist,” shared Merian, owner of and product formulator for Bounce Curl. “Consumers want things to feel good on their hair and hands. It is extremely difficult to create products without them, and that is why it has taken me over 4-5 years to create mine.” And as it turns out, Merian has had a lot of personal experience with using ‘cones on her own hair. “When I was younger, I used them a lot. I don’t hate them, but they made my hair not curl as much. Since I haven’t used them for about five years, my hair is so much better. It acts like a plastic around my hair and it really does weigh my curl type down.”
Do silicones themselves actually cause damage?
“I did find that I could tell when someone was using them. I could feel it,” says Atoya Bass, Deva-certified stylist and owner of The Curly Hair Studio in Portland, Oregon. “But the more years I do this, the more I feel like it doesn’t matter. People come in full of silicones and I can style their hair just as good as those without. I’ve had more trouble with oils and butters loaded in the hair than silicones.”
While silicones provide a temporary solution for masking damage, Lorraine Massey also taught us they require the frequent use of harsh sulfate-based shampoos (which she also discouraged) for removal. Repeatedly stripping the hair of its natural oils equated to damage. And so, they created a viscious cycle of sealing/drying. THIS, as I understand it, is where the real damage came in. And so I totally bought it–I then eschewed products containing them, just as many of you did. But about a year into my journey, I started hearing chatter online about so-called evaporating silicones, or others that only adhere to damaged areas of hair, others that are water soluble, and those that aren’t. So I began to think, maybe they aren’t all the same. Could some be beneficial over the short term? Alone, are they really damaging over the long term? Could some be more easily removed than others? What if they have evolved just as the rest of the industry has?
Merian, owner of and formulator behind the Bounce Curl brand, shares an image of her hair (L) after using silicones for many years, and (R) after 5 years using non-silicone-based products, namely her own brand.
Turns out, there’s a whole world of ‘cones.
“There is a whole new generation of water-soluble silicones, derived from natural plant sources that provide benefits and have the same effects of traditional silicone,” Greg and Joanne of Innersense Organic Beauty shared with me. A couple of their products do contain plant-based, water-soluble silicones, and they are transparent about them on their labels and in discussion. “If a product user is experiencing buildup and finds they need to chelate (clarify) their hair often, then those products aren’t the ones that are good for their curls.” They made a good point: Everyone’s hair reacts differently to different ones.
So I started experimenting with hair products containing different types of cones, seeking out different kinds for different purposes. I discovered I really liked amodimethicone–which is said to target damaged areas without building up–for the thickness it seemed to add to my hair (I tried it in Dippity Do Girls With Curls Curl Defining Cream). Dimethicone made my hair overly soft, slippery, and unable to hold a curl–even with a hard hold gel on top (it was in several ApHogee products I tried). A good curl-friend of mine swears by Cyclopentasiloxane, which is used to enhance spreadability of a product, but mostly evaporates within a day, and is easily washed out with a sulfate-free shampoo. Which brings us to the next question:
How to really remove them?
Again, Wendy is my go-to here: “To remove silicones, you can use almost any shampoo, mild or otherwise,” she says. “The only thing that won’t do a very good job at removing them is a shampoo in which Decyl glucoside is the only detergent.” If there’s serious silicone accumulation, she adds, you may need to shampoo twice. I, personally am a get ‘er done kind of girl, so my go-to is Suave Daily Clarifying shampoo, followed by a good long deep conditioning session. I may prefer a squeaky-clean slate, but apparently, that’s not necessary. You can refer to what just might be the most comprehensive list of silicones and the best way to remove them, via Wendy’s blog (be sure to read the comments section also).
Silicones Summed Up…
I can’t advocate the absolute need to include ‘cones as part of what would otherwise be a CG-friendly routine. In fact, I am convinced that avoiding them for as long as I did was instrumental in revealing the true state of my hair, to help me to ‘get to know it’. To know when it needed moisture or protein, and to understand the real effects on my hair of using silicone-free products like creams, enhancers, and gels. Being silicone free for so long also showed me, with extreme clarity, how much I hate the feel of certain silicones on my hair, especially dimethicone–making it slippery soft and heavy and destroying my curl clumps.
Despite all that, I have come to this conclusion:
Silicones are not the permanently damaging monster ingredients many of us have come to believe they are. There could be a place for them in your routine, in a season, if they work for your hair type/texture/porosity, the look you want to achieve, and for whatever other reason. And–here’s the most important part–you DON’T need to feel bad about that.
How do you feel about using this type of ingredient on your hair? Have you seen/felt a difference?
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