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If you’ve ever tried a new shampoo and marveled at your sleek, shiny locks, only to be left with stringy strands and greasy build-up a few weeks later, there’s likely one thing to blame: silicones. We have quite the love-hate relationship with this group of ingredients, and once you find out exactly what they do to your hair, you will too.
To teach you all there is to know about silicones in haircare—including how there are good and bad versions—we spoke with three hair industry experts. Keep scrolling to discover which ingredients to keep an eye out for when shopping for your next bottle of shampoo.
What Are Silicones?
Silicones are a group of ingredients that act like a raincoat for your hair and skin. Products with silicones in them will lock out humidity and leave your hair and skin feeling slick and smooth.
On one hand, doctors from Harvard Medical School note that they're known to act as occlusives that block out evaporation of water and subsequently keep hair hydrated; on the other, they block other hydrating ingredients from penetrating deep down. And this, friends, is why silicones are so very difficult to wrap our heads around.
Are Silicones Safe in Haircare?
Silicones and hair, specifically, have a complicated relationship. On one hand, they give your locks that addicting slippery-smooth feeling and keep them from poofing up at the first sign of moisture. On the other hand, according to DevaCurl director of product and development Bari Strohmenger, these silkening products actually weigh hair (especially curls) down and prevent other moisturizing ingredients from penetrating into your hair shaft, and, since most are not water-soluble, can lead to some pretty annoying build-up over time. Worst of all, it becomes something of a never-ending circle, as, according to Kinky-Curly founder Shelley Davis, these synthetic compounds can be difficult to wash out of hair, which only further prevents strands from becoming properly moisturized. In turn, this can cause your hair to respond one of two ways: It will get super dry and brittle due to the lack of moisture, or it will look overly greasy as a result of trying to produce more oil to make up for the deficit. So, if you’ve ever struggled with build-up at your roots and dry-looking ends, silicones could be to blame. Though, not just any silicones, but bad silicones (more on those, below).
Meet the Expert
Bari Strohmenger is the director of product and development at DevaCurl, a haircare brand devoted to curly tresses and good-for-you ingredients.
Bad Silicones to Be Aware Of
As with most beauty products and ingredients, not all silicones are created equal. "Bad" silicones (including dimethicone, cetyl dimethicone, cetearyl methicone, dimethiconol, stearyl dimethicone, cyclomethicone, amodimethicone, trimethylsilylamodimethicone, and cyclopentasiloxane) are the ones that are not water-soluble—meaning that no matter how much you rinse, they’ll stubbornly coat your locks and leave your roots feeling greasy over time.
Meet the Expert
Shelley Davis is the founder of all-natural hair brand Kinky-Curly, which caters to women and children with natural hair.
So how do you get them out of your hair? With a clarifying shampoo, like Neutrogena’s Anti-Residue Shampoo ($5), or a DIY hair rinse. “Fine, I’ll just keep using my silicone shampoo and make sure to use a clarifying shampoo every week,” you say. Not so fast—though clarifying shampoos will remove silicone buildup, most of them do so by using sulfates, which strip your strands of all buildup and excess product, but also a lot of their natural oils, not to mention color if you dye your hair. You could follow up with a deep conditioner, but it might have silicones in it too—it’s a vicious cycle.
It's worth noting, however, that as with most bad ingredients, dimethicone is a double-edged sword in the skincare world. According to the International Journal of Trichology, dimethicone, which is the most widely use silicone in the beauty industry, is known for protecting the hair shaft from abrasive actions and can even bulk up the density of hair strands, meaning that, while damaging in some ways, it can prevent against breakage and promote fuller-looking hair to a certain extent. We say "to a certain extent" since, given it's a catch 22, the ingredient is also responsible for blocking hydration out, which can eventually lead to breakage.
Good Silicones to Add to Your Routine
There are a couple of “good” silicones out there—or rather, silicones that are water-soluble. These include dimethicone copolyol, stearoxy dimethicone, behenoxy dimethicone. Thankfully, these silicones won’t cause buildup. According to Davines international scientific communication manager Laura Luciani, good silicones are boiled down to their breathable nature. "Breathable silicones are not coating nor damaging to the hair; they only provide shine and a strong conditioning effect to the strands," she explains. "By being ‘breathable,’ they are not impacting the final result of the hair treatment and are easily removed from the hair when lightly shampooed."
Meet the Expert
Laura Luciani is the international scientific communication manager at Davines, a sustainable haircare and skincare brand that prides itself on quality ingredients and doing good for the environment.
Tip: Just because a brand says that it's silicone-free doesn't necessarily mean that it has zero silicones, rather that it has none of the bad ones. "We are still a silicone- and paraben-free hair brand, because we do not use synthetic ingredients or harmful silicones in any products," Luciani explains. That's why it's important to know the names of good and bad silicones so that when you see a "silicone-free" label, you can easily determine if it's actually free of all the bad guys.
The Final Takeaway
Our conclusion? Use shampoos with silicones sparingly. Though they’ll leave you with silky-smooth strands at first, this is one case where instant gratification might not always be a good thing. And, if you feel better about ditching silicones altogether, Strohmenger says emollients and conditioning agents such as plant-based oils will similarly hydrate, condition, and detangle strands while offering frizz control, curl definition, and ultimate shine—all without any added heaviness.
Up next: Discover the single-ingredient, old school hair mask that is a dry hair hero.