Recently, there has been a lot to do about silicones in the cosmetic industry. Everybody (well, except for the part that is well educated and reads scientific papers) assumes that silicones are pore-clogging (also know as comedogenic), cause cancer (carcinogenic) and dry out the skin.
So, I think the time has come to dive in deeper in to the world of silicones to see whether or not it would be wise to avoid silicones. Let start with the basics.
What are silicones?
Silicones are a group of lubricants that can be easily spotted in an ingredientlist by looking for the -cone(s) addition at the end of a particular substance. The Beauty Brains published a list a good while ago at http://thebeautybrains.com/2010/06/17/are-you-silicone-savvy/. If you scan the list, note that the most common properties are “lubricates, conditiones and film forming”. I’ll get back on it later.
Silicones are made from sand (yes, sand; scientific name: silica) and consist of at least a silicon and a oxygen atom. Most of the silicone forms are polymers, meaning that a lot of silicons en oxygen atoms bind together as a large string. You can even compare it to a necklace, with a unit of a silicon and oxygen atom as bead. The only point is that a polymer doesn’t require a string. The beads are connected to each other.
Left: dimethicone; a polymer who clearly shows the “bead” structure. The “n” shows that the structure between the hooks is repeated. Mostly, “n”goes into the thousands or even millions. Try drawing that.
Right: cyclomethicone. Some bead structures form a ring, “cyclo” means “ring”. These two are the two most common silicones.
Silicones are made by letting a silicon or silicon-containing molecule (the precursor) react with water. For industrial uses (for instance, paint) dimethyldichlorosilane (yes, I can pronounce that!) with water. However, since chlorine can be very drying and because during production, the very hazardous hydrogen chloride gas (something you don’t want to inhale, lol) the chlorine atoms in the silane precursor with acetategroups, which will lead to a production of the less dangerous acetic acid as a byproduct. Extra branches or cross-links in the polymer chain structure can be added by using different precursors.
Silicones can be divided into two large groups based on volatility. The first group, in which cyclomethicone falls, vaporizes quickly after applying. These silicones are mostly added to spread the substance out evenly. Even honey will go on like water when a silicone is added from the first group. Because they vaporize quickly, hair dries quicker when added to, for instance, a serum. The reason it evaporates, is because of the weak links between the atoms and the whole, small structure. The second group, with dimethicone as major ingredient, doesn’t evaporate (polymers usually have stronger links and are larger). That group is mostly used because of its conditioning properties.
I have given a small hint about how silicones are used. The first group (with cyclomethicone) is mostly used in liquid make up/skin care/make up to provide slip and gives a silky on the skin. Besides the emolliency, it also enhanced a product’s lifespan and effectiveness. Next to serums, cyclomethicone are common in foundation. Have you ever wondered why silicone-free foundations don’t provide even application, dry quickly and sometimes stain? That is all because there is no cyclomethicone is added.
The next group, the non-vaporizing silicones, are a little more abundant; so instead of trying to cover everything (you can always request an ingredient), I’ll try to highlight some common properties. Most common is the water resistant (film forming), sebum absorbing property (basically, most of the oil on your face – which is good if you don’t want too much of it, ie if you have oily skin or even acne) and lubricator, conditioner, solvent or carrier properties.
Dimethicone forms a film to lock moisture and other ingredients in. Does that mean that it suffocates hair? No. There are two reasons for it: a) hair is dead, so it can’t be suffocated (ever tried it on a corpse, probably doesn’t work either :P) and b) because of the open structure, air can pass easily. The last reason is also the reason why silicones can’t cause acne. It even improves acne, because the skin can breathe. The film also fakes the shine (because the refractive index is close to the refractive index of hair) and glues some split ends together temporarily. Please note that after rinsing, the split ends will re-appear.
A lot of people (well, it appears to be a lot of people because I hear a lot of it, recently) are worried that silicones penetrate the skin. This is not possible, especially with hair. Silicones are too large to enter the skin or your hair. In fact, the only scientificaly proven substance that can enter hair, is coconut oil.
I got a tip from Monique that FACE Atelier is not only open about using silicones; the brand even based their entire product line on the properties of silicones. After a look at their website (header “trade secrets”) I found this statement:
The use of silicone has also revolutionized pressed and loose powder products. That is why silicone can be found in all of FACE atelier’s Ultra Powders, Blush and Bronzers. The addition of silicone creates a longer-lasting product that neither creases nor looks cakey. The pigments in these products are surrounded by the silicones, enabling them to go on smoothly while at the same time creating a barrier between the powder and the skin. Unlike a talc-based product that falls into creases or skin imperfections, these powders float on the surface of the skin. The silicones create a cushion between the powder and the skin, no longer emphasizing fine lines and wrinkles.
Quite refreshing, a brand that is open of its use of silicones. Halleluja. I find it quite ridiculus that people fall for the non-substance A or non- substance B claims on a packaging. I mean, if we want to avoid a certain ingredient, we just have to look at the ingredientlist. It is a very effective marketing trick and as someone who loves to dive into certain ingredient (labels), I find it hugely irritating.
Now, the big question is whether or not silicones are bad. If you have read between the lines you probably know the answer. Silicones are not bad for you. They can be easily washed out of you hair. They don’t create build up. They don’t clog pores. They don’t cause cancer (where did that come from?).
Oh, and did you know; silicones are also used in scar reducing treatments? Perhaps you might have heard about silicone masks for burn wound patients. So, if doctors even recommend silicones, isn’t it logic that silicones are good for your skin and hair?
Until next time,