From department store to supermarket shelf, the business of free-from beauty is booming - particularly when it comes to the world of hair care. The latest ingredients to be put under the microscope? Silicones - but is your regime all the better with or without them? I found out.
What do silicones do?
In terms of the pros, you’d be hard-pressed to find a component that serves up as many immediate cosmetic benefits as silicones do - it’s no wonder that they’re one of hair care’s most prevalent ingredients. They can be found mostly in conditioners, but also in serums, oils and even shampoos. According to trichologist Iain Sallis , their properties make them very good at doing several different jobs for a range of different hair types. In particular they can:
1) Absorb and retain moisture from the air (particularly good for dry hair)
2) Leave a lightweight coating on the hair (popular in smoothing and anti-frizz products)
3) Increase in size when heated up (“Perfect for fine hair as it gets under the cuticle and then inflates to ‘puff’ it out and make it look thicker,” explains Iain).
So why the bad rap?
Providing a variety of benefits, it’s difficult to see why anyone would want to go silicone-free. However, a glimpse into silicones’ interesting past and the products that thrust them into the spotlight could act as a useful first port of call. “When silicones were first brought into hair care, they were being used in all-in-one, time-saving shampoos,” explains hair stylist and GTG Expert , Paul Edmonds (products such as Vidal Sassoon’s hugely popular Wash & Go come to mind for example). “They were great however, over time they built up on the hair making it lank and hard to do other services such as colour or peeking. So they started to get a bad name.”
Products containing silicones developed, as did the knowledge around them regarding the best way to use them. However, long-term worries still lingered. “When John Frieda brought out Frizz Ease Serum, it revolutionised dealing with frizzy hair,” says Paul. “However again, it could produce build up and it also hid from view damage that was happening from heat and wear and tear by making it look shiny. So when it wasn't used, the hair felt and looked terrible.”
Today, silicones still receive a bit of bad press however, many appear to be much more sophisticated than they were before. “Nearly all of them are shampoo soluble so there is no build up,” says trichologist and hairdresser Guy Parsons who, while developing his own My Hair Doctor line, saw first-hand how hard it is to replicate the benefits offered by silicones. “Having worked extensively with my chemist, we have found that it is impossible to make a similar product without a silicone variant within it - the performance is just not the same,” he tells us. “They are also used in reasonably minute quantities in most circumstances. They are essential for performance, you just don't get the effects without them.”
A ‘too much’ mentality usage-wise could also be a reason behind the current negativity surrounding silicones. “They can be overused and make the hair dull, greasy and lifeless,” says Iain, also highlighting their ‘man made’ roots as an aspect that consumers hold against them. “We have a real aversion to put anything that is not ‘natural’ onto our hair or skin because we think the chemicals are bad for us,” he says. “However, silicones are completely inert and cannot harm our skin or our hair.”
Another possible cause for concern on the horizon is their potential environmental impact. “A negative against them is that many believe that they are too harmful to the environment because they do not break down that easily and are therefore more difficult to dispose of,” says Guy. “There are rumblings that some countries and nations are considering banning them. It’s early days, but the momentum will likely gather.”
Who would benefit most from silicones or going silicone-free?
In deciding whether to use silicone-free products, hair type is a key consideration to bear in mind. The experts I asked agreed that those with fine hair could benefit most from using products with lower levels of silicones in them. “As they are reasonably large molecules, they have an inability to penetrate deep into the hair so can lie on the surface - therefore finer hair may become heavy and weighed down quickly,” explains Guy. “Ultimately the thicker, coarser or rougher the hair is, the more it will benefit from silicone to tame, smooth and maintain,” he says.
In terms of what to look for in your ingredients labels, anything ending in ‘cone’ is a clear indicator. “The three mainly used ones are dimethicone (D), trichomethicone (T) and dimethicone copolyol (DC),” says Guy. “The difference between them is viscosity, density and thickness. DC is the thickest and the most viscose, D is in the middle and T is the thinnest and lightest which may not even adhere to the hair under hairdryer conditions.” He adds, “If a product ending in ‘cone’ is high up on the ingredients list, there will be more of it. It often depends on what the product is designed to do; in a serum it may appear second or third on the list whereas in a conditioner or shampoo it might be further down.”
Looking at the concerns that a product claims to address could provide a useful first sign that silicones may be in them. “For people with fine hair, hair that is easily weighed down or gets greasy quickly, avoid products that promise shine/smoothing/to keep you frizz-free,” recommends Iain Sallis. “They will all contain the same type of ingredient that sits on the cuticle and reflects light or smoothes down cuticles, but this will also weigh down the hair quickly or make it look greasy.”
The best silicone-free shampoos and conditioners
Silicone-free shampoos and conditioners are launching by the bottle-load at the moment, but which ones really deliver? If environmental concerns or hair type are the main reasons why you’d prefer your products to be sans silicone, one or more of these could be promising new bathroom shelf staples.
Color Wow Colour Security Shampoo, £9 (75ml) - £16.50 (250ml)