In this post, I’ll answer to
“what is dimethicone” and
“what is dimethicone used for?”
I’ll also cover some possible alternatives if you don’t want to use silicone in your products.
Recently, I’ve been discussing a face serum formulation with one of my clients. He is the co-founder of a natural skin care company in NYC.
He was facing a dilemma.
Simply put, he didn’t know whether or not adding dimethicone to the formula.
One one side, he didn’t want to “betray” his customers. Indeed, one of the reasons for their loyalty was the fact he was using only natural ingredients. On the other side, he was aware of how dimethicone can positively affect the sensory performance of skin care products.
He asked for my advice. Do you want to know what I recommended? Then keep reading.
Let’s start from the beginning.
What is Dimethicone?
Dimethicone is a cosmetic sensory enhancement ingredient that belongs to the silicones category.
Silicones are a highly controversial class of ingredients. Chemists usually love them because of the sensory aspect (especially in skincare and haircare). Consumers are sometimes worried when reading dimethicone on the product label. In fact, silicones have a bad reputation, being accused of:
- Comedogenicity ( the process of exacerbating acne ).
- Occluding the skin without letting it “breathe”, sweat etc.
- Provoking skin irritations.
- Having a negative environmental impact.
Let me tell you something.
I don’t like to formulate with silicones or using hair care products that contain them.
Yet, I can guarantee they are safe, non-comedogenic, and have no negative impact on the environment (silicones are pretty stable and inert polymers but, being hydrophobic, don’t accumulate in the soil).NOTE: if you’re pregnant, contact your doctor to make sure it’s okay to use dimethicone-based cosmetics.
The majority of silicones are water vapor permeable and this makes them non-occlusive at all. Silicones with occlusive power are, for example, cetyl dimethicone (semi-permeable) and C30-45 alkyl methicone which is as occlusive as petrolatum.
Polymeric films formed by some silicones are able to resist wash-off; it might not a bad thing like some blogs claim.
Actually, it’s a good thing. Not only it prevents water loss from the skin, but it also favors the penetration of active ingredients contained in botanical extracts or oils. Also, it becomes extremely useful with sunscreens that have to be waterproof, for instance.
For sunscreens, resisting wash off becomes crucial (waterproof claims).
I bet you are also familiar with some particular skin conditions that need to be treated with topical medications. These creams are always highly occlusive. By preventing easy wash-off,the active ingredients stay in contact with the skin for a longer period of time and this favors their penetration rate and extent.
The downside is that these creams are difficult to spread, thus limiting patients’ compliance.
Silicones are not comedogenic either and are perfectly fine for the skin.
“So, why don’t you like formulating with them?”
I am going to explain this using a metaphor.
I feel it’s like cooking using too much grease. Yes, the food tastes awesome, but it’s only because the cream (or butter or whatever) is covering all other flavors. I mean, the challenge is supposed to be cooking tasty dishes using only a limited amount of fat because everyone is able to do the opposite!
The same concept applies to the use of silicones in cosmetics. The real challenge for a cosmetic chemist is being able to formulate a product with a satisfactory sensory feeling and without dimethicone. Furthermore, based on my personal experience as cosmetics user, the beneficial effect that silicones impart to my skin or hair is only temporary while other emollients can provide a longer effect. Finally, silicones are usually cheap, and I don’t see why I should pay $40 or more for a cream that lists dimethicone as the second ingredient after water.
Don’t believe whoever tells you it’s impossible to formulate without dimethicone!
Today, up to 40% of all new products introduced in the U.S cosmetic market contain silicones. Silicones arrived in the cosmetics and toiletries industry in the 1950s, when low levels of medium-viscosity dimethicone were used to prevent the whitening effect of soap-based skin lotions. Nowadays, they are ubiquitous.
Why are silicones so popular?
The main reason why silicones are used in almost all kinds of skin and hair care products is their sensory properties. They deliver greater emollience values than many commonly used cosmetic ingredients both during and after application. Silicones are able to provide a smooth, velvety, and nongreasy nor oily feel.
Volatile silicones provide slight lubricity, a light texture, fast spreading, and good distribution of the product during application. The word volatile means that the evaporation requires less energy compared to water. This particular kind of silicones is the basis for long-lasting/nontransfer decorative products, especially lipsticks. Their aim is to disperse pigments, improve the application, and impart a pleasant skin feel. In modern liquid lipsticks, silicones allow obtaining a complete smudge and water proof performance.
Hydrocarbon-based emollients (for example, mineral oil) do have a greasy or oily feel and silicones are often used to mask it. Silicone elastomers (for example dimethicone cross polymer) confer a dry, powdery feel to skin care formulations.Dimethicone is able to give a more lubricious, longer-lasting effect in richer, more nourishing skin treatment products such as night creams or after-sun products.
Finally, silicone acrylate copolymers have the ability to form non-occlusive films that resist wash off. This film-forming property is useful in sunscreens.
How to recognize silicones in the ingredients list
If you’re like me, you want to be able to make your own independent choices when it comes to purchases. As carefully reading the labels is pivotal when it comes to food decisions, the same applies to beauty products.
To recognize silicones, look for everything that ends or contain “cone”, “siloxane” or “silicate”. If unsure, post the name of the ingredient in the comment section.
Silicones in hair products
Silicones are so popular in hair products because they’re able to:
- Conditioner the hair and make the combing process easier.
- Provide a sensory enhancement ( soft and smooth feel).
- Reduce the drying time and therefore limit the damages caused by high temperatures shock (blow drying).
- Boost the formation of foam.
- Improve the shine, confer and fix a “natural look”.
- Work as color retention aids.
- Strength and protect the hair ( the film may protect the hair cuticle during elongation, and assists in sealing the hair cuticle, helping to maintain an optimal moisture level for hair strength).
Are they 100% necessary?
No, they’re not (personal opinion).
Mineral and vegetable oils can be as good.
Coconut oil, because of its low molecular weight and straight linear chain, penetrates the hair and reduces the amount of water absorbed, leading to a lowering of swelling. Applying oil on a regular basis can enhance lubrication of the shaft and help prevent hair breakage. Coconut oil, being a triglyceride of lauric acid (principal fatty acid), has a high affinity for hair proteins. Mineral oil does not penetrate while sunflower oil only partially not reaching the cortex.
PRO TIP 1: no matter how good an il is for your hair. When formulating shampoos, remember that the amount of oil should be limited as nobody likes the greasy feel.
Other common conditioning agents for hair are the quaternary ammonium compounds (the “Quaternium” family). They are very effective to make the hair feel soft, smooth and easy to comb. Quaternium compounds have a positive charge located on the N atom and, therefore, are noncompatible with anionic surfactants which carry a negative one.
PRO-TIP 2: lowering the shampoo pH to 5 can help decreasing the hair frizziness by generating less negative static electricity on the hair fiber surface.
Alternatives to silicones
Are there ingredients that perform as well as silicones?
Of course. Many, actually.
Here are some examples.
- Polydecene and polybutene. These are hydrocarbons and can replace dimethicone or Cyclopentasiloxane without modifying the overall formula or performance due to their silicone-alike texture and volatility.
- PPG-3 Caprylyl Ether. This is a plant-derived conditioner ingredient.It’s a low viscosity colorless liquid that imparts shine and doesn’t reduce the volume. It also provides a silicone-like texture. Can be used in both shampoos and conditioner, alone or in association with silicones (reduce their amount by 25%).
- Diheptyl Succinate (and) Capryloyl Glycerin/Sebacic Acid Copolymer. My favorite Cyclomethicone replacement. It is completely biodegradable and Ecocertified. Feel free to use it in both skin care products and shampoos/conditioners.
- Isohexadecane with excellent spreading and emollient properties. Odorless, it has an extremely light feeling.
- PEG-4 distearyl ether (and) sodium Laureth sulfate (and) distearyl ether (and) dicaprylyl ether (Lamesoft Care_BASF). This composition is well suited for surfactants based systems which means body washes and shampoos. It offers conditioning and anti-hair breakage and consists of waxes, emollients and micronized lipids. It imparts a typical marble white appearance in the final product.
- Dicaprylyl ether (and) decyl glucoside (and) glyceryl oleate – Plantasil by BASF. This composition is suitable for clear shampoos, body/face washes. It is able to dramatically improve the conditioning performance and it is completely naturally sourced.
NOTE: as stated above in this post, silicones form a thin hydrophobic film that protects the hair (by sealing the cuticle). It is always better to act from within using ingredients that are able to penetrate the hair. One of these ingredients is low molecular weight Hydrolyzed Wheat Proteins. These protein repair damaged hair.
On the scalp, panthenol (pro vitamin B5) is converted into pantothenic acid which is physiological in the hair. It is able to penetrate into the cortex where it helps repairing damages caused by perming and coloring.
Glycerin is able to penetrate the hair, too! Once inside, it restores moisture to damaged hair.
When using ingredients that need to penetrate the hair in order to exert their beneficial effects, remember to allow enough time for the penetration (at least 10 minutes) or opt for leave-on conditioners.
Formulas: shampoo and lotion
General Rule: when in doubt whether using silicones or not, always try the same formula with and without and evaluate the differences (if any).
Regardless of many different claimed benefits, the main goal of all shampoos is to remove dirt from the hair. Therefore, surfactants will be necessarily in the formula along with water and a preservative system. I also suggest glycerin and panthenol for the reasons stated above.
Here’s a basic shampoo formula for you to play with.
Some ideas to customize this formulation:
- Replace part of the water with aloe juice, or other water (I love orange or cucumber water).
- Add some extracts in the water phase. Rosemary and sage extracts add sheen to brunette hair, while chamomile gives natural highlights and softness to blond hair.
- Vary the surfactants. Surfactants like Sodium Laureth sulfate are the cheapest, indeed. Yet, they’re very aggressive on the skin.
Lotions don’t need silicones, too!
I put together a natural lotion formula so you can familiarize with skincare making. It is possible to add Cyclopentasiloxane in phase C, but it is absolutely not necessary. If you need to shop for equipment, check this post
Access the formula from HERE
Even though dimethicone and its derivates are present in many different cosmetics products, their use is questionable and controversial.
Silicones are safe and non-toxic, yet it doesn’t mean they’re beneficial for everyone.
As a consumer, I only use silicone-free shampoos and conditioners, while I don’t have any problem in using lotions that contain silicones as long as they are in a very limited amount. I am not implying silicones are bad for hair in general; they just don’t work for me, but they might be perfect for you.
This is my favorite silicone free shampoo.
This is my godsend leave-on protein cream. I use it as hair conditioner. It really leaves my hair silky-smooth. Try it and let me know if you like it.
As a formulator, I consider silicones pivotal in some products. These are sunscreens, some makeup products (for example liquid lipsticks and foundations) and serums.
In the end, my client decided to go without dimethicone. In his case, this was the right decision as his brand has always proudly used only natural ingredients.
A blog is no fun without any interaction between readers…leave a comment below and get the discussion started!
What’s your opinion on silicone?