Silicones in Beauty
By far silicones have received one of the worst reputations in beauty. I've heard reasons like "it's synthetic" "it's a filler" "they are bad for the environment" "it clogs my pores" or "it makes my hair feel gross." Well, buckle up buttercup, here comes the science!
What are silicones?
Silicon [sil-i-kuhn] is the 14th element on the periodic table and the second most abundant element in the earth's crust after oxygen. When you mix silicon and oxygen it makes silicon dioxide which is common sand, quartz, and granite.
Now how it becomes silicone [sil-i-cone] and what we are familiar with in beauty products is through heating at extreme temperatures and extensive chemical processing. It's a combination of silicon with oxygen, carbon, and hydrogen creating a long chain making a polymer (rubber) which is synthetic.
Why are silicones used in beauty?
Silicones made their way into cosmetics in the 1950's and by the 1970's were commonly used. They are added to beauty products for several reasons - some are an actual function of the product and some for user experience and for lack of a better word illusion. It's a double-edged sword in my opinion.
Texture & Appearance - Because of the silky fluid like consistency, it provides an ultra-smooth application that feels more luxurious and expensive which is obviously appealing to many brands.
In skin care - It blurs fine lines, wrinkles, and pores making the skin look smoother.
In makeup - Since silicones aren't absorbed into the skin and sit on the surface it provides an even canvas for makeup application and is why they are often found in foundation primers.
In sunscreen - Specifically how mineral sunscreens function is they sit on the surface of the skin and bounce off the sun's UV rays. Silicones help the active sun protective ingredients to stay put.
In hair products - It fills in the cracks of split ends, is a heat protectant, provides shine, helps detangle and coats the hair smoothing and controlling frizz.
Product penetration - Silicones aid in the penetration of the other ingredients in the formula and help to prevent moisture loss by creating a breathable barrier on the skin or hair. Yes, I said breathable...
How are silicones breathable?
This may come as a surprise to many, but it's true silicones are actually "breathable" by creating a vapor permeability layer on the skin. Let me explain, the molecular structure of cosmetic grade silicone is large with wide spaces between each molecule. Because of the large size, it makes it impossible to be absorbed by the skin. This creates both a barrier and breathable layer on the surface of the skin and hair. This makes silicone not completely occlusive as widely believed.
truths on silicones
Here is the BIG old list of commonly believed myths, truths, science and concerns in regards to silicones.
"Silicones are synthetic"
Even though they start with a naturally derived ingredient they are considered synthetic so if your personal philosophy is avoiding anything that is lab made or processed then silicones should be avoided.
"Silicones aren't a clean ingredient"
Silicones are of low concern health-wise, non-sensitizing, and generally hypoallergenic. (Do keep in mind nothing can be 100% hypoallergenic though!)
"Silicones are bad for the environment"
If you search Google you will get 50/50 results on if they are or aren't eco-friendly. The fact is, silicones are NOT bio-degradable since they are a very stable molecule. When you wash your face it goes straight down the drain and into our waterways.
"Silicones make me break out"
This is by far the biggest concern I have heard in regards to silicones. Brace yourself, silicones are considered non-comedogenic. I know this is mind-boggling especially if you are prone to acne or congestion.
I will say a few things, since silicones aid in the penetration of the other ingredient in the formula, this can mean both the beneficial and comedogenic ingredients are absorbed more effectively. This is the indirect reason the use of products that contain silicone can lead to clogged pores and acne. For some skin types and conditions like oily skin, rosacea, acne or those prone to clogged pores silicones may be too heavy for the skin or one may simply not care for the feeling of it on the skin.
"Silicones hold in bacteria and sweat"
Untrue. Since the molecules are large and they have wide spaces between them sweat and bacteria can pass through. This also works the other way around as in skin care ingredients like vitamin C will pass through if applied on top. The most important point I would like to make is that helping slow down moisture loss is different than being completely occlusive.
"Silicones do nothing for the skin"
In my opinion, they are a "helper" of other ingredients and functions. Will they stimulate collagen, lighten pigmentation, fight free radicals or truly change the skin like a retinoid? Nope.
"Silicones are a cheap filler ingredient"
Yes and no. If they act as a stabilizer so active ingredients like sunscreen can stay where they belong it's an actual function and I would say no. Now, if it's high up on the ingredient deck and it's there to sell more products to create an illusion of smoother hair or skin then yes. Research up!
"Think of silicones like junk food: they satisfy the craving but don’t nourish the body."
-Beautiful with Brain
"Silicones ball up on my skin"
Tis true, again since it sits on the surface of the skin and doesn't absorb it can lead to pilling.
"Silicones make my hair feel gross"
It's true, short-term the hair looks smooth and shiny, long term is where the damage is done. Over time silicones will cause a buildup leading to limp lifeless dull hair. I will note there are some silicones like dimethicone copolyol that are water-soluble and do wash out, but most are much harder to remove and can make the hair feel greasy which may make you want to wash your hair more often. Here is the damage cycle:
How to spot them
You'll find them all over the place in skin or hair care products like moisturizers, eye creams, makeup primers, face makeup, hair styling products like leave-in and regular conditioners, sunscreens, body lotions and sexy time lube. Here's the full list that you can save or Pin!
As with any ingredient we all have our own unique body chemistry on how we will react. So while this ingredient may work for some it may be terrible for others. At least now you have the facts to make an informed decision!
Me personally, I try to avoid if I can if it serves no real purpose like in a sunscreen. I don't care for the heaviness on my skin especially when it's super hot in Southern California or the fact it's non-biodegradable. I also prefer to use more active and beneficial ingredients on my skin.
Do you use or avoid silicones in your beauty products? Feel free to comment below! xo