Do You Need to 'Silicone Detox' Your Beauty Routine?
Here's how you can cut out this unnecessary ingredient.
What is clean beauty? And—for that matter—green beauty, eco-friendly beauty, and natural beauty? In Clean, Green, And In Between, beauty expert Jessica DeFino explores the ins and outs of these buzzy terms, reports on the products and ingredients to look out for, and answers all of your most pressing questions.
Let me start by saying I’m a big fan of silicon. Big. Huge! This natural element is most commonly found on earth as silicon dioxide, also known as silica, the mineral that makes up sand and crystals. It’s pressed against my skin right now, actually—I’ve been known to stash a piece of polished quartz in my bra for its purported ~healing powers~ and high vibrations—and it’s in my favorite beauty supplement.
Silicone, on the other hand, the synthetic polymer derived from silicon? Not into it. Not my thing. Never shall it touch my skin, nor my hair, nor my body. Never shall it wash down the drain of my shower or bathroom sink.
Don’t get me wrong: Silicone is not an actively *bad* ingredient. (For human beings, at least. Its environmental impact is another story, but I’ll get to that in a minute.) It’s just not an actively good one.
The occlusive substance, commonly found in skincare, haircare, and makeup, is best described as a “rubberlike plastic” that covers skin and strands in a smooth, shiny “film.” Silicones are overwhelmingly popular in moisturizers and conditioners for a few reasons: They mix well with other ingredients, they spread easily, they feel nice, and they’re cheap. A coat of silicone creates an instant “glowy” effect.
That all sounds great, and it is great—for those producing the product. Being mixable and spreadable is a plus for cosmetic chemists. A smooth feel is a plus for marketing and PR. An affordable raw material is a plus for manufacturers, and that affordability doesn’t always trickle down to consumers. In many cases, formulas filled with silicones are marked up like whoa.
Silicones are the beauty equivalent of fake news. They make skin and hair look and feel healthy, but they don’t actually contribute to the health of the skin or hair. But why is that a problem?
For one, that glossy glow doesn’t last. The silicone sheen washes away by the end of the day, leaving any underlying “issues” (dull skin, fried hair) unresolved. “[Silicones are] a short-term fix,” Ron McLaughlin, the vice president of research and development at haircare brand Living Proof, tells HelloGiggles. This can create product dependence: To keep seeing results, you need to keep buying and applying it. Personally, I’m not interested in spending money on filler ingredients that only mask my problems when there are so many other nourishing, active ingredients out there. (I should note that in acute medical settings, silicone adhesives have been shown to help with wound and scar healing. This kind of usage is different from the daily application of a pre-bottled product formulated with other cosmetic chemicals.)
Silicone is also hydrophobic—water-repelling—which can cause some problems. It doesn’t rinse off easily; as I’ve said before, double-cleansing was practically invented for silicone skincare. Its water-hating nature is more of an issue for hair, though. If silicone isn’t properly washed out, buildup happens. “[Hair] gets weighed down or greasy-feeling, so you are more likely to shampoo and style it more often,” McLaughlin says. “This perpetuates what we call the cycle of damage. The more you wash and style, the more damaged your hair is, so the more you will feel like you need to reach for silicone to get that soft feeling again. It’s a vicious cycle.”
In the case of cyclic silicones, there are deeper safety concerns. These lesser-used derivatives, which appear as cyclotetrasiloxane, cyclopentasiloxane, cyclohexasiloxane, and cyclomethicone on ingredient lists, are thought to be possible endocrine-disruptors. Additionally, there’s some debate that silicones in skincare and makeup may lead to clogged pores—“For acne-prone patients, silicones can act as a ‘barrier’ and trap oil, dirt, and dead skin cells, making acne worse,” Deanne Mraz Robinson, M.D., told Healthline—although the general consensus is that silicones are non-comedogenic.
“I don’t think silicones are bad for the skin, but that is a broad generalization,” Greg Altman, Ph.D., a cosmetic chemist specialized in biotechnology engineering and the CEO of Silk Therapeutics, tells HelloGiggles. His main concern is their possible environmental impact: When silicones are washed down the drain, they end up in the water supply. Silicones are not biodegradable, and while long-chain silicone molecules don’t pose a threat to nature, over time, they break down into smaller and smaller pieces. In lieu of comprehensive studies on the environmental impact of silicones, the chemist advocates for using the precautionary principle. “We have enough evidence and common sense to start to take precautions today, so let’s just do that,” he says.
Ready to remove silicones from your beauty routine?
First thing’s first: To figure out which of your products have silicones in them, check the ingredient lists for anything that ends in -cone or -siloxane. Silicone, dimethicone, cyclomethicone, cyclohexasiloxane, cetearyl methicone, and cyclopentasiloxane are some examples.
Next: Don’t just throw them away, especially if you’re interested in cutting out silicones for the sake of sustainability. That only serves to create more waste, which kind of defeats the purpose, right? Instead, use them up, give them to friends or family (safely!), or donate any unopened products.
Once you stop using silicones, you may notice some not-so-great changes in your skin and hair. Don’t panic. That simply means that the silicones aren’t masking your underlying “issues” anymore, which is a good thing. Remember: Your skin and hair are talking to you! This is a great opportunity to get familiar with their needs and figure out how to address them proactively. If your acne scars seem more prominent, for instance, perhaps it’s time to incorporate an antioxidant vitamin C serum. If your hair seems frizzier than usual, consider cutting down on heat styling.
Letting go of smoothing silicone conditioners isn’t always easy, so McLaughlin suggests a “silicone detox” via Living Proof’s Silicone Detox Kit. The shampoo, conditioner, styler, and dry shampoo feature a silicone alternative that the brand calls its “Healthy Hair Molecule” (its chemical name, octafluoropentyl methacrylate, is kind of a mouthful). According to the brand, your hair may seem drier after your first few silicone-free washes. By wash five, you should see softer, smoother hair. By wash nine, you’ll be like, “Silicone who?”
In terms of skin care, the best alternative may be one your body creates on its own: the moisture-sealing, glow-giving amalgamation of oils, waxes, and beneficial bacteria known as the skin barrier. Focus on building that up, bask in the glory of your own sebum—you’ll never be tempted by silicone again.