The truth about dimethicone, the controversial ingredient in cosmetics
If you Google the word dimethicone, it will suggest the question, "Is dimethicone bad for you?" Most of the results will attempt to scare you into believing it's ruining your skin, and it appears on ingredient "watch lists" like it's some sort of criminal. Companies boast it in their product's ingredient exclusion list, alongside toxic additives like phthalates and triclosan. I could keep going.
The point is, dimethicone doesn't have a good reputation. Despite this standing, brands continue to use it in their products. You'll find it in primers, most prominently, and even in products designed to make skin better, like moisturizer. If dimethicone is as bad for us as the internet would lead you to believe, why are companies still using it?
Well, dimethicone smoothes skin and fills pores.
"Dimethicone is a silicone-based product that's used as a smoothing agent," NYC dermatologist Dr. Gary Goldenberg told HelloGiggles. "It allows products to be applied in a smooth fashion to the skin and fills in wrinkles and lines for an even, smooth appearance of product." This is why you'll see dimethicone commonly used in primers. That silky, soft-to-the-touch feeling is dimethicone in action. Dimethicone is also used in skin care products because it can moisturize skin without being heavy, frequently replacing petrolatum-based ingredients.
Filling in pores and smoothing blemishes can come at a cost, however, because dimethicone forms an occlusive barrier over skin, which is seen as a good or a bad thing—depending on your perspective. In several studies, dimethicone has proven to be an effective skin barrier against irritants, thereby preventing skin from developing conditions like dermatitis and eczema. As a moisturizer, it can be used to treat dry skin by preventing water loss.
But this occlusive nature is often the reason why dimethicone is viewed negatively. The number one search result for dimethicone says that it "exacerbates acne" by forming a barrier over skin, and this "covering and trapping property of dimethicone means that it's not just trapping moisture, but bacteria, skin oils, sebum, and other impurities."
While true, this is mostly an overblown view of what dimethicone does. "Any product that you applied to the skin that blocks your pores has the potential to cause acne," said Dr. Joshua Zeichner, the Director of Cosmetic & Clinical Research in Dermatology at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City. He reiterated that most dermatologists consider dimethicone to be safe for patients with acne, "It is extremely useful in treating oily skin and acne because it does not block the pores or leave the skin feeling greasy," he said.
Dr. Goldenberg contends that in most cases dimethicone is a safe ingredient, although in some cases a person may find it irritating to their skin. "In some it may cause or exacerbate acne by occluding pores. It can also cause skin irritation and allergic contact dermatitis, which presents with a red, itchy, scaly rash," he said.
But even with the slight risk that some skin types could be irritated by dimethicone—something that can happen with virtually every other product ingredient—dermatologists agree that dimethicone is safe to use, and it can even be beneficial for those with acne.
Natural doesn't always mean better.
In general, the negativity around dimethicone seems to be overplayed. Dr. Zeichner blames this partially on our society's obsession with "natural" skin care products. "It is a myth that because a product is labeled as "natural" or "organic," that these products are any safer for our health compared to to synthetic ingredients like dimethicone," Dr. Zeichner said. "Many "natural" ingredients are associated with skin allergies and irritation and can be quite harmful to the health of the skin. After all, poison ivy is natural," he added.
If you suspect that dimethicone is breaking out your skin, start by eliminating those products from your routine to target the issue. But unless you've experienced a specific, negative reaction to a dimethicone-based product, these dermatologists say it's a safe ingredient to use. No need to throw out those expensive primers. And that's a good thing—they do a hell of a job smoothing skin.