Beauty Buzzwords: Silicones In The Spotlight

A lot of beaut.ies have expressed concerns over silicones, so this seems a natural follow-on from last week's beauty buzzwords post. Derived from the natural chemical element, silicon (that's the stuff sand is made from), once upon a time silicones in beauty meant just one thing: breast implants.

Used in cosmetic surgery since the 60s, and for a wide variety of industrial and medical uses, it wasn’t till the early 90s that they really took off in cosmetics. (I love this NY Times piece from 1993). Their ability to create a film on skin or hair, locking in moisture and creating a silky feel, means they’re particularly useful in hair products, primers and foundations. They also add slip and make products easier to apply. You'll spot them on ingredients lists because of the tell-tale 'cone'; common variations include dimethicone, cyclomethicone, and amodimethicone.

As a naturally shiny skinned and frizzy haired individual, for me, silicone has been a life changing beauty discovery.  I went through most of my school days with a delightful halo of frizz, which silicone laden shampoos, conditioners and hair oils now keep under control. And for those of us with oily skin, silicones can create a perfectly smooth surface for makeup and disguise imperfections. The molecules are too large to enter or clog a human pore, so they sit on top and create a silky, even surface.

silicone based cosmetic products

Some popular silicone based products


Sounds good, right? But what about adverse reactions? Well, silicone is considered so safe that the American Academy of Dermatology actively recommends it for everything from acne scars to rosacea. It's increasingly used in food and in cookware. And there is absolutely no scientific study or research that says that silicone is bad for us in any way.

So how did this ingredient end up with such a bad rap? A lot of it is down to simple scaremongering. The natural cosmetics industry likes to cast aspersions on man-made products - it's just self preservation. And the media has done its bit too, throwing around scary headlines like 'Toxic Toiletries!'... because they sell papers.

Some people don't like silicones because they feel they're in some way misleading. This is especially true of silicones in hair products - they coat the hair, providing a temporary sleek and shiny effect. But honestly, expecting a permanent effect strikes me as just a tad unrealistic - my hair looks better, and that's good enough for me.

Are silicones for everyone? Of course not - what is? If your hair is fine, too much silicone might overload it and leave it feeling greasy. If you still want the effects, you could always try a lighter silicone variety (there are different types, some heavier than others), alternate products or use a clarifying shampoo (see what we recommend here). It's really a matter of trial and error to see what products work best for you, and how much you should be using. I use silicone in my hair almost every day and have never experienced build up - though I have applied too much on the odd occasion. But my hair is thick and dry, and your experience will depend on your own hairtype.

Love 'em or loathe 'em, we'd love to know where you stand on silicones in cosmetics. What silicone based products would you rate or slate? Share your experiences in the comments!

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