Cetrimonium Chloride is the mainstay of hair conditioners. It works in a very simple way. Damaged hair has an electric charge. This is why you get flyway hair. The hair shafts are literally repelling one another. Conditioners work by neutralising that charge and replacing it with a lubricious layer of loveliness.
Let’s have a look at the details. The very top layer of the hair shaft is protected by tiny plates. These are hard and shiny and have a very slight positive charge. When these plates are in good condition, your hair is in good condition. It shines and the very slight surface charge means that hair shafts repel one another so the hairs don’t stick to each other and glide smoothly when combed. This is what most of us want from our hair most of the time. When the plates get damaged or even lost altogether, the situation is very different. The hair below the plates has a dull appearance. And even worse, it has a strong negative charge. The very slight mutual repulsion that is beneficial in hair that is in good condition becomes an extreme force pushing the hair shafts away. This creates the unmanageable fly away hair that in some extreme cases even sticks up. So your hair is now not smooth, shiny and able to glide along the comb. It is dull, fractious and gives every indication of having a mind of its own. And that mind is a malicious one.
So what to do?
One option is to crack open a bottle of conditioner. This is where the cetrimonium chloride comes in. It is what is called a quaternary ammonium compound, and the significance of this is that it is a long molecule with a large positive charge at one end. This positive charge is attracted to the negative charge on the damaged hair shaft. So what happens is that the cetrimonium chloride attaches itself to the hair coating the damaged bits. Hey presto, your hair is no longer fly away and you can now do something with it.
The ability of cetrimonium chloride to seek out damaged hair and fix it has been used in the past by marketers. I remember working on one conditioner that went under the tag line ‘conditions your hair only where it is needed’. This was perfectly true, though a rather strange way to put it. It was like saying that soap washes your hand only where it is dirty. But I suppose I shouldn’t complain about advertising that is justified when you think about how much is pure moonshine.
Cetrimonium chloride is still the most widely used quaternary ammonium compound in hair conditioners, but there is a whole family of them that work in much the same way. They usually have the -ium bit in the name somewhere and often chloride too, but bromide sometimes pops up. There are conditioning agents that aren’t related but these tend to be used in combination with something like cetrimonium chloride. I hope this gives you something to think about while your hair is drying.
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Safety information and other boring stuff about cetrimonium chloride can be found on the cosmetics info database.
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And there is a full list on my cosmetics ingredient database page.