I got an anonymous question via Formspring.

Colin, I’d love to hear your take on the dangers (if any) of silicones in skin and hair products. Dimithecone, cyclomethicone and phenyl trimithecone have particular interest.

Silicones are a huge class of materials and you can’t make sweeping statements about them.  There are some silicones that are very toxic indeed and you wouldn’t want to get anywhere near them.  Others are completely inert and innocuous.

The ones that are used in skin and hair products have never given rise to any health issues with anyone actually using them that we know about. There have been theoretical risks identified with a couple of them which have led to particular silicones being withdrawn. Silicones are completely synthetic which makes them a good choice if you are prone to allergies because it is less likely your body will react to them.

The names to look for on ingredient lists are things like dimethicone, siloxane and words that contain those elements like pentasiloxane.  There is a big family of silicones and I would think there must be a few hundred that get used in hair care.

The persistent complaint from consumers is that silicones in some hair products build up on the hair shaft.  This seems to be a very well founded complaint.  It is a function of how well the product is formulated and how long your hair is rather than an inevitable consequence of using silicones.  And some silicones seem to take some shifting once they have accumulated.

Silicones have a very distinctive feel so it is fairly easy to work out if it is a silicone that is building up.  Low levels are designed to make the hair shafts slip easily against each other, but too much begins to have the opposite effect and your hair will start to clump into bunches that is pretty much the opposite of what you want.

The main thing to do is to make sure that the product you are using  matches your hair and the way you use it.  Less frequent washing might be a solution to silicone build up if you don’t want to change brands.  Or you can intersperse a silicone rich formulation with a plainer shampoo.  But basically all you can do is experiment.

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