Silica is a common mineral found throughout the earth's crust. Science and industry have found thousands of different uses for silica derivative chemicals, ranging from computer chips to hair care products. You might not even realize how many things have silica in them, but trust us; it's everywhere.
One common use for silica derivatives is hair styling products. Silicas – or rather, silicones – are very common as a kind of lubrication and a protective coating. Silicone chemicals are found in conditioners quite often, because they coat hair, lessen frizz, and improve softness and the feeling of your hair. Some other forms of silicones enhance color and reflection in hair, giving it a vibrant shine and bold color that lasts longer after dye.
Silicone products have a lot of benefits. They make your hair smoother and feel softer. They make your hair softer and easier to style without the damage of heat treatment. They seal split ends, reducing further damage. They smooth out cuticles. They form a thermal insulation layer that protects hair against heat and sun damage. They coat hair with a refractive index that increases shine.
All of this is desirable. The thing is, it's possible to get too much of a good thing. Silicones do not penetrate hair like a vitamin or moisturizer; instead, they coat the outside of the hair. This protects it from outside damage but also prevents other compounds from getting in. If you use a silicone-based conditioner and then try to apply a vitamin-infused moisturizer, it won't do much of anything.
Over time, silicone products can build up on your hair, especially if you have very long hair or very thick hair. This depends, however, on the kind of silicone used. Different chemicals have different properties depending on their structure and chemical composition. Diamonds and charcoal are the same chemicals after all.
Do You Need a Hair Detox?
Before you decide to do a hair detox and purge silicones from your hair, you should determine if you need one. You might assume that you've been using silicone-laden shampoos and conditioners without realizing it, but that's not necessarily the case. There are plenty of products on the market that avoid silicones even if they don't make a big deal out of it. Moreover, some silicones last longer than others.
First, look to see what kinds of silicones might be in your hair care products. Look for anything that ends in -cone or -siloxane. Such chemicals include amodimethicone, cyclomethicone, cyclohexisiloxane, cyclopentasiloxane, dimethicone, and phenyl trimethicone.
Side note: for the more chemically astute among you, you might notice some patterns in those names. "Cyclo" typically refers to a circular molecule. The middle phrases, "hexa" or "penta" for example, refer to the overall shape and number of molecules in the chain. Siloxane itself refers to a two-silicon, one-oxygen molecule that forms the backbone of most silicone hydrocarbons. It's quite interesting, though a background in organic chemistry is probably necessary to get the most out of it.
That's a bit of a digression, but it's important to recognize that a "long scary-sounding name" doesn't mean a chemical is bad. Many common nutrients have scary-sounding names, but we don't fear them because they have nicer, more common names as well.
In any case, the important part here is whether or not the silicone compound in question builds up in your hair. Some of them don't! For example, cyclomethicone evaporates very quickly and doesn't leave residue behind. Dimethicone, on the other hand, is one of the larger and heavier molecules and tends to stick around a lot longer.
Whether or not you need a silicone detox comes down to how your hair feels, more than anything else. Is your hair heavy? Does it feel like it's losing volume? Does it look greasy, or feel kind of sticky? Chances are, you could use a cleanse. If you're not experiencing any of those symptoms, then you don't have to worry about the silicone in your hair products.
In general, if you use a lot of hair products beyond shampoo and conditioner – such as a leave-in conditioner or dry conditioner, hair spray, styling products, color-protecting products, or hair masks, you'll probably feel the build-up sooner or later. If you wash your hair every couple of days and don't worry about much beyond some conditioner, you're a lot less likely to need to worry about it. Silicone tends to wash off with your shampoo and be restored with your conditioner, so it doesn't build up as much.
How to Remove Silicone Build-Up
There are generally two categories of ways to remove silicone from hair; the "organic" way and the "chemical" way.
The chemical way is simple; use a shampoo. A shampoo with a good surfactant will strip silicone right out of your hair, easy peasy. Surfactants are powerful cleansers, able to easily dissolve and carry away things like oils and grease, as well as silicone products. That's why they're in so many shampoos; they're essentially just soap products.
The problem here is that some surfactants are harsh. One of the primary offenders in hair products is sodium lauryl sulfate. This is a pretty harsh surfactant and can very effectively strip oils and silicones from your hair, along with moisturizing coatings, vitamin infusions, UV protection, and all the rest. It can also irritate the scalp.
This is actually why sodium lauryl sulfate is not widely used in shampoo anymore. You might see a similar chemical, sodium laureth sulfate, but rest assured that it's nowhere near as harsh. It can effectively strip grease and dirt from your hair, but won't irritate your scalp or cause problems unless you're sensitive or allergic to it.
Other surfactants you might consider looking for are chemicals such as ammonium laureth sulfate and cocamidopropyl betaine.
Simply washing your hair regularly with a shampoo that contains these surfactants will clear up your silicone issues right away. Just try to make sure that your chosen shampoo doesn't have silicones in it as well. Or, if it does, don't use a conditioner with silicones in it. You don't want to overlap too much of any particular chemical; too many surfactants strips too much from your hair, too many silicones coat your hair too thickly, and so on.
If you're very concerned about silicone build-up and want something strong to wash it all away and start your hair from scratch, you're looking for a clarifying shampoo.
A clarifying shampoo is a kind of extra-strong shampoo without all the 2-in-1 nonsense. It has no conditioners, no vitamins, no moisturizers, no silicones; it's just surfactants and stabilizers. They're very powerful and yet formulated to be safe on your hair as long as you don't use them too often.
Too often, in this case, is a lot less than you might think. A good clarifying shampoo is very strong, and you don't want to use it more than about once a month. Think of it like doing a soft reset on your hair on the first of every month, to then build up and restore your hair throughout that month.
Usually, people who use a clarifying shampoo do so before then applying treatments in other ways. You might use a clarifying shampoo to start your hair from zero, before building up moisturizers and vitamin infusers, then sealing them in with a silicone-based hair product or sealer. A lot depends on your personal goals, hair type, and routine.
Removing Silicone Build-Up Organically.
So what about the organic option? Well, you've probably seen all manner of recipes online talking about how you can wash your hair with vinegar or a vinegar and baking soda combo to strip those silicones right off.
The trouble is, a lot of them don't always work.
- Vinegar is a commonly-recommended option, but the trouble is, it's not really strong enough to strip silicone. If you have 100% pure glacial acetic acid (the core component of vinegar) it would probably strip silicone, but it might also strip off your hair or skin as well!
- Baking soda. Baking soda will give you a nice foam when mixed with vinegar, but the main reason it's used as a cleaner is that it's abrasive and can help with scrubbing pots and pans or stains, not because of any surfactant properties.
- Olive oils, vegetable oils, peanut butter for the peanut oil; all of these are, well, oils. Oil isn't going to strip silicone, silicone is used to protect against oil. It's like trying to fight fire with wood.
- Mineral spirits. "Mineral spirits" is an organic solvent used for dissolving all manner of chemicals. It will definitely remove silicone from your hair, but it might also remove your hair. It's not really safe to use on skin, either. You might know it by a different name, too; mineral turpentine.
The best option is, honestly, just a little time. Most silicones evaporate over time and will be more or less completely gone from your hair within a day. If you want to avoid looking like your hair is greasy you can just wash it with soap but usually that's not too necessary. Some of the weaker silicones will evaporate themselves in a matter of hours, too.
The fact is, silicones aren't all that bad, and built-up silicones aren't really going to have a noticeable impact unless you're layering on several products with different silicones in them. Simply having more awareness about what the chemicals in your hair products do can help you balance out the proportions and avoid such problems in the future.
Should You Avoid Silicones Entirely?
If you're concerned about silicone build-up and you don't want to use surfactants on your hair to get rid of it and keep your hair in balance, there's always the third option: avoiding silicones altogether.
This is actually something of an ongoing debate in the beauty world. For a while, silicone was all the rage as a powerful way to protect hair. Then some people did some studies and found that silicones can be an endocrine disruptor and reproductive toxin. (This is true, but primarily only if you're, you know, consuming silicones. They're large molecules, they don't get absorbed by the skin.)
Conversely, some people love surfactants for their ability to safely clean hair. Others have seen the old hoax linking them to cancer (which is not true) or just know a friend of a friend who had a bad rash because of one and now refuse to use them.
Thus, you have some people who love silicones but hate surfactants to balance them. You have other people who love surfactants but hate silicones. You have people who don't worry about either one, and people who avoid them both.
The truth is, any chemical can be someone's worst nightmare. Allergies and sensitivities happen all the time. Just because a friend of yours gets a rash when they use a surfactant shampoo doesn't mean you will, any more than them being allergic to shellfish means you'll die if you eat shrimp. Everyone is different.
Should you avoid silicones entirely? You can - if you want. Silicones have tangible benefits and tangible drawbacks, and you need to balance those out. If you're not willing to use light surfactants, you should probably avoid over-using silicones. Either way, you should keep both in balance.
If you want to avoid silicone products, that's perfectly fine. There are a ton of different hair products on the market these days, many of which are made with 100% organic materials. You can pick any product that you want. Just read the ingredients and make sure your chosen product is free of the chemicals with the right suffixes.
The same goes for surfactants. These soaps are very effective and pretty safe for both personal use and for the environment, though of course there's still plenty of studies left to do about the longer-term implications of any chemical we use.
It all comes down to a personal decision. Is silicone build-up a problem for your hair? Reduce the silicones you use, or eliminate them. Consider a clarifying shampoo. Or just shift everything to organic products and give it a few weeks for your hair to balance out.