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May 2, 2011

Silicones and Other Sealants for Natural Hair


by Nicole Hollis of Hair Liberty

When compared to other hair types, African American hair is particularly fragile. That's because any type of curly hair is dry due to the bend or kink in each curl. The area where the curl bends has raised cuticle scales, which means it's porous and can't hold on to moisture well. The more kinks in a strand, the more porous and dry the strand will be. With that in mind, the #1 goal of a good regimen for African American hair is to keep the hair moisturized and therefore minimize breakage.

As you've learned by now, there's no point in applying moisture to porous hair, without sealing it in. When you apply an effective sealant to moisturized skin or hair, the moisture can stay in and benefit the keratin cells, instead of quickly evaporating away. If you don't apply an effective sealant, the skin or hair will become dry quickly and you'll need to re-apply moisture over and over again. African American women with natural hair often prefer natural sealants like coconut oil, olive oil, castor oil, jojoba oil, and shea butter. Those oils are rich in nutrients like fatty acids and Vitamin E, so they can replenish what the strands may lack. Plant-based oils have many proven benefits for the hair, but they actually don't make the best sealants.

For many years, the best personal care sealant available was mineral oil, a byproduct of petroleum. In scientific studies, mineral oil was shown to provide a better seal or protective layer than other oils. Since African American hair is known to be porous, mineral oil and petrolatum began to appear in most ethnic hair care products. Even though the products created back then were very simple, they provided two crucial elements: water for moisture and mineral oil as a highly effective sealant (and pretty good heat protectant too).

Fast forward a few decades and moisturized hair is not enough. African American women want their hair to be soft, but not greasy and strong, but not stiff. Customers also want their hair to be easy to comb, even if it hasn't been washed in days and thermal protection for flat irons that get as hot as 450°F. There is no natural oil that can meet all of those demands, which explains why hair care companies began using silicones.

Slicones are synthetic oils. They come from "silicon", the naturally occurring element that makes up glass and sand. The first commercially available silicone, dimethicone, has been used in skin creams and lotions since the 1950s, but about 20 years ago, the hair care industry began adding it to shampoos, conditioners, and leave-in products. In studies, dimethicone was found to condition the hair and protect it from dehydration better than mineral oil. Companies have continued to create new and better silicones over the years and now there are silicones that can help the hair dry faster (cyclomethicone), target the most damaged areas of the strand to provide deep conditioning (amodimethicone), and even strengthen the hair (aminopropyl phenyl trimethicone).

Despite the proven advantages of silicones, some women make a big effort to avoid them. These women are often choosing to follow the hair care method promoted by Lorraine Massey in her 2001 instructional book for curly-haired women, Curly Girl: The Handbook. Regarding silicones, Massey wrote:

I suggest that you avoid conditioners that use silicones. Although they do add temporary shine to the hair, I find they weigh down curly hair. (That means avoid using products with ingredients whose name end in -cone.) The ingredients you absolutely need in conditioner include emollients, humectants, proteins, and moisturizers.

Four years later, in a Q&A featured on naturallycurly.com, Massey admitted that her original book was written before she ever heard of more sophisticated silicones like amodimethicone. Unfortunately, misinformation had already spread across the Internet and to this day, silicones are wrongly blamed for drying out the hair due to build up when in reality the opposite is true.

Any oil, natural or synthetic, can build up on the hair, but you can easily avoid build up by using shampoo (not just co-washing). And, if you're concerned about damage caused by shampooing too much, simply choose a pH-balanced shampoo for your hair type. Hair care companies use words like "dry", "coarse", "fine", and/or "chemically-treated" on their labels to help you choose the products that they think you'll like best (and therefore continue to buy). So, if you're concerned that shampoo will make your dry hair even drier, instead of avoiding shampoo, choose a shampoo formulated for dry hair. That usually means a conditioning shampoo that's effective enough to remove build up, but gentle enough that it can be used every wash.

Silicones, especially dimethicone, are in many parts of our lives. You can find them in lotions, deodorants, skin medications, and even Chicken McNuggets. The reason thousands of hair products contain silicones is because they work extremely well to condition, soften, and seal the hair. If you've been following a "no cones" or "no poo" regimen and you aren't seeing the results you hoped for, it's certainly time to explore the other side!


Hair Liberty is a comprehensive resource for African American hair care information. We sort through the latest hair care advice and compare hundred of products to find the most accurate recommendations for our readers. Visit
hairliberty.org to learn about your hair and how to achieve your hair goals. And be sure to Like the Hair Liberty Facebook page for extra tips and info!

18 Chime in!:

Kiarah said...

Awesome post!

R.I.M.A. said...

I've began incorporating silicones, mineral oil, and heat! (gasp) back into my regimen after avoiding them for over a year and my hair has been thriving way better!

Ings said...

"Unfortunately, misinformation had already spread across the Internet and to this day,..."

This is a very important point and I'm glad that she was so frank about the situation. It is easy to put information out there but the key is to always stay educated and look around for other opinions so that you can make your own informed decision. Very good post !!

jadar47 said...

Got to admit at first I gave the silly cones a big break, but then again I was trying to find the culprit for some of my hair damage. As it turns out the cone were, to some degree, doing the badness but in reality the most badness came from my lack of education about what they do, and what they don't do. Now I use a modified version of the curly girl method and my hair seems to thrive cause baby the cone are back and the slip is to die for!!

Anonymous said...

Ewww... that's one reason I won't touch Chicken McNuggets!

Anonymous said...

I wish there was a list of good shampoo's to use when using silicones. I use SSI jojoba Hemp Conditioning Shampoo or Kinky Curly come clean, anyone know if those would work? Thanks

Anonymous said...

Would poo bars work? I use either African Black soap, various chargin valley soaps and Njoi apple cider vinegar bar once a month.

Anonymous said...

I am a silicone free girl and my hair is thriving! It is soft to the touch and it has grown longer in two-in-a-half years than the ten years I relaxed. I admit it took a lot of trial and error to find what ingredients-not products- that worked for my hair.

I do not like the after-feel of silicones; I don't and will not shampoo often. My co-wash conditioner has a surfactant derivative (there is always a soapy foam on my shower floor). Castor oil mixed with a leave-in lays down MY cuticles (last until next wash day-1wk). My glycerine, water, and EVOO mix gives me plenty of shine.

You can track my journey and progress at Fotki (napturally-obssessed).

Mx said...

I was using products without silicones since my last BC 1.5 yrs ago. My hair is thriving and I dont have much buildup. In fact I use DevaCurl No Poo for months at a time without having to clarify.

Since my hair was doing so well with all natural, CG type products, I decided to add in a couple of drug store conditioners that I have been reading about. I began to use Herbal Essence's Hello Hydration (best detangler ever), which has dimethicone.

My hair detangled like a dream, and was shiny. However, I found myself clarifying wkly (with kinky curly come clean or Trader Joe's TTT). I love how my hair feels AT FIRST but then it feels coated, and I do not like the coated feel. I tried another 2 conditioners with cones and had similar results.

So now, I am back to no cones regimen. I would recommend cones, especially for those who wash regularly. Just not for myself.

FYI my hair is COURSE, (the strands are huge), with low porosity, so I dont need much in the sealing category.

Anonymous said...

Excellent article Nicole! Thanks for this!

MsAkira said...

I don't think it's about rather or not you use cones but if you understand the different products along with understanding what your hair, not just hair type, needs. It can be difficult to pair what your hair needs with the products that provide it. So if you use strong sealants -cone's, mineral oil, etc then you need a shampoo strong enough to remove them but not so strong to strip your hair. It's a difficult balance...

Divafied Mama said...

May 2, 2011 10:33 AM
Anonymous said...
Ewww... that's one reason I won't touch Chicken McNuggets!

Right! I mean I usually avoid them since each one is equivalent to a pad of butter, but that just made me have another reason to avoid them all together.

As far as the article goes, I actually hadn't stopped using cones. I just never keep them in my regular routine, but for those days when it's supposed to be humid.

Anonymous said...

When I first went totally natural I read that some people wash their hair every 2 or 3 days. I started doing this with sulfate based shampoos. I was totally ignorant to what this could do to your hair. I have always conditioned after washing and was using Pantene for Relaxed and Natural hair (which has silicones) after every wash. In a few weeks my hair was dry and horrible and brittle and I almost gave up going natural. I switched conditioners first to one that didn't have silicones and had improvement--even without switching shampoos. Later on I stopped using anything with sulfates. After much trial and error I have discovered that my very dry ultra curly hair doesn't like silicones (that includes amodimethicone) and it doesn't like sulfate shampoos or protein. It is not just misinformation that says that silicones may not be the best for your hair. I have a cleaning business and wash my hands a lot. I also wear gloves. My hands are very dry naturally. Using silicones on my hair is equivalent to putting on my nitrile (latex like) gloves and then putting lotion on my hands. It would be counterproductive at best. So many of us would benefit from trying a silicone-free, protein-free regimen with frequent conditioning. Thanks.

questfortheperfectcurl said...

I use silicones, but am sure to properly clarify my hair each week. Mineral oil, however, is too much sealing for me since I'm low porosity.

Anonymous said...

Enlightening!

Chaya said...

What an AMAZING article! You are right on the money if you ask me. I did the no poo method(avoiding all silicones, and naturally clarifying with the baking soda, or vinegar methods periodically. My hair was a frizz ball.I even used leave in conditioner, and a clear silicone free(no build up) hair gel. I couldn't take it anymore! When I started using silicones(Sebastian potion9, Chi, or regis curl lock. My hair stays shiny, bouncy soft, gorgeous for days. I use a gentle cleanser once or twice a week, and no build up. Before I apply my finishing products, I apply my leave in conditioner.Then the good silicones hold the moisture in protecting my hair. I am so greatful for this article because my hair thrives with silicones. When used correctly I think they can protect and moisturize. I got greasy roots using the no poo method for almost a year I have to say I wasn't thrilled with it.

Anonymous said...

Loved this post. Truth beats misinfo everyday. Even if your hair is still telling you it doesn't want cones, let our decisions be based on truth not fiction. I'll be re-examining my regimen now.

Anonymous said...

tip... do not ever use the African Best conditioner or shampoo. Olive helps way better

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