Since their invention in the 1930s, silicones have invaded our daily lives – cake tins, bathroom fixtures, breast implants, menstrual cups, non-stick mats… and cosmetics. They’re extremely widely used. They’re an essential component of shampoos and creams, but aren’t so good for our skin and hair. What’s the problem with them?
Why is there so much silicone in cosmetics?
There’s silicone hiding in all sorts of products that we use on a daily basis. From edible to medical, liquid to solid, waxes to pastes. What do all of these have in common? They’re all made from sillicium, the second most abundant material in the world, after oxygen. And contrary to what we might believe, most silicons come from natural, sustainable and abundant sources, like glass – they’re not chemically-engineered plastics. But they’re a good alternative, with many similar qualities. Sound pretty good, don’t they?
In the form of oils and waxes, the cosmetics industry loves them. They’re inexpensive, not greasy and they give products a beautiful velvety smoothness, they slide on to your skin or hair gently and easily. Silicones are simply indispensable components of body and face products, sun creams, shower gels and scrubs, deodorants, toothpastes, foundations and other makeup products. You’re familiar with the adverts that showcase the silkiest hair that positively radiates sparkles from the tv screen? It’s silicone making those conditioners so soft and smooth. Peachy skin that miraculously has all pores and wrinkles erased from the touch of a brush? It’s silicone that makes that foundation so high-coverage. Soft skin despite extremely hard water? Surprise! Silicone, again, in your shower gel. Add in the fact that they’re generally well tolerated, with no risks of irritation and very few allergens, and you’ll get a substance that just might be the ideal model ingredient for all cosmetic productions! Why would we deprive ourselves then?
Cosmetic silicones: the great pretenders
We also love velvety skin and shiny hair. But we prefer when it’s as a sign of good health, rather than the result of a synthetic product no more beneficial than an Instagram filter. That’s what silicones are – great pretenders. What do they do? They apply a watertight film to the skin’s surface, like a case or a second skin. You might think, why not? Your skin and hair are protected from outside elements, hydration is retained. That’s true, but it’s not all that simple.
One reason is that this effect is only temporary, it stops just as quickly as it can be applied. What’s worse is that your skin and hair, artificially protected, end up losing their natural protective properties – they can no longer defend themselves, become dependent on these products and more vulnerable than ever before. So, silicones have what we’d call an occlusive or preventative effect: they slow down bodily exchanges.
Be particularly careful if you have dry skin. A silicone-containing product keeps your skin feeling hydrated, but prevents it from nourishing and hydrating itself. The result: hidden beneath an appearance of good health, the condition of your skin is worsening. The situation is no better if your skin is oily. The silicones are water-resistant and it’s difficult to clean them off your skin. If their immediate effects fool you, just wait until you’ve been using these products for a little while – they’ll accumulate and clog up your skin. Add a little bacteria into the mis and hello blemishes, blackheads and spots. Normal or mixed skin? It just takes a little more time. The same goes for your hair – silicones prevent hydration and accumulate after several uses until they weigh down and grease up your hair. What do you get? Limp, lifeless hair that lacks volume and is impossible to style.
The consequences are multiplied – your skin and hair become completely unreceptive to good, silicone-free products that could counteract these negative effects. A double negative.
An environmental impact more impressive than our hair
Did you know that the organic certification bans silicones? Not because they block our pores, but because they’re a real environmental disaster product.
Although these products are sourced naturally, silicones are synthetic materials, extracted after many chemical processes. All whilst maintaining a pretty abysmal environmental impact: vast exploitation of quarries, intense silicium extraction processes and production reliant on fossil fuels and toxic materials.
But their most prominent effect is their persistence. Both on the skin and hair, as we discussed already, but also for the planet. And not just a little bit – they’re non-biodegradable and can take up to 5 cycles to disappear. That’s 500 years! If these silicones existed in the 16th century, we’d still be trying to wash away Catherine de Medici’s shampoo! And while they’re still present in the environment, they are a pollutant. Toxic in water environments, they’re a big player in the microplastics disaster. Seaweeds, mollusks and mammals are all affected: reduced filtration and photosynthesis, immune systems damages, tumors, hormonal imbalances, increased death rates… A problem that’s even greater than silicone’s infiltration of the cosmetics market. But even purification stations struggle to control this problem. As a result, 80% of our waste products end up directly in the environment.
But where does our health come into it? There are no official restrictions on these products, silicones aren’t considered dangerous. Not at the moment, at any rate. However certain products have recently shown to be (moderately) disruptive to the endocrine system, carcinogenic and damaging to the reproductive system – Cyclopentasiloxane, Cyclotetrasiloxane and Cyclomethicone. Substances that have even more toxic effects on aquatic life. On a European level, the risks of spray inhalation, powders and aerosols containing silicones and in February 2020, new regulations are being introduced to limit silicone content to 0.1% in cleansing products. There’s not a lot of concrete research on this subject, but these facts should encourage us to be more careful, particularly those of us most at risk of endocrine damage: pregnant women, babies and teenagers (but reassure your teenager, you can get hair gel that doesn’t contain silicone!).
How do we live without it?
Even though they’re almost everywhere, you won’t see the word silicone written on any product label. They have a long list of nicknames…
These names generally end in -cone, -xane, -conol. Organic cosmetics ban them, but be wary of greenwashing – lots of brands, conscious of their image, replace them with petrochemical mineral oils which aren’t good for our skin or hair, nor are they good for the planet. In short, we keep coming back to the same issue: pay close attention to product labels, particularly your shampoos and foundations.
So, then, how do we achieve velvet skin and shiny hair healthily and while also being kind to the environment? Simple, with plant oils and butters. Capable of really working their way into your skin, without an occlusive effect, they can provide your body with the nutrients it needs to fend for itself. They contain all the good stuff. Far from putting an impenetrable layer over our skin, these oils are capable of meeting all of the skin’s needs. What’s the best option? Using these oils according to what you need for your skin type. Coconut oil is great for your hair, which absorbs easily into the hair’s fibres, or castor oil, which strengthens and nourishes. A little rinse with apple cider vinegar post-shampoo and hey presto, your hair will sparkle!
But be careful, if you decide to eliminate silicone from your life, you might go through a bit of a demoralizing phase. Because beneath the layers of silicone, you’ll discover the true state of your skin or, often more shocking, the true state of our hair – dry, split ends, untameable… Be patient, this definitely won’t last forever. Your hair will only be silicone-free after several shampoos and it’s going to require a bit of tender love and care to get back to its natural vitality. No natural ingredient can achieve the same velvety softness of silicone, shift your expectations and leave behind these false dreams.
When it comes to silicone, the short-term effects of silicone are superficial and temporary, undesirable medium-term effects and real environmentally detrimental effects long-term… Do you really need more to turn you off silicone?
This post is also available in french.