Before we start looking at silicones and their alternatives, we should clarify silicones as a class of chemicals.
First, they’re highly diverse, and to do with their structure.
They can be manipulated and altered just as much as you can with hydrocarbon backbones present in plant oils, for example, to create all sorts of intermediaries and derivatives.
This property means we have a highly functional and adaptable material that we can shape, bend, and turn into just about anything we need.
Silicones in Cosmetic Formulations
Silicons are a fantastic material in cosmetic formulations for several reasons.
First of all, they are derived from sand. There is a lot of chemical processing involved, but one of their main components is silica from the sand.
They also are vegan-friendly and hypoallergenic. They’re also highly pure colorless, odorless, and don’t oxidize in formulas.
They also have an excellent sensory feel, which is one of the most popular aspects to use in a formulation.
They also help wet out pigments. This means they help spread color pigments and titanium dioxide and oxide.
In sunscreens, they can make a pretty ordinary product feel absolutely sensational because of their spreading and wetting characteristics.
They can decrease foam or be manipulated to add to formulas to boost foam.
Now I want to be clear again that there is not just one silicon we’re talking about here.
We’re talking about the entire class of silicon. So, for example, there are volatile silicons. These are the silicons that get used in many leave-on hair products.
Leave-on Hair Products
And we use them because they enable us to deliver other non-volatile materials to the hair.
The volatile portion of the formula simply evaporates at room or body temperature, so we’re left with a very weightless finish.
Then, of course, we have our dimethicone class, a beautifully clear, free-flowing liquid that feels beautifully silky on application and has the same beautiful smooth feel in a finished formula.
Now we have all sorts of dimethicone. Based on the molecular weight, we can have a really low molecular weight, which feels really light and spreads a long way, and then we can have a higher molecular weight that doesn’t have the same spreading and feels a bit more cushiony.
All silicones generally have that beautiful sensory feel, silky or cushiony.
Amodimethicones and Amodimethicone Blends
It’s a delight to feel and experience your products.
There are also amodimethicone and amodimethicone blends. They look generally look milky.
And these are little microemulsions of silicon and amodimethicone; we use these in formulas where they’re predominantly water. So these get used a lot in shampoo or conditioner formulas.
It helps us put what would typically be an immiscible substance into a majority water formulation because it comes as a microemulsion. It’s easy to add to the formula and provides those silky, slippery benefits to hair, shampoo, and conditioning formulas.
Misformation suggests that silicons will coat the hair and leave it feeling very heavy.
That’s not the case. This material doesn’t coat. It feels beautifully soft and silky, but you’d find that some of the deposition in those formulas comes from polymers or quaternary agents that are added to give some weighty effect.
These materials can also have great antistatic benefits in hair formulations, so they don’t weigh down the hair; they simply hold down the charge that causes normal static.
Silicone Gels & Gums
Next, we have silicon gels and silicon gums. These are altered slightly to change their viscosity, and we can use them to boost density in formulas and oily gels.
These particular gum materials have an instant blurring effect. So we use these in formulations to give an instant blurring effect to a finished product like a silicone-based primer.
And that’s what help makes a lot of product selfie ready. There are also loads of ethoxylated and propoxylated PEG and PPG silicon derivatives.
Now these have been ethoxylated and propoxylated to make them more water-loving. The amount of ethoxylation and propoxylation will make it either a water-and-oil emulsifier or an oil-and-water emulsifier, or it can be manipulated in several other ways to add some extra functionality to a formula.
These are your performance silicone. And these have been created to address formulation issues or to solve formulation issues, to give consumers some functionality that doesn’t typically occur. But I want to point out that vegetable oils get ethoxylated and propoxylated as well.
So it’s really just a way of ethoxylating and propoxylating, one type of hydrocarbon chain compared to ethoxylating and propoxylating a plant oil hydrocarbon.
The end result is a more water-loving oil, and we do this where we want the oil to be more water-loving for some other functional reason.
Just like there are hundreds of these types of materials in the silicone family, there are also hundreds of these sorts of materials from the mineral oil and plant oil family.
And finally, there is silicone film. Now we see a lot of misinformation on the internet about silicons being non-breathable films.
I want to point out that silicones as the oil or emollient are no more non-breathable films than any plant oil. They’re all oil-emollient substances. It’s just that silicons are one class of oil-emollient and plant oils are another.
Interestingly, plant oils are comedogenic. Most of them have a moderate to extreme comedogenicity profile.
Silicons, on the other hand, are not comedogenic, proving that their film is as breathable as oil.
Suppose you want a film-forming silicone to help improve the water or wear resistance of makeup or sunscreens. In that case, that’s again another member of the Silicon Family, and it’s being created specifically to provide water and wear resistance.
But guess what? We also do that with polyurethane and PVP polymers to make other products water-resistant and wear-resistant as well.
But nobody seems to pick on those materials. They pick on the poor silicon family instead.
D4, D5, and D6 Banned in the EU
D4, D5 and D6 silicone materials have been banned in the EU for suspected biodegradability issues.
Now, if you speak with a silicon manufacturer, they’ll tell you that’s not.
I want to explain today a little bit about the ridiculousness of that particular regulation.
Basically, they are banning D4, D4, and D6 in wash-off products where it’s used at more than 1%. But we don’t use these materials in wash-off products anyway. Using them in wash-off products makes no sense because they’re volatile.
We don’t need them in a wash-off product for sensory aspects. We’re washing the product off. Instead, we use volatile materials in leave-on products, particularly styling products, heat protection, or just to make the hair feel antifreeze and smoother.
They’re in leave-on products, and they’re perfectly acceptable to leave in leave-on formulas because they don’t suspect biodegradability issues that the EU is concerned about.
So really, we don’t need to worry about that issue in a wash-off formula because they don’t get used in wash-off formulas. After all, we don’t need the volatility in a wash-off product. Like we might desire it in a leave-on product.
Silicones in the Personal Care Industry
As a class of chemicals, they are highly pure for the personal care industry. They’re also guaranteed to be non-GMO and palm free.
As I mentioned, they have quartzite silicone sand as their starting materials.
But it’s interesting because people really readily believe that cocamidopropyl betaine comes from coconuts.
It actually goes through a lot of intermediary processing. And it often comes from palm oil just as much as coconut oil. So if you’re going to believe that cocamidopropyl betaine is natural when it’s not, then you might as well assume that silicon is just as natural. It’s not. But it also has a starting raw material, just like cocamidopropyl betaine has a starting natural material.
So if we want to compare natural, you can’t accept that cocamidopropyl betaine is natural if you don’t want to accept that silicons are also naturally derived substances. Somehow the internet got hold of this misinformation and has absolutely blown it out of all proportion.
So just to recap, silicons are vegan naturally, GMO-free, palm-free non-comedogenic, and hypoallergenic.
They can give a blurring effect, provide moisture protection that is totally breathable, and provide transdermal water loss protection like any other emollient.
They are also colorless with no oxidation issues. They give no more oil deposition than any other oil unless you are purposely looking for a film form.
But then they’re providing a waterproofing benefit like any other waterproofing material. And they are no more occlusive than other oils, but consumers are looking for more natural materials.
So I wanted to present you with some natural alternatives to silicons. There are loads out there, and there’s more coming out all the time.
So this is a conversation you’re best to have with your raw material supplier, but let me introduce you to a few of my favorites that I’ve used and some that are newly launched on the market.
Natural Alternatives to Silicones
First of all, there is Cetiol® C5 and Cetiol® CC by BASF. Now, these are excellent spreading and wetting lipids.
They feel great and are great silicon alternatives.
There’s Floramac® 10 by Floratech, which is great for pigment dispersion and hair products to improve shine and reduce breakages.
There is the Miglyol range by IOI Oleo GmBH. They have their MIGLYOL® Coco 810 (Emollient) and MIGLYOL® T-C7, which is palm free if you’re looking for a palm-free material.
They have MIGLYOL® 8810, which is also an excellent spreading and wetting solvent for UV filters and color pigments.
This Dermofeel® sensolv MB is great again for pigment dispersion and UV filters. It’s also great in hair products by improving foam and shine and has antistatic effects.
Seppic has EMOGREEN™ L15 and L19. These have spontaneous spreading, so they’re great in body care products where you want a product to spread a long way.
L15 also provides excellent shine and strength in hair products, and they’re very low-viscosity substances, so they help reduce the viscosity of your formula if that’s important to you.
There’s also Lipolami® ER by Alban Muller International. This one is a blend of esters from milk thistle oil, so it’s got a great product story and a formulation. It decreases the microfoam or soapy effect in emulsion, so it’s also great to help reduce excess white rub in time.
Now, one of my personal favorites is the LexFeel® N Series.
Now, this LexFeel® N Series now has numbers that match the centipoise equivalent of dimethicones. So if you are looking for a drop-in replacement for dimethicone in a formula, you can get the LexFeel® equivalent and drop it straight into the formulation.
I want to mention LexFeel® D4, LexFeel® D5, LexFeel® Wow, and Cetiol® Ultimate, as well as Vegelight 1214LC.
These are all volatile materials, so they are your true cyclomethicone replacements in formulations to give you that volatility. That’s that weightless solvent delivery that evaporates at room or body tempera.
This is just the tip of the iceberg of the Silicon family and the silicon alternatives out there.
What matters is what’s important to your consumer, but we need to stop avoiding silicons thinking they’re bad as chemists and consumers.
They’re not the bad guy. It should be clear by now that there’s nothing wrong with silicons in a formula as the internet would. They are a highly functional and multifaceted family of emollients and derivatives that can provide incredible sensory and all sorts of functional benefits to a formula.
We’re seeing more and more silicone alternatives become available for consumers looking for alternative green and clean cosmetics, like silicone-free primers.
Still, we also don’t have the full range of functionality we currently get from silicones and their derivatives. If you’ve got a formulation issue, you might find the solution is in the silicone family, and there’s absolutely no reason to avoid them.
Please share this with any consumers, friends, or colleagues who might have concerns over silicones or chemists looking for silicon alternatives and the types of silicon materials they might need to replace.
By not avoiding silicons, we open our formulas to a world of possibilities, combining the best silicons and other materials to get excellent functionality and innovation in finished products.
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