How to Handle Silicone Buildup in Hair: Do You Need a Clarifying Shampoo?



Silicone buildup is actually a very simple problem to solve.

Recently, someone asked how to get rid of potential buildup from products that contain both silicones and quaternary ammonium compounds. These bond with hair to create a protective layer. Unfortunately, as we know, these ingredients can also create buildup in hair. For some people, products with these ingredients don’t give them buildup problems, but for those who have trouble, there are several recommendations.

One of the things many people recommend is a “clarifying” shampoo. But it’s not so much about the label of clarifying as it is about the ingredients. As it turns out, you don’t need special shampoo to reduce buildup.

Silicone and Quaternary Ammonium Compound Buildup

Silicone helps keep hair smooth and soft but it can cause buildup for some.

Silicones and quats will buildup in hair, particularly if you condition without washing every time (or, co-wash). While silicones tend to bind best to healthy hair, quats — which are the same compounds found in fabric softener — bind well with damaged hair (Washington Post, Journal of the Society of Cosmetic Chemists).

Before getting into how to handle silicone buildup, it’s important to know a few things about it. Silicones and quats won’t buildup indefinitely. You only have so much hair and that hair only has so much surface space. So while buildup may leave you with hair that feels greasy or heavy, it doesn’t mean that you’ve done any permanent damage.

As far as removing silicones from hair, one study found that washing once with a non-silicone-containing shampoo could remove up to 90% of the residue from a 2-in-1 shampoo and conditioner (Skin Pharmacology and Physiology).

[Read More: Are Silicones in Hair Products Good or Bad?]

Why You Want Some Silicone to Stick

Nioxin-hair-masqueOf course when you wash you want some silicone to stick — after all, that’s why they’re included in conditioners. But there may be other reasons besides making hair softer and easier to brush through, there’s also the matter of those with severely damaged or dyed hair.

When your hair is damaged, the cuticle opens. This is the first line of defense in protecting your hair and acts as a barrier. When its open, hair is susceptible to more damage, like split-ends and moisture loss (Journal of Cosmetic Science). This opening of the cuticle can happen with damaging activities like thermal styling, but also with some surfactants in shampoos.

Silicones and quats form a protective barrier that helps to keep hair from further damage. They can also help extend the life of a dye, as researchers have found that dyed hair treated with quats loses less dye than hair that was not treated with quats (Journal of the Society for Cosmetic Chemists). Essentially, these act as a seal on your hair that can keep damage out and dye in — so using quats and silicones are most necessary for people with damaged and dyed hair.

IAlterna-hair-masque personally really liked the Nioxin Deep Repair Hair Masque ($17, I review recently. And there’s also Alterna the Science of 10 Hair Masque ($34,


Surfactants are Hair’s Fickle Friend

philip-kingsley-shampooSurfactants are what give shampoo its suds and they serve as excellent cleaning agents. They’re the best ingredients to remove silicone and quat buildup. The best surfactants for removing silicone are: Sodium or Ammonium Lauryl/Laureth Sulfate, Sodium C14-17 Alkyl Sulfonate (Olefin Sulfonate), or Cocoamidopropyl Betaine (Naturally Curly).


That said surfactants have a downside. The best surfactants — like sodium lauryl sulfate — have also been shown to irritate skin. In fact, sodium lauryl sulfate is used in patch tests to look at the barrier function of skin (Cosmetic Dermatology). And the less powerful the surfactant — primarily those that aren’t sulfates — will work, but not quite as well at taking the silicone from your hair.

If you’re concerned about finding a shampoo without sodium lauryl sulfate, consider Philip Kingsley Moisture Balancing Shampoo ($23) and Conditioner ($29). Another option is New York Street Shampoo ($7.50) and Conditioner ($8).

[Read More: Spotlight On: Sodium Lauryl Sulfate]

Bottom Line

Hair greatly benefits from quats and silicones because they can do wonders in regards to protecting hair from damage and act as a protective measure. Unfortunately, they can also cause buildup, which makes hair lackluster and greasy. The remedy for this is simply surfactants, despite some recommendations about clarifying shampoos. Unfortunately, surfactants can sometimes be harsh and drying.

Some people have more difficult than others with silicone buildup and surfactants, so it’s important to find the balance and hair care that works for you. Silicone buildup in hair simply isn’t an issue for most people, despite what clarifying shampoo manufacturers lead us to believe!

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  • Thanks for answering my question (: This was such a good article, I love that you list exactly which ingredients to look for.

    Glad to see your solution is so easy, sulfates are easy to find and affordable. My understanding is that Sodium Laureth Sulfate is less irritating than Sodium Lauryl Sulfate, is that right?

    I love quats and cones, but hate too much weight, so every once in a while in an effort to make my hair the way I want I’ve been double-shampooing (once to de-load my hair from buildup, and the second to re-load it with a quat and dimethecone smoothing shampoo). I’m not sure if it’s helping or not but I’m trying to figure out a good way to keep my damaged hair soft, smooth, and manageable yet light. I hope my experiments in hair washing can help me reach my goal, and I’ll keep studying and testing until I get it right. Thanks for the help, Natalie!

  • Natalie Bell

    @Ling — Thank you! I’m sure you have totally gorgeous locks!

  • I have always wondered what the heck is a clarifying shampoo…now I know! Thanks 🙂 My silicone coated hair thanks you too!

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