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Is my conditioner covering my hair in plastic?

Havoctheory says…I heard that conditioners contain ingredients such as polymers with reflective qualities to coat hair strands. They reflect light and therefore makes your hair shiny. Is this true? What kind of chemicals would also produce this effect?

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The Beauty Brains respond

This question comes from our Forum where Pufff added this comment: “Hey! I actually was just thinking about this the other day! I was reading the ingredients on some of the old gel I have and saw it used a polymer which surprised me cause isn’t that plastic??? The gel did make my hair look shiny soooo who knows.”

Polymer does not equal “plastic”

It’s true that polymers are used to make plastic. But that doesn’t mean that every polymer IS plastic. A polymer is simply any chemical compound made up by a number of small repeating units which are called monomers. Depending on the type of monomer (or monomers) chosen, polymers with different properties can be created. For example, when propylene monomers are strung together in a long chain the result is polypropylene, a common plastic used to make a variety of packaging materials. On the other hand when acrylamide and diallyldimethylammonium chloride monomers are combined the result is Polyquaternium-7, a common hair-conditioning agent. These materials are both polymers but they have very different physiochemical properties.

How do conditioners make hair shiny?

You have the right idea when you say that polymer ingredients reflect light to make hair shiny. Actually what happens is the ingredients smooth the cuticle of the hair. (Remember the cuticle is made of tiny shingle-like structures like the ones you find on your roof.) When these “shingles” become loose and start to stick up they cause light to reflect unevenly from your hair. This uneven reflection makes your hair look dull. Smoothing the cuticles allows light to reflect evenly which makes it look shiny.

Which ingredients increase shine?

The shine increasing ingredients are the ones that do the best job of smoothing the cuticle. Here are few types of ingredients to look for:

Silicones
These are are excellent conditioners even though they receive a lot of bad press. Dimethicone is one of the best for smoothing the cuticle. Look for ingredients that end in “-cone” or check this list of Silicone Ingredients Used In Hair Care Products for more details.

Fatty conditioners
These “quats,” like stearalkonium chloride, are good at lubricating hair as well. Look for ingredients that end in “-ium chloride.”

Oils
Mineral oil, meadow foam seed oil, avocado oil, coconut oil, are good shine enhancers. These work best from leave in products because the oils are not chemically modified to stay on your hair after rinsing.

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Do you have any favorite hair shine products? Leave a comment and share yours with the rest of the Beauty Brains community. 

{ 6 comments… add one }

  • Sarah F. February 1, 2015, 11:35 am

    Thank you for this! A minor point, but isn’t there a typo? “Air-conditioning” should be “hair conditioning?” Or is polyquaternium-7 actually used in air conditioning?

  • Jen February 1, 2015, 7:09 pm

    Hey Beautybrains,
    I really like Paul Mitchell Wild Ginger Styling Treatment Oil (that is a long name!) I just wish it wasn’t so expensive. I have very fine hair that frizzes since I live in a humid climate and this stuff takes care of it, doesn’t weigh down my hair in the least.

    These are the ingredients:cyclopentasiloxane, cyclotetrasiloxane, dimethiconol, isoeicosane, PPG-3 benzyl ether myristate, hydrogenated castor oil/sebacic acid copolymer, hedychium coronarium (white ginger) root extract, anthemis nobilis flower extract, butylene glycol, benzyl alcohol, fragrance, benzyl salicylate, hexyl cinnamal, limonene, linalool

    I’d use another serum but I’m worried I’d just waste money picking the wrong one. If anyone has frizz serum suggestions for fine hair like mine I am willing to listen!

    By the way, I think the link for “Silicone Ingredients Used In Hair Care Products” under the silicone paragraph doesn’t work! 🙁

    • Randy Schueller February 2, 2015, 6:59 am

      Jen: You might look at It’s a 10 Miracle Styling Serum. It uses some of the same basic ingredients. Also, I fixed the link – thanks.

  • Echelon Hair February 17, 2015, 12:39 am

    wow! great information thank you for share with us…..keep it up

  • Gail April 6, 2016, 10:46 am

    I have baby-fine, long hair. It is as straight as a ruler. Any product containing oil, which touches my hair, makes my hair shiny, but also makes my hair heavy, darker, and absolutely greasy-looking. I, however, tried Garnier Fructis Sleek & Shine Leave-In Conditioning Cream, and it is amazing! It doesn’t weigh my hair down at all, and it simply allows me to comb or brush through easily, and with confidence that my hair smells and looks wonderful. I have even recommended this product to men at stores, when they were looking for beard conditioner. Yes, it’s that good!

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