Help me understand hair care chemistry
August 17, 2010 4:42 PM   Subscribe

Help me understand hair care chemistry. When I look at the list of ingredients on bottles of conditioner, what ingredients should I avoid. I can't stand the 'waxy' feeling I get from some conditioners. My old favorite standby conditioner changed formulas recently and it now has the dreaded waxy ickiness. NOT looking for specific product recommendations, only for ingredients to avoid or possibly ingredients to look for.

I can't afford the expensive stuff, so I have always bought drugstore conditioner and once I find one that has the desired silky smooth clean feeling I like, I stick to it like glue. However, my old favorite, Suave Professionals Volumizing Conditioner, which I've used for years, has changed their formula and now has that awful 'waxy' feel to it.

Here's a list of ingredients that are in the hated New Formula (and that are NOT in the old much-loved formula):
Cetyl Alcohol
Stearamidopropyl Dimethylamine
Lactic Acid
PEG-150 Distearate

Do any of you chemists have any idea which of these ingredients could be causing the 'waxy' feeling? What ingredient(s) or class of ingredients should I avoid when checking out bottles of conditioners at the drugstore?

I don't know if it's relevant, but I've also included:

A list of ingredients that are in the OLD formula that are NOT in the New formula:
Cetearyl Alcohol
Cetrimonium Chloride
Propylene Glycol
Linoleamidopropyl PG-Dimonium Chloride Phosphate

And here's a list of ingredients that are in both formulas:
Potassium Chloride
Disodium EDTA
DMDM Hydantoin
Hydrolyzed Wheat Protein
Silk Amino Acids
Hydrolyzed Wheat Starch

Thanks for your help!
posted by marsha56 to Science & Nature (16 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite

Cetyl alcohol is waxy.

Of course, I am not a chemist, just a googler...

I don't mean that to be snarky; it may be that Wikipedia is wrong here.
posted by dfriedman at 4:44 PM on August 17, 2010

The answer to your question is probably here.
posted by Wordwoman at 4:49 PM on August 17, 2010 [1 favorite]

Ingredients that end in -xane or -cone are silicones, which leave a deposit on the hair. Check out the product recommendations - in fact, the philosophy in general - at Very helpful information about ingredients in hair products.
posted by 8dot3 at 4:55 PM on August 17, 2010

Since starting the Curly Girl method, I've avoided all hair products containing silicones - anything ending with "cone," "conol," or "xane." Could be the cyclopentasiloxane that's gunking up your hair. The Suave Naturals line is silicone-free and might be more to your liking. If you're near a Trader Joe's, they have good conditioners too. (I am not a chemist.)
posted by Metroid Baby at 4:55 PM on August 17, 2010

The old formula that I liked included cetearyl alcohol, and the new hated one contained cetyl alcohol. So you think if I look for cetearyl alcohol and avoid cetyl alcohol that I'll be okay?
posted by marsha56 at 5:03 PM on August 17, 2010

So you think if I look for cetearyl alcohol and avoid cetyl alcohol that I'll be okay?

That's probably not it. Cetearyl alcohol is just a mix of cetyl alcohol and steryl alchohol, which is very similar to cetyl alcohol. In other words, cetearyl alcohol has cetyl alcohol in it. I'd look to avoid silicones, as Metroid Baby suggests.
posted by mr_roboto at 5:14 PM on August 17, 2010

I don't know much about hair care (just look at my profile pic!) but I know something about chemistry, and I would not describe silicones as "waxy". To me they feel very slick and slippery, whereas I would say "waxy" is smooth but somewhat stiff.

PEG-150 immediately jumped out of that list as waxy. (The trade name is Carbowax, even.) Open a bottle of lab-grade PEG and you'd swear it was ground-up candles. So that's my prime suspect, based on lab reagents. Yeah, yeah, PEG-150 is pretty low molecular weight - I bet it still feels waxy.
posted by Quietgal at 5:33 PM on August 17, 2010

Looks like Cyclopentasiloxane might be your culprit.
posted by moira at 5:37 PM on August 17, 2010

Just throwing this out there as an alternative - have you ever tried going without conditioner?

My hair started getting a waxy buildup recently. After spending way too much money trying out about a dozen different shampoos and conditioners, I stopped using conditioner entirely* and my hair has never looked better. It's weird - after a lifetime of buying products that promised no frizz, no buildup, whatever, but never lived up to their claims, I'm having a "why didn't I think of this sooner?" moment.

*This method may not be for everyone. I don't use dye or styling tools on my hair, so it's in pretty good shape to begin with.
posted by chez shoes at 6:14 PM on August 17, 2010

I looked at the ingredients for Suave Natural conditioners online. They all have cetyl alcohol, but they don't have either Cyclopentasiloxane or PEG-150 Distearate. So, I'm going to see if my drugstore carries these and give one of them a try. I'll post results after my next shopping trip.

I couldn't find other drugstore brands that listed ingredients online, but if you know of any others, let me know, and I'll check them out too.
posted by marsha56 at 6:16 PM on August 17, 2010

I have gone without conditioner briefly, but haven't liked the results, but thanks for the idea.
posted by marsha56 at 6:17 PM on August 17, 2010

I was reading up a lot about this kind of thing a few months ago and found The Beauty Brains to be a great resource - it might take some searching, but between the blog and the forum you should be able to find some tips.
posted by soma lkzx at 7:00 PM on August 17, 2010

to avoid the waxy feeling, i used apple cider vinegar to wash my hair. i love the feel and shine of my hair after. some say to use it as a rinse after washing, some only use ACV as a wash. it's a 2:1 ratio of ACV :water & more can be found on CL's beauty section or google.
posted by UltraD at 8:13 AM on August 18, 2010

There was a similar question a few years ago, in which I went through many of the types of ingredients of shampoos.

Cetyl Alcohol - A mixture of fatty alcohols, No so much an alcohol as a mild detergent. This is a collection of the waxy, greasy compounds, but they don't stay in your hair.
Cyclopentasiloxane - A "moistureiser" (actually an emolient). This is a slippery, greasy silicone compound that makes hair smooth and shiny. It's a replacement for natural sebum. It says in your hair after you rinse.
Stearamidopropyl Dimethylamine - A soap, also helps prevent tangles in your hair. This may be one of your culprits.
Lactic Acid - Used to remove soap residue from previous washings. This one raises a few flags for me---it's moderately toxic and should be used in cosmetics with care.
PEG-150 Distearate - As others have said, this is your probable villain. It's primarily used as a soap, replacing the formerly ubiquitous sodium laurel sulphate and laureth sulpahtes that some people found irritating. It also thickens the shampoo (it's related closely to the glycerine/propylene glycol below). While water soluble, they often don't dissolve completely leaving residue in your hair, which feels stiff (hence the need for the lactic acid).

Your list:
Cetearyl Alcohol - Fatty alcohols, a combination of cetyl (c16) and steryl (c18) alcohols. Like the pure cetyl alcohol, these are mild soaps.
Cetrimonium Chloride, Quaternium-18 - These two are amonium salts, used to free tangles in your hair.
Propylene Glycol - Otherwise known as glycerine, it thickens the shampoo and "adds body" (ie makes your hair stiffer) your hair. Glycerine, unlike the PEG product, is a very short molecule, and doesn't have as strong a stiffening effect.
Linoleamidopropyl PG-Dimonium Chloride Phosphate - Another untangler
Dimethiconol - One of the silicone compounds (a siloxane) that is used as a replacement sebum. This coats your hair to make it silky.
Disodium EDTA - Used to adjust the viscosity (how easy it is to pour) of the shampoo.
DMDM Hydantoin - A preservative
TEA-Dodecylbenzenesulfonate - A detergent, also makes the shampoo foamy.
Panthenol - Viamin B5 alcohol, a protein-like compound which binds to hair and smooths it. It remains in your hair after washing, thickening it.
Methylchloroisothiazolinone - Another preservative.
Methylisothiazolinone - Another preservative.

The starches are used to up the viscosity of the shampoo; they really don't do much for your hair. Potassium Chloride alters the ionic strength of the water; presumably this is to make some of the chemistry work better. The "Silk Amino Acids" presumably are like the Panthenol, hair binders and smoothers.

You will have to make your own mind up about chemical safety. There's an excellent resource at the Environmental Working Group's Cosmetics Database project. With the usual caveat that they tend to be very cautious in their ratings, it's an excellent information source if you want ot know about a specific chemical.
posted by bonehead at 8:55 AM on August 18, 2010 [3 favorites]

After reading bonehead's answer and re-reading Quietgal's, I'm thinking that silicone may not be the problem here. There may be many good reasons to avoid silicone, but I don't think it's contributing to the 'waxy' feeling that I'm talking about. Bonehead and Quietgal have me convinced that it's PEG-150 Distearate and Stearamidopropyl Dimethylamine that I want to steer clear of.

And as I said earlier, I'll post more after shopping and trying out at least one other conditioner. And probably won't be marking 'best answers' until after that.

Thanks so much everybody.
posted by marsha56 at 1:05 PM on August 18, 2010

Aack! So sorry it's taken me so long to followup. I tried the Coconut Suave Natural conditioner that I linked to above. It's alright. It doesn't have as much of a waxy feel as the re-formulated conditioner that I now hate, but it isn't quite as silky smooth as the old conditioner that I loved. I still think that avoiding PEG-150 Distearate and Stearamidopropyl Dimethylamine are the way to go, and probably for me, veering toward silicones since I think they enhance the silky feeling I like.

So, when my new conditioner runs out, I'll probably try a few others. Anyway, thanks everybody for all your help here.
posted by marsha56 at 12:32 PM on September 4, 2010

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