Do Silicones Prevent Other Ingredients From Sinking Into The Skin?

Due to their occlusive nature, silicones are among the most misunderstood ingredients used in skincare. Many people believe that because these ingredients can create a barrier on the skin, they must suffocate it, cause breakouts and just exacerbate the signs of aging. However, these are just myths. No study has ever found the remotest proof to support any of these claims.

Instead, this barrier may pose another concern: it may prevent some of the ingredients in your moisturizers from doing their job properly. I say may because studies on the subject are seriously lacking, so we’ll have to supply those with logic and common sense. They’re not always as reliable, but hopefully we will still be able to get a better understanding of how silicones work. But first:

What are silicones and why are they used in skincare products?

Silicones, such as Dimethicone, Cyclopentasiloxane and Phenyl Trimethicone, are derived from silica. They are used in skincare products for several reasons: they give slip to a product, allowing it to spread easily on the skin; they make skin feel silky soft and smooth to the tocuh; they help minimize the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles by temporarily filling them in; they create a barrier on the skin that binds water in and protects it from irritation. Their particular molecule structure, which is made of larger molecules with wider spaces between each molecule, allows them to create a barrier that’s both protective and breathable.

Are silicone-based delivery systems effective?

The particular structure of this barrier raises the question of whether the active ingredients in skincare products with silicones will be able to penetrate through it or if they’ll stay on the surface. So, what’s the answer? I’d love to give it to you but unfortunately there isn’t a definite one. It doesn’t look like any studies on the topic have been done (at least I couldn’t found any, but if you can, please let me know), but with a bit of help from the experts, we can try to hazard a hypothesis of what happens.

Paula Begoun believes that silicones allow active ingredients to penetrate the skin and says we should think of them as tea bags: “When you steep the tea bag in water the tea and all of its antioxidant properties are released. Silicones remain on the surface of your skin and the other ingredients it is mixed with ‘steep’ through. All ingredients have to be suspended in some base formula. Some of those ingredients remain on the surface some absorb. Either way the “actives” get through.”

That’s reassuring and makes sense. After all, there are a lot of prescription medical products that employ silicone-based delivery systems for topical drugs, and if silicones prevented the active ingredients in them from penetrating the skin, these would be completely useless. Instead, they work quite well. It would be interesting to see a study comparing the efficacy of different types of delivery systems and see how well the silicone-based one fares, but even if there were better methods to deliver ingredients into the skin, that wouldn’t make this one totally ineffective.

What about the products you’re gonna apply next?

However, so far this information seems to confirm only that the active ingredients suspended in a silicone base manage to get through and do their job. But most of us don’t just use one skincare product. We may use a moisturizer, a serum, maybe a prescription product. And what happens if we apply first the one that’s loaded with, let’s say, Dimethicone? The ingredients in that product will sink into the skin, but will those in the products you’re gonna apply next get through too?

The Beauty Brains, in a response to a reader asking why her hair dye doesn’t stain her skin when she applies a cream with silicones beforehand, hazard an educated guess: “When you apply a cream containing “goodies” along with silicones, the cream hits the face all at once, the ingredients that will penetrate have time to sink into the skin before all the water evaporates and the silicones set up an occlusive film. When you apply a silicone cream FIRST and then sometime later apply another product (like a hair color) the silicones have had time to set up as a film and so they do a better job of keeping stuff OUT of the skin. Hence, no staining.”

Dermatologist Cynthia Bailey further adds that the efficacy of this barrier at keeping things out of the skin depends on the concentration of silicones: “It depends on how much dimethicone is in the product though. Products with a large amount of dimethicone could well block tretinoin if they are applied first.” Of course “may well block” is not the same thing as “will block”, but it does make sense that active ingredients will find it harder to sink into the skin when applied on top of a barrier. Some of them may still be able to penetrate it to a certain extent, but until we know for sure, I think it would be better to apply products with a high concentration of silicones last.

The bottom line

Silicones form a barrier on the skin that’s breathable and yet prevents water loss. However, whether they also prevent active ingredients from penetrating into the skin is unknown. While silicones act as an effective delivery system to get actives into the skin, they may prevent the ingredients in whatever products you’re applying next to sink in properly, compromising their efficacy. At the moment, this is only a theory, but until we know more I believe it’s best to apply products with a high concentrations of silicones last.

Do you use products with silicones? Do you think they can prevent other ingredients from doing their job properly?

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  1. says

    Per quanto possibile, cerco di evitare i prodotti contenenti siliconi, soprattutto sul viso. Per il corpo sono assai più elastica.
    Si, credo che i principi attivi di una buona crema possano avere problemi a penetrare nello strato superficiale dell’epidermide se ci sono i siliconi a far da barriera. In ogni caso, non tutti i siliconi sono uguali…anche se, in linea di massima, almeno nei prodotti di skin care preferisco evitarli.
    LaDamaBianca´s last blog post ..The Balm – Balm Shelter Tinted Gloss "Uptown Girl"My Profile

    • beautifulwithbrains says

      LaDamaBianca, concordo che non tutti i siliconi sono uguali. Alcuni sono volatili ed evaporano molto velocemente, ma altri, come il Dimethicone, restano sulla pelle e formano questa peculiare barriera protettiva. A me i siliconi piacciono, ma capisco che ci siano persone che preferiscono evitarli, soprattutto visto che è possibile, anche se non ancora certo, che possano impedire ad alcuni principi attivi di penetrare nell’epidermide.

  2. says

    This is really informative! Thanks for this. Silicones have had got a bad rep in the beauty world, haven’t they?

    Do silicones behave the same way with hair? Perhaps there must be a reason for the plethora of silicone-free hair care in recent years…?

    • beautifulwithbrains says

      Beauty Box, you’re welcome. I’m glad you found it useful. They sure have and it is a shame as they have some wonderful properties.

      Yes, silicones form a protective barrier on hair too which helps to keep hair moisturized and seal in split ends. They also make it easy to comb through your hair and detangle it. If there are so many silicone-free products these days is because people unfortunately believe the lies about how bad silicones are and cosmetic companies find it easier to capitalize on these fears than setting the record straight. :(

  3. Janessa says

    As I read the first sentence, I thought, “That’s what I used to think!” so sad, huh?
    I have found serums that don’t have silicones in them and most of my skincare products don’t have silicone. If I do use a product with lots of silicone, I’ll apply that near the end or last.
    I like to switch up my skincare (not drastically). I have a few different choices to choose from for some products and they all work on my skin so I’ll use one if I wanted something cooling, lightweight, and just a plain ole moisturizer.
    Gio, you rock!

    • beautifulwithbrains says

      Janessa, if it can make you feel better, I used to think so too. When I was younger, I used to use whatever inexpensive skincare products I could find and very often they didn’t work for me. So, I started researching ingredients and very often I’d end up on websites saying how all these chemicals were bad for you. For a little while I believed it, but luckily I continued my research and found out how misleading that information was. That was one of the reasons that prompted me to start this blog, to share the truth about cosmetic ingredients. :)

      You’re lucky that most products work well for you and savvy for using products with silicones last. :)

  4. says

    About two months ago I received Invicible Advanced Treatment which contains silicone and I suppose to test it on scars. I did but because the scar that I got is very old the product couldn’t do anything about it and I knew I couldn’t expect miracles since my scar is about 16 years old. I haven’t had any recent scars so I can test the product over until last week when I cut my hand very bad and it’s been healing slowly ever since. I waited for the wound to heal a little bit because I didn’t want to apply this silicone based cream directly and now after the second day of using this cream I must say the results are incredible….I’m amazed how well it’s healing and I hope I won’t have any scars. I’m the type of persons that heals incredibly slow and I always remain with scars after injuries. It’s too bad there were no silicone based products when I had my surgeries and some of the accidents because I’m pretty sure they could have helped with the recovery. Nowadays I know many women that are using silicone products after they’ve done a caesarean and they barely have any scars and the results are amazing in the first week.
    Tavia´s last blog post ..Shiseido Spring 2013 Perfect Rouge – Official Info & PhotosMy Profile

    • beautifulwithbrains says

      Tavia, silicones are very used to heal wounds and improve the appearance of scars. It is a shame they have such a bad reputation because they are so helpful. I’m glad the treatment works so well for you (but sorry that you cut your hand, that must have been painful). I hope no scar with remain at all. Thank you for your sharing your experience. :)

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