Do Silicones Prevent Other Ingredients From Sinking Into The Skin?

by Gio
silicones prevent active ingredients from penetrating skin

Question: what happens when you use a serum with silicones followed by a moisturiser?

A. Your moisturiser become useless. It can’t penetrate the barrier silicones leave on the skin.

B. Your moisturiser is a smart cookie and easily penetrates through everything. Silicones are no match for it.

C. Your moisturiser slips through the cracks silicones leave behind. That barrier isn’t that impenetrable after all.

If you’ve answered A, you’re in good company. I’ve lost count of how many people think silicones create an impenetrable barrier on the skin that suffocates it and prevents anything else you apply afterwards from penetrating it.

But that’s not really what’s going on. Turns out, silicones aren’t that impenetrable after all…

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

First things first. Silicones are a group of ingredients derived from silica. The most famous are dimethicone, cyclomethicone and phenyl trimethicone. Basically, if it ends in -cone, it’s likely a silicone.

They’re used in cosmetics for several reasons:

  • They give slip to a product so that it spreads easily on your skin
  • They make skin silky soft and smooth to the touch
  • They fill in fine lines and wrinkles, making them look smaller (the effect is temporary)
  • They create a barrier on the skin that binds water in

That last one is the reason why silicones get a lot of hate. The word barrier conjures images of sky-high walls of reinforced concrete. What can get through that?

That’s not what silicones make. Silicones have a particular molecule structure that’s made of larger molecules with wider spaces between each molecule. Think of it more as a net. This barrier is both protective and breathable.

Can Silicones Deliver Ingredients Through The Skin?

Now that we understand how this barrier looks like, let’s examine case #1: skincare products with silicones. If you’re using, let’s say, a serum with retinol and dimethicone, you want retinol to bypass dimethicone and get through into your skin. Is this possible or will dimethicone stand in its way?

My fave skincare guru Paula Begoun believes that silicones do allow active ingredients to penetrate the skin. She says to 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.”

Not convinced? Think of all the medicines that use silicone-based delivery systems. If silicones prevented the active ingredients in drugs to penetrate your skin, those medicines wouldn’t work. But they do.

Do Silicone Prevent Whatever Product You Apply Next From Penetrating Your Skin?

Time for case #2: the skincare products you apply next. Let’s say you use a serum with silicones and then follow up with a moisturiser. Will the actives in your moisturiser be able to get through silicones now they’ve settled onto your skin?

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 adds that the efficacy of this barrier 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.”

The bottom line

Silicones form a barrier on the skin that’s breathable and yet prevents water loss. They don’t prevent the actives that are in the same products as them from penetrating your skin. But, anything you apply afterward may indeed struggle to get through. If your skincare product is loaded with dimethicone, you may want to apply it last.

What’s your take on silicones and their ability to keep other ingredients out of the skin? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

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20 comments

LaDamaBianca November 27, 2012 - 7:57 pm

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.

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beautifulwithbrains November 27, 2012 - 9:36 pm

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.

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Beauty Box November 29, 2012 - 5:01 am

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…?

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beautifulwithbrains November 29, 2012 - 7:32 pm

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. 🙁

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Misha September 12, 2017 - 11:42 am

Actually, we avoid them in order to be able to avoid sulphates in shampoos. Apparently, it takes a surfactant like SLS to remove silicones from hair. Avoiding silicones is beneficial when one is opting for gentler shampoos, which may not be able to removes silicones.

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Gio September 17, 2017 - 8:19 am

Misha, that is a good point. If you use a gentler shampoos, then it’s definitely best to avoid as much product buildup in the first place.

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Janessa December 1, 2012 - 3:26 am

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!

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beautifulwithbrains December 2, 2012 - 10:51 pm

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. 🙂

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Tavia December 2, 2012 - 10:49 am

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.

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beautifulwithbrains December 2, 2012 - 10:56 pm

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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Mirela Joja November 3, 2017 - 12:30 pm

Hi, Gio!
Thanks for sharing this article! Even if it is from 2012 I haven’t seen it before.
I am using in the morning the Vit. C in Silicone from The Ordinary, mixed with some drops of Ferulic Acid and Resveratrol from the same brand. I follow up with Bioderma Photoderm AR SPF 50+ . After reading your article I became concerned about the efficiency of the Spf, if applied after the Vit C in Silicone. Do you think the Spf doesn’t work? Should I rather use a mineral one instead because I don’t want to give up the Vit. C combo because it works really well!

Thanks!
Mirela :*

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Gio November 5, 2017 - 4:58 pm

Mirela, your sunscreen should remain on top of the skin to work. If the UV filters were absorbed, they wouldn’t be able to protect your skin. So don’t worry about it and keep doing what you’re doing. 🙂

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Alex February 26, 2018 - 9:50 am

So, if you need a surfactant type product to remove silicone from hair, do you need a surfactant to remove dimethicone buildup on the face too? Would a micellar water do to remove it completely? Also, what if my moisturizer has dimethicone at the bottom of the ingredients list and all the good ingredients like shea butter at the top? Would they still penetrate despite silicone still being present in the formula?

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Gio March 2, 2018 - 5:33 pm

Alex, if you’re cleansing your face at the end of the night, you should be able to remove all silicones anyway. Micellar waters tend to be very gentle so you may need to use a bit more product to get the job done.

Yes, silicones have a particular molecular structure made up of wide molecules with big gaps between them so active ingredients can still penetrate. Shea butter, though, would likely stay on the surface of the skin where it’s needed to do the moisturising job. A lot of skincare ingredients work on the surface. It’s stuff like retinol and vitamin C that needs to penetrate it.

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Clara Monsivais May 3, 2018 - 6:57 pm

Hello Gio,
I’m using a face oil and I follow it with Dr. JART ceramidin cream that contains silicone. Should I reverse the order?

Clara

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Gio May 19, 2018 - 9:38 am

Clara, I prefer to use creams before oils but I know people who prefer the opposite. Try both ways and see what works best for your skin.

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April July 24, 2018 - 4:06 pm

Hi Gio, I am currently using the Clearasil Ultra Rapid Action Treatment Lotion on my face. It’s a leave on salicylic acid product that is water based and has a cream/lotion like texture; however, dimethicone is the 7th ingredient in the product. After reading your article about silicons I’m having trouble figuring where I should put it in my skin care routine. I’ve thought about putting after all the water based products since most the water based ones are hydrators and peptides that are water based solutions. Also I was wondering is it important for salicylic acid to go first before hydrators or peptides? And is it fine to put oil based products on after silicones? Or will they stuggle with effectiveness as well? Also what anhydrous solutions and where do they go? Sorry for all the questions lol. Thank you for your help.
April

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Gio July 28, 2018 - 6:05 pm

Hi April, salicylic and should be the first thing you put on your skin after cleansing. Dimethicone’s molecular structure has gaps that still allows some of the active ingredients, like retinol and vitamin C, to get through but you probably won’t get the full benefits. Do you need to use it daily? Cos the best thing may be to alternate it with other actives.

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Hannah shrontz September 8, 2018 - 5:06 am

Gio,

I use Good Genes by Sunday Riley followed by Drunk Elephant’s C Firma and Hydra B serums, then a moisturizer and oil. Good Genes is the only product that contains silicone. The silicone is in the form of cyclomethicone (9th on list) and dimethicone (10th on list). Is it far enough down not to worry about it blocking my vitamin b and c serums and my peptide moisturizer and antioxidant oil or is it enough to make me rethink using this lactic acid in my regimen?

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Gio September 15, 2018 - 9:21 am

Hannah, silicones have a particular molecular structure made up of large molecules, with big gaps between them. So, your active ingredients will still be able to penetrate through these gaps and reach the skin. Having said that, I wouldn’t use GG every day. A couple nights a week is more than enough.

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