Why The Ingredients Matter Part 2: Conditioning Agents

So we’ve talked about surfactants, the ingredients in your shampoo that make your hair squeaky clean. Another key ingredient is conditioning agents. When we wash our hair, we want to get rid of all the dirt and oil. Our hair naturally produces oil, also known as sebum, to keep your hair soft and healthy, so stripping away those oils can leave our hair dry. This is why we add conditioning agents to shampoo. They condition and coat the hair to keep it moisturized and soft, and also act as a detangler by lubricating the follicles, making them easier to untangle. Conditioner also helps to prevent static, which can make your hair frizzy.

There are 7 classes of conditioning agents, but the end result is the same: soft, shiny, healthy-looking hair. Before we get into them, let’s address some cross-over info from our Surfactants post. 

A key component to most rinse-off conditioners is actually surfactant, specifically cationic surfactants. In case you’ve forgotten, cationic surfactants carry a positive electrical charge, giving the conditioner formula the same property. Your hair, on the other hand, is negatively charged. The negative charge of the hair is attracted to the positively charged conditioner molecules, which results in conditioner being deposited on the hair. The more damaged the hair, the more negatively charged it is, meaning the conditioner is pulled to wherever it is needed the most. This is how conditioners reduce the static electricity. The conditioner coats each hair, flattening the cuticle scales and temporarily sealing split ends, which reduces the friction between individual hairs, making the hair more smooth and shiny. This makes combing and detangling both wet and dry hair much easier and pain-free. 

And so, on with the conditioning agents! The seven classes of conditioning and moisturizing ingredients are:

  • Cationic Surfactants: Arguably one of the most important ingredients, cationic surfactants are positively-charged, and are attracted to our negatively-charged hair. They remain on the hair even during rinse-off, providing moisture and protection even after you’re out of the shower. 
  • Humectants: materials that can attract water, and hold it like a sponge. This makes them ideal for use in leave-in products, as they continue to attract moisture after your hair is dry. Honey, aloe, and glycerin are plant-based humectants that have been used in cosmetics for centuries. The most common humectants used in cosmetics include glycerin, propylene glycol, sorbitol, sodium pca, hyaluronic acid, and various hydrolyzed proteins. Upfront Cosmetics utilizes glycerine in our Dry shampoo formula for a hydrating boost. In fact, glycerin can hold as much as three times its weight in water. You can also find panthenol and sodium lactate used in our bars as humectants. 
  • Emollients & oils: An emollient an ingredient designed to lubricate surfaces and in this way they condition. Adding an emollient to a formula makes it smoother and easier to spread, and can make hair more flexible and shiny. They include a wide variety of ingredients such as oils, butters, waxes, and esters. The oily substances work wonders for making your hair smooth and shiny by coating it and locking in moisture, but should be used in smaller quantities, since too much can weigh your hair down and make it feel greasy. Common examples of emollients include natural oils such as coconut oil, argan oil, almond oil, or olive oil. Many silicones also function as great emollients. Upfront Cosmetics uses several emollients in our bars. We use several butters, such as mango, kokum, tucuma and shea, as well as cetyl alcohol in our conditioners. 
  • Occlusives: work by creating a thin coating on the skin or hair that blocks the evaporation of water from the skin or hair surface, making it feel moisturized. This coating is flexible but feels slightly greasy to the touch, which is why only a small amount is used in formulas. The most common types of occlusive agents in cosmetics include petrolatum, mineral oil, and dimethicone. Both dimethicone and petrolatum are used as hair conditioners, though you’re far more likely to see petrolatum in your favourite lotion, as it’s considered one of the best ingredients for keeping skin moisturized. 
  • Proteins: Proteins condition in the same way as humectants or as emollients, by coating the hair to seal in moisture. Since they don’t hold on to the hair during rinse very well they are not a major conditioning agent, more often used as secondary conditioners. Hydrolyzed plant proteins, such as the oat protein found in most Upfront shampoos & conditioners, are very popular. 
  • Silicones:  derived from sand, these are some of the best ingredients for providing slickness and shine. They work in the same way that emollients work, by coating the surface to lock in moisture. There are a wide variety of silicones including things like dimethicone, cyclomethicone, and amodimethicone. 
  • Polymers: make up such a large class of conditioning agents that it’s hard to give a general definition for them. The most common polymers used as conditioning agents in hair care are cationic polymers or polyquaterniums. If you’ll remember, cationic molecules work by attaching to the hair with static charge. Common cationic polymers include polyquaternium-7 and polyquaternium-11.
That’s a lot of technical mumbo-jumbo, but the most important info to take away from it all is this. Of the seven classes of conditioning agents, the main ingredients in most conditioners are cationic surfactants, which use static charge to cling to the hair after rinse-off, humectants, which draw moisture into the hair fibre, and emollients & occlusives, which coat the hair to lock in moisture. Proteins, silicones and polymers are used mainly as secondary conditioning agents. All of these agents combine to give you a conditioner formula that will leave your hair smooth, shiny and moisturized!