“Ethical and ‘Green’ make-up is too often implied to be founded on ‘old wives’ tales’. To me this is part of the same discourse that drowned witches.” In the third helping of her series SKIN(CARE/UNCARE) makeup artist Crystabel Riley tries to get to grips with the slippery substance that is Silicone.

Words and Beauty

Silicone, the Monosodium Glutamate of beauty, slippery synthetic-tech inspired by nature. Whilst MSG is descended from an extra tasty seaweed broth, silicone (1) takes inspiration from the 10th element of the periodic table Silicon (without the e) and is the 2nd most common element travelling in the form of Silica. (2)

My initial aversion came from my head of sodden, crumbling, wire-wool afro-euro hair. I was advised (back in 2013 by the wonderful Liz Taw) to avoid Silicone. Upon lining up my ‘high end’ deep conditioning treatments, Dimethicone (3) was the 1st, 2nd or 3rd or 4th ingredient of the list. (4) It seemed lots of mainstream make-up (almost all) contained Dimethicone too. Today, many organic, cruelty-free and vegan brands use it and only hardline ‘clean’ brands in the green sector avoid it.  

In some make-up ranges it appears, then disappears (or vice versa).  It makes things feel and look ‘good’ just like Monosodium Glutamate makes things taste ‘good’, both ingredient are classified as ‘safe’ (by FDA and EU standards).

I have to admit a lot of my distaste for this ingredient has been intuitive, not liking the feel or look of it, or the way it over-rides the glow of the preceding skincare. The sensory experience never worked for me and in an effort to reconnect personal-care-professional-care frictions I have gradually managed to rid it totally from my kit. But I wanted to explore if there really existed Apollonial (scientific) reasoning for my disdain. Or simply misinformed chemophobia?

“I have to admit a lot of my distaste for this ingredient has been intuitive, not liking the feel or look of it, or the way it over-rides the glow of the preceding skincare.”

Once again (5), a superficial search on the topic of silicons is fairly taste and perspective-dependent.  My attempt at a literature review of mainstream beauty media vs hardline green beauty media produces a bizarre dialectical opposition. 

Here are the main points – Silicone:

1. Fills out pores / Clogs pores
2. Long wearing / Evaporates fast
3.  Hydrates skin / Dehydrates the skin
4.  Acts as a barrier / Creates a barrier
5. Keeps out dirt / Attracts dirt

Silicones in cosmetics, in fact, do all these things. Most of this journalistic confusion seems to be down to viscosity (magnitude of stickiness) and volatility (how quickly it evaporates). One can just pop on a few extra Si-O links and increase the chain length (and thus the viscosity) to get a totally different product.  Low viscosity silicones evaporate, skin feels dry (hand sanitiser/dry soap). High viscosity silicones, heavy, long, molecules, skin feels covered/smothered/protected/hydrated or however one prefers to perceive it.

Empty search results on how this face covering attracts and reacts with dirt. Sycophantic sponsored cosmetics industry research papers. Then, via the cleaning industry; we see patterned technology using Dimethicone’s unique dirt attraction qualities in cleaning mitts.  Via textiles industry, dirt attraction is cited as problem to overcome. Via gadget industry, the highest of tech silicone mobile phone cases are causing tech-forum-uproar for the same reasons.

Despite the cleaning-mitt-head effect, most research papers on cosmetic silicones read like adverts, ‘how smooth’ it is on the skin etc. We can’t deny that it certainly ‘covers’  the face, like plant-based oils and waxes.  And it covers for longer: a key component of long-wear cosmetic technology (sweat and humidity proof.) A waterproof jacket on your face which doesn’t shift, it also has no anti-oxidant/lipid/vitamin/anti-inflamitory  properties like some of the natural occlusive moisturising alternatives. The long-wear jacket only comes off when you (choose to) take it off. Hence the double-triple-quadruple cleanse movement to get that stuff off, down the drain, and away from us, to somewhere else. Durable ‘single use’ cosmetics. 

"As a ‘green’ make-up artist I want to deal consciously and conceptually with the micro-elements of the materials I’m working with, so it’s unfortunate that these mini-waterproof jackets are dumped down the plughole and can’t be jumble-sold, charity-shopped or online-auctioned."

But, it is the non-biodegrable status, aquatic bio-accumulation and a high concern’ for its environmental toxicity seem to be the main issues against the  burgeoning entry of silicones into the sustainable cosmetics sector. As a ‘green’ make-up artist I want to deal consciously and conceptually with the micro-elements of the materials I’m working with, so it’s unfortunate that these mini-waterproof jackets are dumped down the plughole and can’t be jumble-sold, charity-shopped or online-auctioned. I am still trying to find out the quantity of cosmetic silicone we are getting through today, but for Denmark only the total released into wastewater was estimated at 200-700 tonnes a year in Denmark in 2005. This is before the Dimethicone-in-cosmetics-boom and despite a Scandinavia-wide aversion to silicones in their cosmetics.

As further proof of concern the European Commission has effectively banned the Cyclomethicones D4 and D5 in rinse-off cosmetic products, citing them as “very persistent (vP) and very bioaccumulative (vB) substances.” By 2020 it will be done. Modest but important, RINSE OFF only.


Whether it’s the low viscosity versions that float into the atmosphere or the high viscosity versions that slop onto river beds. Essentially, like MSG, it’s a substance that people want more of, its chemical inertia is psychologically reactive, promoting a sensory conditioning and a visual and technical reliance on this poly-chain-skin-look, that doesn’t penetrate the skin, but penetrates the psyche. 

But. If you are a mouse that inhales the airborne version your liver functions decrease… or if you are a male mouse and you eat it your testes will shrink. Although we shouldn’t be eating make-up (6), when it comes to silicone whether you are eating it or inhaling it, I would advise you to move your face away when applying that sanitiser.


1. To locate You will see this on the back of eye/lip/cheek/face product packets as Cyclomethicones (Cyclopentasiloxane/Cyclohexasiloxan) or Dimethicone/Phenyl trimethicone.
2. I use this ingredient as an alternative to Dimethicone and look for it in products. Opt for Silica in primers and powders.
3. Dimethicone is the cheapest, non-water-soluble and most famous of the cosmetic silicones.
4. After cutting out silicone based conditioners/shampoos/serums my hair texture changed completely. It reverted back to how it was in my childhood, but this time on an adult who wasn’t combing it into candy floss and stuffing it in a ponytail and smoothing the exterior with gel.
5. These searches are another example of the monster of knowledge humans being deal with on a daily basis.
6. When I apply all make-up it’s crucial never to breath ANYTHING in.
Photography Thomas Cooksey
Beauty Crystabel Riley
Hair Anna Chapman at Julian Watson using Session Kit
Styling Vincent levy
Model Nassia at Troy Agency
Beauty Assistance Madeleine Feeney
Styling Assistance Lily Austin