The science of hair care has been a lively area of research and development for the past 50 years or more. Tremendous strides were made in the past two decades alone, thanks to advances in polymer and colloid chemistry. These advances were found in both the area of designing and producing extremely complex polymeric molecules and also in the area of understanding the mechanisms by which these molecules provide benefit. The incorporation of highly sophisticated polymers and polymer combinations into formulations has yielded curly hair products capable of truly protecting and enhancing hair, and efforts to optimize existing polymers and to synthesize new types are ongoing.
Many currently available moisturizing curly hair products rely heavily upon the use of cationic polymers and silicone-based polymers as conditioning agents. Silicone polymers provide excellent smoothing of the cuticle, impart shine, protect hair from thermal damage, increase longevity of hair color and yield positive tactile feel to hair. Cationic polymers can work together with silicones to enhance their performance in conditioning shampoos. They can also work alone to provide excellent conditioning benefits, including superior combing force reduction.
However, these ingredients and the products that contain them have recently waned in popularity with consumers, primarily due to concerns about buildup of those substances on hair. This trend has not gone unnoticed in an extremely market-responsive industry, and has, in fact, been a huge driving force behind research and development efforts. These projects have been ongoing, both at raw materials suppliers and finished good manufacturers, with the objective to develop and produce replacement polymers and silicone-free formulas.
One such project recently came to fruition when Dow Personal Care, a subsidiary of Dow Chemical, released its new conditioning platform, EcoSmooth Polymer Technologies.
Their product literature states that the platform is comprised of two types of polymers: EcoSmooth Silk and EcoSmooth Satin, which they claim will “reinvent conditioning.” An examination of these polymers and how they compare to more commonly utilized polymeric conditioning agents may provide curlies with insight to help them decide whether or not to give these materials a try.
EcoSmooth Silk is a polyolefin water insoluble copolymer emulsified using a proprietary acrylic-based polymer dispersant with the INCI name: ethylene/octene copolymer and ethylene/sodium acrylate copolymer. This polymer is marketed as a replacement for silicone.
Marketing and technical literature published by Dow Personal Care describes EcoSmooth Silk as “a non-cationic technology that matches silicone in wet and dry combing and minimizes hair breakage.”
Although this polymer is a hydrophobic one (i.e. not water soluble), Dow reports that they did not observe evidence of appreciable buildup after repeated use. The method they used to make this assertion was based upon volume of the hair after repeat application. With silicones, which do build up over time, hair volume is found to diminish. Hair treated with the EcoSmooth polymer was found to have greater volume after multiple applications than that treated with silicones.
No actual chemical analysis or surface analysis of the hair was reported or described to substantiate this claim, although it may exist. This polymer should be removable using a mild shampoo, but shampoo-free users may wish to proceed with caution.
EcoSmooth Satin is a non-cationic conditioning polymer with the INCI name: Ethylene/Sodium Acrylate Copolymer. It can be used to replace cationic polymers such as polyquaternium-7 and guar.
Dow claims that it provides equivalent sensory and foaming performance to those two polymers and that it provides superior performance on damaged European hair in particular. This means that the tactile feel is better to the consumer both during and after use.
When compared to cationic guar applied to damaged hair, EcoSmooth Satin was found to demonstrate a superior ability to reduce wet combing forces, making it easier to detangle hair and to significantly reduce the percent breakage of hair.
Satin is a water-soluble anionic polymer in solution that deposits onto the surface of the hair via a dilution deposition mechanism, where it binds to hair via hydrophobic interactions. Cationic polymers bind electrostatically to the surface of negatively charged hair via a charge-charge interaction. So, while both types of polymers are water soluble, Satin should be more easily removed from the surface of hair due to weaker interactions between the hair and the polymer.
For this reason, it seems reasonable to expect a buildup free experience when using curly hair products containing this polymer, presuming other ingredients in the formula are not prone to build up themselves.
It is truly exciting to observe the sophisticated application of polymer science to the development and optimization of hair conditioning products. Silicones and cationic polymers have provided formulators with seemingly endless formulas that have truly stellar performance on hair.
Yet, there are many more possibilities, as Dow has clearly demonstrated with the launch of EcoSmooth Polymer Technologies. These polymers appear to be promising as conditioners used in curly hair products, as they seem to be less prone to buildup and also have demonstrated an ability to reduce breakage.
It will be interesting to see how these materials work in commercially available products, and also to see what other polymers will emerge onto the scene in the future.