Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Polyquat or Not?

I'm one of those people with silky-feeling hair that accumulates products like a lollipop dropped in the lint trap of a rarely-cleaned dryer. Some people and some products don't get along. For this post, the focus is on Polyquaternium products.
This curl asks, "Are poly-
quats for me?

Polyquaterniums (and a few other things in this post) are "active ingredients" or functional ingredients in hair care. They're not there to make the product look pretty or smell nice or feel nice, they're used because they actively condition or detangle or because they form a film that creates "hold" in a product. Some of these ingredients help your hair hold on to hair dye longer or provide UV protection.
©Science-y Hair Blog 2013
All of the ingredients that will be listed below with moderate to high build-up potential resist washing off with water and with shampoo (or anything else you use to clean your hair - conditioner, acids, baking soda…) unless noted. They are created with cationic (positive) charges so they bond with your hair rather than just forming a passive film. That is good for hair that needs a lasting film for hold or a slippery film for detangling. It's also great if you want all-day-long or humidity-resistant hold in a styling product. But it is not helpful if the product accumulates on your hair. Some people can use polyquaternium ingredients with no problems, but some of us get build-up from them. 
©Science-y Hair Blog 2013
Not everybody's hair will accumulate build up! All conditioning ingredients have the potential to build up. ALL OF THEM. That doesn't mean you should not use them, it doesn't mean they're necessarily damaging. It just means that if you find your hair becomes stringy or sticky or dull or rough or too soft or spider-webby or unusually frizzy or just generally weird feeling that one of these ingredients may contribute to the problem and because you know that, you can make better choices and avoid spending money on products that won't work for you. All these ingredients have potential benefits! This post should not make you want to avoid them, this post is to help you understand what happens when you have problems with products. There is no reason to avoid these ingredients unless you know you have a problem with them, or unless you already know that everything under the sun builds up on your hair and you just don't want to deal with trial and error.©Science-y Hair Blog 2013

Worth mentioning: The numbers assigned to these products have nothing to do with their chemical composition, so no opportunity to do any sleuthing by the numbers! Darn.

One last word: You can't always condemn an ingredient based on one product or a product based on one ingredient. Many products have multiple ingredients that could cause build-up and you cannot just blame one ingredient. The combination of ingredients in a product (or that product, combined with other things you put in your hair) may be causing a problem.
©Science-y Hair Blog 2013

Higher Build-Up Potential
  • Guar Hydroxypropyltrimonium Chloride - A cationic conditioner often used in conditioning or mild shampoos. High potential for build-up, but is also very good for detangling, especially detangling wet hair which is why it is used in shampoos.©Science-y Hair Blog 2013
  • Polyquaternium-4 - Cationic conditioner that has film-forming properties. Usually used to provide "hold" in styling products and also thicken a product. Moderate to high potential to build-up.

Moderate Build-Up Potential
  • Polyquaternium-7 - A cationic conditioning ingredient which has moderate potential for build-up, used to lessen the drying effect of detergents and add a "conditioned" feel to products so hair or skin feel soft. It helps detangle wet and dry hair and may help create shine.©Science-y Hair Blog 2013
  • Polyquaternium -11- A cationic conditioning ingredient which has moderate potential for build-up. Often used in hair mousses because it provides light hold. The film-forming plus the cationic nature of this ingredient can give hair a tacky feel while on the hair and after rinsing.
  • Polyquaternium-55 - Cationic conditioning ingredient which is an excellent heat protectant, film-forming to help hair retain dyed color longer. Has build-up potential, possibly as "over-conditioning."
  • Hydroxypropyltrimonium (fill in the blank, Honey, Wheat Protein, any other protein, Starch). When "Hydroxypropyltrimonium" precedes an ingredient, it means it has been modified to have a cationic charge so it sticks to your hair and that means it can cause build-up. In this case, it may be over-conditioned or too-soft hair. These ingredients provide slip and softness and help reduce frizz.
  • Polyquatermium-59 - Cationic conditioner with UV light absorbing qualities - sun protection! Moderate build up potential, but in this case you probably want sun protection that stays on in water and sweat and taking hats on and off, so I don't feel that build up of UV protectants is such a bad thing. It won't last forever. Likely to feel over-conditioned.

Lower Build-Up Potential©Science-y Hair Blog 2013
  • Polyquaternium-10 - A cationic conditioning ingredient which may have slight to moderate build-up potential, depending on the source you consult. This may be removable with a polyquaternium-free, anionic (sulfate or olefin sulfonate) shampoo. It is often used in shampoos for detangling. May be used in styling products because it provides light hold.
  • Polyquaternium-69 - Weakly cationic film-former for hold in hair products. Slight potential for build-up. Likely to be removed after 1-2 shampooings.
  • Polyquaternium-44 - Cationic conditioner/detangler used in some shampoos. Has slight potential for build-up, it was designed as an alternative to Guar Hydroxypropyltrimonium Chloride and other more build-up provoking ingredients.©Science-y Hair Blog 2013
  • Polyquaternium-87 - Amphoteric (can be positive or negatively charged) conditioner for shampoos created as an alternative to Guar Hydroxypropyltrimonium Chloride for detangling, soft feel and helping hairs align (frizz control). Will be removed after 1-2 shampooings.
  • Polyquaternium-47 - An amphoteric conditioning ingredient which has moderate potential for build-up. Used for detangling wet hair and dry, softens hair. Not a lot of information available yet about this ingredient. I'm putting it in the "lower build-up potential" category for now based on the variable charge. I'll update if I find out more.©Science-y Hair Blog 2013


  1. Tonya McKay says "Some studies have shown that Polyquaternium-4 is particularly good about not causing build-up."

    However it is a very old article so may be out of date?

    1. Some studies do show that Polyquaternium-4 may not have as much build-up potential (I think there was one study), but other studies indicate that it is not removed with water nor removed easily with shampoo - as much so as Guar Hydroxypropyltrimonium Chloride (which doesn't cause problems for a lot of people either). In real life - hair products have to interact with real hair. Polyquaternium-4 is highly substantive, especially as hair increases in porosity. Unlike conditioning ingredients meant to reduce friction, Polyquaternium-4 creates rigid films. When this does not wash out completely, the result is a tacky residue. So even if it's not building up as much as some Polyquaterniums or other conditioning ingredients, the net effect of build-up is very noticeable.