Read: When “good hair” hurts
To solve a problem, you first must determine the cause. In the case of frizz, the ultimate culprit is a hair cuticle that’s raised instead of flat. The cuticle is the outside layer of your hair, and when it lies flat, hair appears smooth. The more the cuticle is raised, the easier it is for moisture to penetrate the hair shaft. “Naturally, hair wants moisture,” says Vanessa Thomas, the CEO and senior chemist at Freelance Formulations, a Florida-based company that develops cosmetics, including hair products. “Part of the cause of frizzing is dehydration.” When the air around you is wet, your hair’s natural response is to suck up some of the ambient moisture to create equilibrium. That’s why frizzed hair feels thicker: Raised cuticles create a rougher texture, and each individual strand is, for lack of a better term, bloated.
But frizz doesn’t affect all people equally. Curly hair has a more raised cuticle, as does hair that’s been colored or otherwise chemically treated. Damage from heat styling can affect the cuticle’s integrity, and fine hair tends to be weaker than its thicker counterparts, says Thomas. Natural oils from the scalp can help ameliorate these issues by both coating and moisturizing hair, but that doesn’t work for everyone. “Curly hair specifically tends to be more susceptible to frizz because of the complexity of curl patterns,” explains Candace Witherspoon, a stylist and hair-care educator at Devachan Salon in Manhattan. “Oil from the scalp sometimes has a hard time traveling down the hair shaft.”
There are two different schools of thought on how to mitigate the untamable look of a misbehaving hair cuticle: Use synthetic chemicals to create a barrier layer that your hair can’t create itself, or moisturize hair into complacency with natural oils so strands are less likely to absorb moisture from the air. Thomas says that the best synthetic barrier chemical on the market right now is silicone, and it’s the one her clients most frequently request. “In about 85 percent of the cases, it’s an antifrizz treatment serum that contains silicone” that they want developed, she says.
Silicone is a controversial ingredient, however, and Witherspoon tells her clients to avoid it. “Sulfates, parabens, and silicones are all products that strip hair of its natural oils,” she says. Silicone can cause product buildup on hair, which means it might make it more difficult for strands to absorb much-needed moisture from oils or conditioners.
Even so, silicone remains “the highest-performing ingredient you can have for antifrizz,” says Holly Maguire, Freelance Formulations’ creative director. (The company develops both silicone and silicone-free frizz products for its clients.) Maguire says the chemical’s drawbacks can be managed: Periodic use of clarifying shampoos and rinses gets rid of residue, although some anti-buildup products also strip hair of moisture, which can put antifrizz efforts back to zero. The most important thing, Maguire emphasizes, is to be aware of the chemicals you’re using and how they can affect your hair.