Last Updated on August 25, 2022 by Verna Meachum
Polyquats? What the heck are they and why should I care? In this post, we’re going to take a look at what polyquats are, what they do, their potential to build-up, and whether we should use them or not.
By the time you finish reading, you’ll know everything you need to know about these little-known ingredients!
Let’s first dive into some basic chemistry…
What are Polyquats?
Since the introduction of polyquats in the early 1960s, they’ve been used in virtually every hair care product on the market today.
The words “polyquat” or “polyquaternium” is the combination of two words, “poly & quat” and “poly & quaternium.”
In chemistry, poly stands for polymer; it is a chemical compound made up of multiple units bonded together, while quat or quaternium suggests a positively charged species.
Polyquats or polyquaternium are cationic polymers. They are synthetic organic polymers with a large carbon chain backbone attached to positive nitrogen centers.
Over the years, polymer chemists have developed a large number of such polymers with different backbone structures and varying degrees of positive nitrogen centers.
The polyquats available today differ in their molecular weight, structure, and magnitude of positive charge (nitrogen level); that’s why they have varying binding strength or substantivity to hair. This also gives formulation scientists a diverse range of polymers suitable for different kinds of products.
Benefits of polyquats
All polyquats or polyquaterniums are cationic polymers carrying a net positive charge. They are also known as “quanternized polymers.” These polymers are added into hair care formulations to improve hair fiber’s overall quality due to their strong affinity for hair.
These polyquats have been refined over time via advancements in science and technology. Polyquat variants with better effects and substantivity continue to be developed.
Despite the benefits polyquats provide, they have come under intense scrutiny in recent times because of their synthetic nature and accumulative build-up on the hair’s surface.
Common cationic polymers
The most commonly employed cationic polymers are;
- Guar Hydroxypropyltrimonium chloride
- Polyquaternium 6
- Polyquaternium 7
- Polyquaternium 10
- Polyquaternium 22
- Polyquaternium 28
- Polyquaternium 37
Nature-modified polyquats are more popular among formulators. A typical example is Guar Hydroxypropyltrimonium chloride and Polyquaternium 10, both are often added in rinse-off formulations (shampoo, other cleansers).
Guar gum is synthetically modified to have a quaternized nitrogen to improve its detangling and conditioning benefits compared to its parent natural guar gum. While polyquaternium 10 is cationic cellulose derived from natural cellulose ( a natural polymer extracted from wood).
Both of these ingredients are available in different grades, having different molecular weights and nitrogen levels. They improve hair surface properties by boosting detangling and providing ease of combing for wet and dry hairs.
There are 40 different polyquats registered today. The number mentioned in their INCI name (e.g. 6 for Polyquaternium-6) represents their order or registration sequence.
Polyquats in a Hair Care Product: The Performers
Hair care products aim to improve and enhance the overall quality of our hair. I mean, who doesn’t wish their hair looked better, right?
Daily grooming, combing, chemical treatments, and/or excessive sun exposure all cause hair damage; it is a problem we’d all like to fix.
As a result of the damage, hair loses its protein content, becomes weak, brittle, lacks shine and life; therefore, we need a recovery plan.
The hair surface is the most vulnerable and susceptible to damage. The scales of the cuticle can lift and lay flat to protect the cortex, but when it is worn or deteriorates, it exposes the inner cortex.
Furthermore, the hair proteins are oxidized and accumulate negative sites along the hair shaft. This causes frizz and flyaways which make it difficult to manage and style.
At this point, it is important to use a hair care product that can help improve the condition of our hair. We need something that can restore the outer surface of the hair shaft, improve detangling, minimize fiber-to-fiber friction, and address frizz.
When it comes to hair care products, there are many ingredients that can help improve the quality of your hair.
This is where polyquats come in. Cationic ingredients (such as polyquats) can be used effectively to remedy these issues. So, how do these quats work in a haircare formulation?
Polyquats in Action
Positive charges love negatives; in other words, they are attracted to each other.
Polyquat polymers carry a positive charge while hair bears negative charges at its shaft, which brings them in a coulombic interaction (the interaction between electric charges, which is electrostatic in nature), where polymer binds to the negative site at the hair surface.
Polymer nitrogen gets attached to the hair while long carbon chains point at the surface, offering hydrophobic lubricity. As a result, “hair conditioning by polyquats” is pure because it binds to the proteins at the hair’s surface.
The stronger the binding, the better the hair conditioning. However, a major challenge with this interaction is water wash-off during the rinse-off stage.
To deliver long-lasting conditioning, you’ll need polyquats that have wash-off resistance.
Do Polyquats Build Up on Hair?
A question I often get asked is if polyquaternium is bad for curly hair.
The build-up potential of polyquat polymers has gotten a negative reputation and it is a major concern. This build-up is caused by frequent applications and the excessive use of hair care products that contain polyquats.
Overusing products containing cationic polymers can result in weighed down, limp, heavy, and greasy hairs. When you increase the use of polyquats, it alters the hair surface, prevents the penetration of actives and water molecules into the hair fiber, and just plain ole’ makes the hair dull.
ALL conditioning ingredients can cause the build-up, but polymers with higher molecular weight and more positive charges have a greater tendency to cause this problem.
Interestingly, not everyone will get this build-up. The deposition of any ingredient depends upon the physical condition of your hair.
The build up problem is more severe for chemically altered hair due to the increased presence of negative sites and reduction in hair diameter.
Common Examples with Build-up Potential
Polyquaternium 6: (molecular weight 150,000 units) shows a higher deposition at chemically treated hair and is known to cause significant build-up, which is potentially due to higher charges present at its molecule.
Polyquaternium-7: another polyquat with significant build-up, due to its larger molecular size and higher molecular weight (1,600,000 units). That’s why it is preferred for deep conditioning treatments for extremely curly, kinky, or coily hairs.
Polyquaternium 10: has multiple grades with varying molecular weights. Its heavier versions may also cause build-up depending upon the version used. Lower molecular versions are preferred for naturally curly wavy hair, while heavier grades are used for deep conditioning products.
Guar Hydropropyltrimonium Chloride: is another common conditioning agent used in shampoos, yet it is known for its build-up because of its higher molecular weight and charge density.
How to remove polyquats from hair
A properly adjusted hair care regimen can avoid any such build up on your hair.
The simplest remedy for avoiding polyquat build up is to stop overusing cationic formulations, such as deep conditioners, masks, or leave-ins. Using them once or twice a week might be more than enough.
You can easily figure out how much you need by carefully examining your hair and styling regimen and feel (touch your hair). If you feel that your hair is weighed down, greasy, or coated after using a product with polyquats, don’t use it.
If product build up is giving you grief, wash your hair with a clarifying shampoo to remove it, preferably one containing C14-16 olefin sulfonate, which is an anionic surfactant that is better at removing cationic residue(such as polyquats) from hair.
A good shampoo containing this ingredient is Kinky Curly Come Clean.
Should We Have Polyquat-Free Regimen?
“Never judge a book by its cover”!!
Polyquats are fantastic active and functional ingredients offering superior hair conditioning, and boosting the overall hair quality. The build-up problem must not overshadow their overall performance and effectiveness.
A simple rule is “excess of everything is bad,” so try to have a balance in your hair care regimen to avoid any excessive build-up.
Furthermore, a formulation is a combination of several ingredients working together as a team to deliver your hair the desired results. A single product should not be singled out or canceled based on one ingredient.
In other words, a single ingredient or only polyquat should not be held responsible for the build-up on your hair.
The hair products you use, which are made up of many ingredients, are responsible for the final look of your hair. It is the formulator’s job to ensure these ingredients work synergistically to have the desired effect on your hair.
In essence, “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.” And if you have a good team of ingredients, polyquats should not be a problem.
So what’s the verdict? Don’t be concerned by polyquats in your product, as they are excellent multifunctional actives for your hair.
Do we need to avoid using polyquats? That’s up for debate! If you’re looking for an effective conditioning agent without much risk of build-up, there are plenty of alternatives out there.
But if you’re not seeing any problems with using polyquats and they work well for your hair, then go ahead and keep using them! Just be sure to clarify every few weeks to avoid any unwanted build-up.
If you’re still not sure whether a product contains polyquats, or if you have any other questions about hair care products, be sure to consult your stylist or dermatologist.