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Polyquaternium in Hair Care: Weighing the Benefits Against Build-Up Concerns

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Table of Contents

Polyquats explained

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Polyquaternium compounds, commonly referred to as polyquats, are a frequent addition to our hair care arsenal, lauded for their versatility. They serve multiple purposes, ranging from smoothing and conditioning our tresses to untangling the most stubborn knots.

You might have come across ingredients like Polyquaternium-10 and Polyquaternium-11 in your hair care products, but what exactly are they? In simple terms, polyquats are positively charged polymers that attract to the negatively charged surfaces of hair strands. This feature makes them particularly beneficial for curly hair care, as they can help to reduce static, enhance moisture retention, and boost the hair’s overall appearance, giving it life and bounce.

However, as beneficial as polyquats seem to be, there’s an ongoing debate about their potential to cause unwanted build-up over time. It’s important to consider whether their benefits outweigh this concern.

To bring clarity to this complex topic, I’ve consulted with a friend who’s not only well-versed in hair science but also a veteran cosmetic formulator with a PhD in Chemistry. By tapping into his expert knowledge, we’ll shed light on the true impact of polyquats on curly hair and determine whether they should play a part in your hair care routine.

What Is A Polyquat?

Image of liquid substance in clear bowl.

Polyquaternium compounds, also known as polyquats, have been a staple in hair care formulations since their emergence in the early 1960s. Today, they are ubiquitous in the industry, found in a plethora of hair care products.

Breaking down the term, “polyquat” merges “polymer” and “quaternary ammonium.” “Polymer” refers to a substance made up of many repeating units, creating long molecular chains. The “quaternary ammonium” part indicates the presence of a positively charged center involving nitrogen atoms.

These polyquats are, in essence, large synthetic organic compounds. They’re structured with a carbon chain backbone that supports several positive nitrogen centers—akin to a molecular backbone adorned with charged limbs.

Advancements in polymer chemistry have led to an expansive family of polyquats, each with unique carbon backbones and varying numbers of positively charged nitrogen sites. The differences in molecular weight, structural configuration, and charge intensity among these polyquats influence their ability to bind to hair, also known as their substantivity. This binding ability can range from a gentle touch to a firm grip, depending on the specific polyquat in question.

The diversity of polyquats developed gives cosmetic chemists a versatile toolkit. They can select from a wide array of polymers to tailor hair care products to meet specific needs, whether for a light conditioner or a strong-hold styling gel.

Benefits of Polyquats

Polyquaternium compounds, or polyquats, are a family of cationic polymers that carry a net positive charge, which has earned them the scientific moniker of “quaternized polymers.” Their positive charge gives them an inherent affinity for the negatively charged hair fiber, making them valuable ingredients in hair care products for enhancing the hair’s condition.

The role of polyquats in hair care formulations is to improve the quality of the hair fiber. They achieve this by strongly adhering to the hair, providing benefits such as increased smoothness, manageability, and protection against environmental damage.

Thanks to ongoing scientific and technological advancements, the development of polyquats has continued to evolve. This has resulted in the introduction of newer variants that offer enhanced performance and even greater adherence to the hair—characteristics known in the industry as “substantivity.”

However, despite their hair-enhancing properties, polyquats have recently become a topic of debate. Their synthetic origins and the tendency to accumulate on the hair, leading to build-up, have raised concerns among users and professionals alike. It’s important for consumers to be aware of these potential drawbacks when considering hair care products containing polyquats.

Common Cationic Polymers

Image of the chemical structure of polyquaternium - 7.
Structure of Polyquaternium – 7. Photo credit: Wikimedia

Among the vast array of cationic polymers available, specific types have gained popularity for their effectiveness in hair care products:

  • Guar Hydroxypropyltrimonium Chloride
  • Polyquaternium-6
  • Polyquaternium-7
  • Polyquaternium-10
  • Polyquaternium-22
  • Polyquaternium-28
  • Polyquaternium-37

Formulators often prefer natural-derived polyquats for their eco-friendly appeal and effectiveness. Guar Hydroxypropyltrimonium Chloride and Polyquaternium-10 are favorites, frequently found in shampoos and other rinse-off products.

Guar Hydroxypropyltrimonium Chloride is a modified version of natural guar gum. It has undergone a chemical process to introduce quaternized nitrogen, enhancing its ability to detangle and condition hair beyond what natural guar gum can achieve. Meanwhile, Polyquaternium-10 is a cationic cellulose derivative obtained from natural cellulose, typically sourced from wood, which has been specially treated to carry a positive charge.

These ingredients come in various grades, distinguished by their molecular weights and nitrogen levels, which can affect their performance. They are particularly valued for their ability to smooth the hair’s surface, easing detangling and making both wet and dry combing more manageable.

To date, over 40 different polyquats have been registered, with the number in their International Nomenclature Cosmetic Ingredient (INCI) name indicating the sequence of their registration—not their effectiveness or potency. For example, Polyquaternium-6 was the sixth polyquat registered.

Polyquats in a Hair Care Product: The Performers

We all strive for hair that looks its best — vibrant, strong, and full of life. After all, healthy hair can be a confidence booster like no other.

Our hair experiences a lot daily—styling, brushing, and environmental factors like sun exposure contribute to its wear and tear. Over time, these activities can lead to damaged hair that lacks luster and vitality. When our hair starts to feel weak and brittle, losing its natural protein and shine, it’s a sign that we need to intervene with a restoration strategy.

The outer layer of our hair, the cuticle, is particularly at risk. Although it’s designed to protect the inner layers of our hair, it can only do so much. When the cuticle is compromised, it can no longer adequately shield the cortex, leading to more profound damage.

Additionally, when hair proteins break down, they leave the hair with a negative charge, causing strands to repel each other. This leads to the all-too-familiar frizz and flyaways, making hair more challenging to manage and style.

In these moments, what’s essential is a hair care product that doesn’t just sit on the surface but penetrates to improve the hair’s condition fundamentally. We need a product that can repair the hair shaft’s exterior, make detangling a breeze, minimize friction between fibers, and keep frizz under control.

Among the many ingredients in hair care products, some are particularly adept at enhancing hair’s appearance and feel.

Enter polyquats—but what role do they play in mending our tresses? Cationic ingredients like polyquats can adhere to the negatively charged sites on our hair, leading to a host of improvements in its look and feel. Let’s delve into how polyquats tackle the issues we face with our hair and why they’re such a staple in hair care formulations.

Polyquats in Action

It’s a simple fact of science: opposites attract. This principle is especially true of charged particles and is a key aspect of how certain hair care ingredients work.

Polyquaternium polymers, commonly known as polyquats, are positively charged and are drawn to the negatively charged sites along the hair shaft. This attraction is more than just a chemical whim — it’s a Coulombic interaction, a fundamental electrostatic relationship between charged particles, which allows these polymers to bind to the hair.

Once attached, the polymer’s positively charged nitrogen component clings to the hair, while its long carbon chains orient themselves along the surface. This arrangement anchors the polymer and creates a barrier that imparts a hydrophobic (water-repelling) lubricity. The result? A noticeable conditioning effect, as the polyquaterniums form a bond with the proteins on the hair’s surface, leaving it smoother and easier to manage.

The strength of this bond is crucial—the stronger it is, the more pronounced the conditioning benefits. However, a key challenge arises when rinsing hair: the interaction needs to withstand the washing process to provide lasting benefits.

Therefore, choosing polyquats with a resilient bond and less likely to be stripped away by water during rinsing is essential for enduring conditioning effects.

Do Polyquats Lead to Build Up on Hair?

The concern over build-up from the frequent and excessive use of hair products containing polyquaternium polymers has cast a shadow on their reputation. This build-up can manifest as hair that feels weighed down, limp, and greasy, detracting from its natural beauty and health.

Increasing the usage of polyquats can change how the hair’s surface interacts with other substances. Specifically, it can block the absorption of essential active ingredients and moisture into the hair fiber, leading to hair that looks and feels lackluster.

It’s important to note that any conditioning ingredient has the potential to cause build-up over time. However, polymers characterized by higher molecular weights and more positive charges are more prone to creating this issue, as they bind more strongly to the hair and are harder to wash away.

Yet, the experience of build-up is not universal. The extent to which any ingredient accumulates on the hair depends significantly on the hair’s condition. Hair that has been chemically treated tends to face a more pronounced build-up challenge due to its increased number of negative sites and decreased hair diameter, which make it more receptive to clinging polymers.

Examples of Common Build-Up Causing Polyquats

Polyquaternium-6, with a molecular weight of around 150,000 units, is particularly prone to causing build-up, especially in chemically treated hair. This tendency is likely attributed to the higher number of charges on its molecule, which enhances its ability to adhere to the hair.

Polyquaternium-7 is another example where the risk of build-up is notable. Its larger molecular size and substantial molecular weight, approximately 1,600,000 units, make it highly effective in deep conditioning treatments, especially beneficial for very curly, kinky, or coily hair types that demand intense moisture.

Polyquaternium-10 presents a unique case, offering various grades with differing molecular weights. The heavier versions of Polyquaternium-10 may lead to build-up based on the specific grade used. For lighter, naturally curly or wavy hair, formulations with lower molecular weights are preferred, while the heavier grades are chosen for more intensive conditioning needs.

Guar Hydroxypropyltrimonium Chloride stands out as a widely used conditioning agent in shampoos. However, it’s also flagged for potential build-up issues due to its high molecular weight and charge density. This makes it effective in smoothing and detangling but also raises concerns about residue over time.

Is Polyquaternium Harmful to Curly Hair?

A common question I encounter is whether polyquaternium ingredients are detrimental to curly hair. Polyquats, by design, fulfill a variety of roles in hair care products, from conditioning and detangling to forming a protective film that enhances product hold.

These ingredients are particularly beneficial for hair that’s been chemically treated or is damaged, as well as for styles that require durable hold or enhanced detangling. If you’re in search of a styling product that maintains its hold throughout the day or stands up to high humidity, polyquats could be an excellent choice.

Nevertheless, due to their potent binding abilities, some hair products containing polyquats can lead to significant residue build-up over time.

Choosing the appropriate polymer based on your hair type and its specific needs is crucial. For instance, polyquats with lower molecular weights are often recommended for naturally curly or wavy hair because they tend to minimize the risk of build-up.

It’s worth noting that not everyone will experience build-up issues with polyquats. However, for those who are more prone to it, it might be wise to limit or avoid products containing these ingredients. Incorporating a clarifying shampoo into your routine every couple of months can also be a proactive step to prevent the accumulation of product residue.

In summary, polyquats can be a valuable addition to your hair care routine, particularly for conditioning purposes. Yet, the key to harnessing their benefits without adverse effects lies in using them judiciously and selecting the right type for your hair’s characteristics and needs.

How to Remove Polyquats From Hair

Maintaining a balanced hair care routine is essential to prevent unwanted build-up from polyquaternium compounds.

One of the most straightforward strategies to minimize polyquat build-up is to moderate the use of products rich in cationic substances. This includes deep conditioning treatments, hair masks, and leave-in conditioners, which, depending on your hair’s needs, might only be necessary once or twice a week.

Assessing the right amount of product usage involves observing your hair’s response to your current hair care and styling practices. By simply touching and examining your hair, you can gauge whether the products are beneficial or if they’re leaving your hair feeling heavy, greasy, or as though it has a coating.

Should you notice that products containing polyquats are weighing down your hair or causing it to appear greasy, it’s a clear sign to pause their use.

For those struggling with build-up, switching to a clarifying shampoo for your wash routine can offer relief. Opt for shampoos containing C14-16 olefin sulfonate, a potent anionic surfactant known for its effectiveness in dissolving cationic residues like those left behind by polyquats.

Below are several shampoos featuring C14-16 olefin sulfonate, which is recognized for its deep-cleansing properties. For the most accurate and up-to-date information, we strongly advise reading the ingredient details provided on the product’s packaging. Additionally, product sizes may vary across different retail platforms, so it is prudent to confirm the product size to ensure it meets your requirements.

  1. Kinky Curly Come Clean

Ingredients: Purified Water, Organic Mandarin Orange Fruit, Organic Marigold Flower, Organic White Willow Bark, Organic Sea Kelp, C14-16 Olefin Sulfonate and Cocamidopropyl Betaine (Coconut Derived), Phytic Acid, Citric Acid, Sea Salt, Phenoxyethanol, and Natural Fragrance.

Kinky Curly Come Clean Shampoo
$17.00 ($2.12 / Ounce)
Buy at Amazon Buy at Target
03/18/2024 07:18 pm GMT

2. Uncle Funky’s Daughter Moisturizing Cleanser, Rich & Funky

Ingredients: Water, Extracts of Comfrey, Rosemary, Horsetail, Willow Bark, Calendula, Kelp, Cocamidopropyl Hydroxysultaine, Disodium Laureth Sulfosuccinate, Cocamidopropyl Betaine, Sodium C14-26 Olefin Sulfonate, Cocamide MEA, Polysorbate 20, Fragrance, Polyquaternium-10, PEG-55 Propylene Glycol Oleate, Cetrimonium Chloride, Citric Acid, Sodium Citrate, Methylchloroisothiazolinone, Methylisothiazolinone, Annatto.

3. Design Essentials Honey Creme Shampoo

Ingredients: Water/Aqua/Eau, Sodium C14-16 Olefin Sulfonate, Cocamidopropyl Hydroxysultaine, Acetamide MEA, Propylene Glycol, Polyquaternium-7, Glycol Distearate, Acrylamidopropyltrimonium Chloride/Acrylamide Copolymer, Pentylene Glycol, Fragrance (Parfum), PEG-150 Pentaerythrityl Tetrastearate, Propanediol, PPG-2 Hydroxyethyl Cocamide, Caprylyl Glycol, Disodium EDTA, Chlorphenesin, Ethylhexylglycerin, Hydroxypropyltrimonium Honey, Citric Acid, FD&C Yellow 5, D&C Orange 4.

4. Mielle Rosemary Mint Strengthening Shampoo

Ingredients: Water (Aqua, Eau), Sodium C14-16 Olefin Sulfonate, Cocamidopropyl Betaine, Polyquaternium-7, Cocamide MIPA, Glycol Stearate, Polyquaternium-10, Panthenol, Propylene Glycol, Mentha Piperita (Peppermint) Oil, Rosmarinus Officinalis (Rosemary) Leaf Oil, Disodium EDTA, Phytantriol, *Orbignya Oleifera (Babassu) Seed Oil, *Zingiber Officinale (Ginger) Root Oil, *Cocos Nucifera (Coconut) Oil, Equisetum Arvense (Horsetail Grass) Extract, Lawsonia Inermis (Henna) Extract, Rosmarinus Officinalis (Rosemary) Leaves Extract, Anthemis Nobilis (Chamomile) Flower Extract, Symphytum Officinale (Comfrey) Leaves Extract, Humulus Lupulus (Hops) Extract, Urtica Dioica (Nettle) Extract, Honey, Biotin, Ricinus Communis (Castor) Seed Oil, Phenoxyethanol, Benzoic Acid, Ethylhexylglycerin, Glycereth-2 Cocoate, Fragrance (Parfum) *Certified Organic Ingredient.

5. OUAI Medium Shampoo

Ingredients: Aqua (Water, Eau), Sodium C14-16 Olefin Sulfonate, Cocamidopropyl Betaine, Sodium Methyl Cocoyl Taurate, Cocamide Mipa, Glycol Distearate, Parfum (Fragrance), Amodimethicone, Hydroxypropyl Guar Hydroxypropyltrimonium Chloride, Glycerin, Citrus Japonica Fruit Extract, Panthenol, Hydrolyzed Keratin, Polyquaternium-7, Orbignya Oleifera Seed Oil, Cocos Nucifera (Coconut) Oil, Peg-150 Distearate, Sodium Lauroyl Glycinate, Cetrimonium Chloride (Anti-Static Agent/Agent Antistatique), C11-15 Pareth-7, Laureth-9, Trideceth-12, Cocoglucosides Hydroxypropyltrimonium Chloride, Acrylates Copolymer, Tocopherol, Peg-200 Hydrogenated Glyceryl Palmate, Peg-7 Glyceryl Cocoate, Disodium Edta, Citric Acid, Sodium Chloride, Sodium Hydroxide, Tetrasodium Edta, Phenoxyethanol, Sodium Benzoate, Potassium Sorbate, Benzyl Alcohol, Benzyl Salicylate, Limonene, Hexyl Cinnamal, Ci 15985 (Yellow 6).

Ouai Medium Shampoo
$33.00 ($3.30 / Fl Oz)
Buy at Amazon Buy at Ouai
03/18/2024 09:08 pm GMT

6. Verb Hydrating Shampoo

Ingredients: Water, Sodium C14-16 Olephin Sulfonate, Sodium Laurylsulfoacetate, Disodium Laureth Sulfosuccinate, Cocamidopropylamine Oxide, Cocamidopropyl Betaine, Cocamide DIPA, Polyquaternium-7, Sodium Cocoyl Isethionate, Glycol Distearate, Ammonium Chloride, Fragrance, Citric Acid, Panthenol (Pro-Vitamin B5), Silicone Quaternium-8, Guar Hydroxypropyltrimonium Chloride, Sodium PCA, Sodium Lactate, Arginine (L-Arginine), Aspartic Acid (L-Aspartic Acid), PCA, Hydrolyzed Quinoa, Aloe Barbadensis (Aloe Vera) Leaf Juice, Glycine, Alanine (L-Alanine), Serine (L-Serine), Tetrasodium EDTA, Valine (L-Valine), Threonine (L-Threonine), Proline (L-Proline), Isoleucine (L-Isoleucine), Hydrolyzed Vegetable Protein Pg-Propyl Silanetriol, Phenylalanine (L-Phenylaline), Histidine (L-Histidine), Sodium Lauroyl Methyl Isethionate, Polyquaternium-44, Argania Spinosa Kernal (ORGANIC Argan) Oil, Quaternium-95, Methylchloroisothiazolinone, Trimethylsilylamodimethicone, Propanediol, Methylisothiazolinone, Trideceth-12, Helianthus Annuus (Sunflower) Seed Extract, Glycerin, C12-15 Pareth-9, C11 15.

Verb Hydrating Shampoo
$20.00 ($1.67 / Fl Oz)
Buy at Amazon Buy at Verb
03/18/2024 09:09 pm GMT

Should We Have a Polyquat-Free Regimen?

“Don’t judge a book by its cover” aptly applies to the discussion around polyquaternium compounds in hair care. Polyquats are lauded for their exceptional conditioning properties and their ability to enhance the overall quality of hair. It’s essential not to let concerns over build-up eclipse the numerous benefits these ingredients offer.

Achieving balance in your hair care routine is crucial, as indulging in too much of anything can lead to negative outcomes. It’s also important to remember that a hair product is more than just a sum of its ingredients; it’s a carefully crafted formula where each component works in harmony to achieve desired effects on your hair. Therefore, it’s not fair to dismiss or blame a single ingredient, such as polyquats, for build-up issues.

Hair care products are formulated to deliver results through the collective action of their ingredients, tasked with enhancing your hair’s appearance and health. When these components are well-chosen and balanced by the formulator, polyquats included, they can work wonders without causing significant problems.

So, should you steer clear of polyquats entirely? The answer isn’t straightforward. If you’re in search of effective conditioning agents and are concerned about build-up, there are indeed alternatives. However, if polyquats have been beneficial for your hair without noticeable drawbacks, there’s no reason to eliminate them from your regimen. Regular use of a clarifying shampoo can help manage any potential build-up, maintaining your hair’s health and shine.

Still uncertain about polyquats in your hair care products or have other hair care queries? Consulting with a professional stylist or dermatologist can provide personalized advice and solutions tailored to your hair’s specific needs.


I’m just a girl who transformed her severely damaged hair into healthy hair. I adore the simplicity of a simple hair care routine, the richness of diverse textures, and the joy of sharing my journey from the comfort of my space.

My mission? To empower others with the tools to restore, and maintain healthy hair, and celebrate the hair they were born with!

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