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Polyquats Explained

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Polyquats explained

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Polyquats or polyquaternium, often found in hair products, have been known to have various uses, from conditioning to detangling hair.

But have you ever wondered what these ingredients do for your curly hair? Specifically, Polyquaternium-10 and Polyquaternium-11 are cationic polymers that are present in a wide variety of hair products designed for curly hair.

While they may sound intimidating, these ingredients are actually key players in keeping your curly locks healthy, moisturized, and full of body, or are they?

In this post, we will examine the definition and function of polyquats as well as their likelihood of causing build-up. Then, we will consider if their usage is advisable or not.

Let’s first dive into some basic chemistry.

What Is A Polyquat?

Image of liquid substance in clear bowl for Polyquats Explained blog.

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 a combination of two words, “poly & quat” and “poly & quaternium.”

In chemistry, poly stands for the 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.

Advancements in science and technology have led to the refinement of polyquats over time. As a result, developers continue to create new polyquat variants with improved effects and substantivity.

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

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

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 and 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 the hair surface properties by boosting detangling and providing ease of combing for wet and dry hair.

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.

Due to the damage, hair becomes weak, brittle, and loses protein content, resulting in a lack of shine and vitality. Therefore, we require a plan of action for recovery.

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.

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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 crucial to use a hair care product that can enhance the state of our hair. We require a solution that can restore the outer surface of the hair shaft, improve detangling, reduce fiber-to-fiber friction, and control frizz.

When it comes to hair care products, many ingredients can help improve the quality of your hair.

This is where polyquats come in.

But, how does using cationic ingredients like polyquats help fix these issues in haircare formulations?

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 a negative charge at its shaft. This brings them to a coulombic interaction (the interaction between electric charges, which is electrostatic in nature), where the polymer binds to the negative site at the hair surface.

Polymer nitrogen gets attached to the hair while long carbon chains are directed toward the surface. This provides a hydrophobic lubricity effect, resulting in effective hair conditioning as the polyquaternium binds to the proteins on the hair’s surface.

The stronger the binding, the better the hair conditioning. However, the major challenge with this interaction lies in water wash-off during the rinse-off stage.

To provide long-lasting conditioning, it is necessary to use polyquats that are resistant to being washed off.

Does Polyquats Build Up on Hair?

Frequent use and overuse of hair care products containing polyquat polymers have caused a negative reputation for their build-up potential, which is a major concern.

Overusing products containing cationic polymers can result in weighed-down, limp, heavy, and greasy hair.

When you increase the use of polyquats, it alters the hair surface, prevents the penetration of active ingredients and water molecules into the hair fiber, and can make your hair appear dull.

ALL conditioning ingredients can cause 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.

Chemically treated hair experiences a more significant build-up problem as it has more negative sites and a reduction in hair diameter.

Common Examples with Build-up Potential

Polyquaternium – 6: (molecular weight 150,000 units) shows a higher deposition with chemically treated hair and is known to cause significant build-up, which is potentially due to the 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 hair.

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.

Are Polyquats Bad for Curly Hair

People often ask me if polyquaternium is bad for curly hair. Polyquats are functional ingredients that serve different purposes such as conditioning, detangling, or creating a film for holding a product.

They are very useful for chemically treated, damaged hair, or hair needing a lasting hold for detangling purposes. If you’re looking for a styling product that provides a hold that lasts all day or can withstand humidity, this could be a great option as well.

However, due to the strong binding potential, certain hair products may build up on your hair and cause significant build-up.

But, it is important to use the right polymer for the specific hair type and condition. Lower molecular versions of polyquats are preferred for naturally curly, wavy hair as they do not build up.

Not everyone may face build-up issues, but if you are susceptible to build-up, it is advisable to refrain from using products containing polyquats.

Also, using a clarifying shampoo every month or two helps prevent product build-up.

Overall, polyquats are an effective conditioning agent, but using them in moderation and the right version for your hair type is essential.

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 feeling (touching 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.

Below are a few shampoos that contain the ingredient C14-16 olefin sulfonate.

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.

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.

Design Essentials, Honey Creme Moisture Retention Super Detangling Conditioning 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.

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.

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).

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.

Should We Have a Polyquat-Free Regimen?

“Never judge a book by its cover”!

Polyquats are fantastic active and functional ingredients offering superior hair conditioning and boosting overall hair quality. The build-up problem must not overshadow their overall performance and effectiveness.

To prevent excessive build-up, strive for a balanced hair care routine as the saying goes, “Too much of anything is bad”.

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 about 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. They will be able to help you find the best solution for your hair.


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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