Cetrimonium Chloride Is the Secret to Hydrated Curls
Meet cetrimonium chloride. You’ve met before, but you probably haven’t noticed. That’s okay—once you know what it can do, you’ll be inseparable.
Cetrimonium chloride isn’t the sexiest-sounding ingredient, but it’s a formulation workhorse. Brands primarily use it as an emulsifier that can help to keep ingredients blended that wouldn’t ordinarily play nice (oil and water, for example). It also has some antiseptic properties, meaning it helps to inhibit the growth of any microorganisms that would cause a product to spoil.
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But the best benefits (at least if you’re not a full-time cosmetic chemist) are the ones you can really see. If you’ve ever bought an anti-frizz shampoo or detangling spray, cetrimonium chloride was probably there giving you amazing results without any of the fanfare. A great all-around conditioner, smoothing agent, and detangler, cetrimonium chloride is the unsung hero of curly, coarse, and coily hair everywhere.
How can you wield this underdog ingredient to your advantage? We asked hair experts to give us a formal introduction to our new best friend, and give us the best ways to use it to hydrate and define curly, frizzy hair. Keep reading to learn all about cetrimonium chloride, including some standout products that feature the multitasker.
MEET THE EXPERT
Michele Green, MD, is a board-certified dermatologist based in New York City.
Morgan Rabach, MD, is a board-certified dermatologist based in New York City. She is the co-founder of LM Medical PLLC.
David Adams is a consultant trichologist and co-owner of FourteenJay Salon.
What Is Cetrimonium Chloride?
Cetrimonium chloride is what's called a cationic surfactant, according to New York-based dermatologist Michele Green. Surfactants are molecules that both absorb and repel water (hence this ingredient’s ability to bring two warring elements like oil and water together). Cationic just means that it can carry a charge. In this case, it’s a positive charge.
“It’s an electrostatic reaction,” says trichologist David Adams. “Cetrimonium chloride has a positive charge, while the hair has a negative charge, so it has a magnetic attraction. The positive and negative forces attract each other and bind together.” The result? Neutralized static for a smooth, soft hair shaft.
TYPE OF INGREDIENT: Detangler, conditioner, emulsifier, antiseptic
MAIN BENEFITS: Smoothing frizz and flyaways, deep-conditioning coarse hair, detangling long or curly hair
WHO SHOULD USE IT: Wavy, curly, kinky, or frizzy hair types
HOW OFTEN TO USE IT: Safe for daily use
Benefits of Cetrimonium Chloride for Hair
There’s a reason cetrimonium chloride is everywhere. Not only is it the reason your detangler works so well or your conditioner completely revives your hair, but it also has multiple uses within the formulation.
Smooths, softens, and detangles hair: “A surfactant in hair care is essential for the dispersing of oil and water, which is a necessary step for effectively cleansing and conditioning the hair,” says Green. “Cetrimonium chloride will smooth the cuticles of the hair, soften it, and give it a silky touch.” This is likely its most powerful use (and most relevant to you and me)—which is why you’ll find it in most conditioners, especially ones formulated for frizzy or curly hair.
Reduces static and flyaways: “Since the chemical bond of this molecule is positive, it attracts the negative charges that hair builds up in the cold, dry winter,” says New York-based dermatologist Morgan Rabach. That’s what makes it such a great anti-frizz and anti-static agent—it's actively neutralizing the root cause of static. (Fun fact: Static happens more in the winter because, yes, we’re wearing hats and hats cause friction. But electric charges need humidity to travel, so without it, they’ll stay put in your hair in dry climates and cause those flyaways. The more you know!)
Emulsifies formulations: If you see it low on the ingredient list and your product isn’t particularly conditioning or smoothing, it's possible that the cetrimonium chloride is being used as an emulsifier within the formulation. “Cetrimonium chloride works to unify the other ingredients in a haircare product, resulting in a smoothly blended shampoo, conditioner, or leave-in product,” Green explains.
Preserves ingredients: Not all ingredients are meant to last, but cetrimonium chloride can help to fight off bacteria and extend the life of your products, keeping them clean, safe, and effective for longer.
Hair Type Considerations
Any hair type can benefit from a great conditioner, but our experts agree that cetrimonium chloride is the ultimate secret weapon for curly, kinky, coily, or unruly hair. Because it has the charge to neutralize static-causing ions, the most effective results will be evident on flyaways and frizz—two common happenings for coarser, curlier hair.
Those with long hair can also benefit, since a conditioning surfactant like cetrimonium chloride can help to detangle long strands that tend to feel dry and knotted after a wash.
How to Use Cetrimonium Chloride for Hair
While it’s generally hard to go wrong, Green recommends either looking for rinse-off products or sticking to stylers, detanglers, and leave-in conditioners with a concentration of no more than 0.25%, as it could irritate sensitive scalps.
The smoothing effects are temporary and will definitely wear away with exposure to heat, environmental stressors, and the general dirt or sweat. “It's recommended to use the product regularly to achieve maximum benefits,” Green says.
Other than that? It’s fairly straightforward. According to Rabach, “most products have it,” so you won’t have to look hard to find your new favorite hair product. But if you’re looking specifically for its smoothing and defining properties, stick to deep conditioners, styling creams, and detanglers.