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What Are Polyquats & Should You Avoid Them?

What Are Polyquats & Should You Avoid Them?

Polyquat is short for polyquaternium.  So, what is a polyquat?

Polyquats are cationic (positively charged) polymers that help to improve hair shine and softness while reducing frizz, breakage, and split-ends. These molecules make great conditioning agents and are especially useful for damaged, chemically treated, or high porosity (negatively charged) hair.  Polyquats typically work by forming a protective film around the hair, meaning they strongly bind to negatively charged hair, especially bleached or chemically treated hair.  If you want your hair to hold for days and not be affected by humidity, polyquats are great.  But because of the tight binding potential, some of these products can also accumulate on your hair and cause serious build-up. They appear to bind more tightly to low porosity hair long-term than to high porosity hair.  Thus, low porosity hair may get that coated feeling, and high porosity hair more of a tangled, matted, dull appearance with polyquat build-up.

Polyquats are often water-soluble but because they tightly grip onto hair, do not rinse off.  Even with sulfated shampoos, some polyquats are notoriously difficult to remove. The best detergent for removing polyquats is C14-16 olefin sulfonate (but it can be drying so it should be used in moderation).

Find the best products with C14-16 olefin sulfonate, here.

Like polyquats, silicones coat and strongly bind to the hair.  In addition, water-insoluble silicones repel water, which is why many curlies following the Curly Girl Method avoid using products containing silicones. Of course, not everyone will experience problematic build-up. However, if you are sensitive to build up you should avoid using products with polyquats in them.  Curlies with high porosity hair that tends to become stringy, sticky, crusty, dull, rough, or unusually frizzy when wet, may be better off avoiding products with polyquats. 

There are many different types of polyquats. Check out the list below to help you decide which polyquats might be right for you and which of your favorite hair products contain them.

Increased Potential for Build-Up (high molecular weight polyquats)

Guar Hydroxypropyltrimonium Chloride: While good for detangling wet hair, this polyquat is also known for making hair dull or causing hair matting. It is also a strong humectant. It can attract water to the hair and retain large quantities of it. This means that in hot humid climates it can result in frizzy, coarse hair.

Example: Giovanni FRIZZ BE GONE

Ingredients: Aqua (purified water), cetearyl alcohol, stearyl alcohol, guar hydroxypropyltrimonium chloride, xanthan gum, dimethicone, glycerin, polysorbate 60, *aloe barbadensis (aloe vera) leaf juice, fragrance, panthenol (pro-vitamin B-5), polysorbate 20, phenoxyethanol, citric acid, glycol stearate, citrus tangerina (tangerine) peel oil, *carica papaya (papaya) fruit extract, *panax ginseng root extract, *citrus grandis (grapefruit) fruit extract, *vanilla planifolia fruit extract, *saccharum officinarum (sugar cane) extract, *prunus amygdalus dulcis (sweet almond) fruit extract, annatto

Polyquaternium-4: Can form a film on the hair and is often used as a thickener and for hold in styling products, such as gels. Polyquaternium-4 can be difficult to remove even with a sulfated shampoo.

Example: Aussie Instant Freeze Gel

Ingredients:  Water/Eau, Laureth-23, Polyquaternium-4, Hydroxyethylcellulose, Benzyl Alcohol, Acrylates/Beheneth-25 Methacrylate Copolymer, Aminomethyl Propanol, DMDM Hydantoin, Fragrance/Parfum, Acrylates Copolymer, Disodium EDTA, Aloe Barbadensis Leaf Extract, Ecklonia Radiata Extract, Simmondsia Chinensis (Jojoba) Seed Oil

Polyquaternium-7: Provides a nice moisturizing feel and softness. Also a good detangler. May create volume and shine. Polyquaternium-7 has been used commercially in several different conditioning shampoos and deep conditioning treatments for extremely curly or coily hair.

Example: KeraCare Hydrating Detangling Shampoo

Ingredients:  Aqua/Water/Eau, Disodium Cocoamphodipropionate, Trideceth-7 Carboxylic Acid, Cocamide MIPA, Disodium Laureth Sulfosuccinate, Polysorbate 20, Glycol Stearate, Polyquaternium-7, Polyquaternium-10, Hydrolyzed Wheat Protein, Citric Acid, Fragrance/Parfum, Tetrasodium EDTA, Caprylyl Glycol, Phenoxyethanol, Benzyl Salicylate, Hexyl Cinnamal, Linalool, Alpha Isomethyl Ionone, Yellow # 5 (Cl 19140)

Polyquaternium-10:  Is often used in shampoos for detangling and in styling products to provide light hold. It fights frizz, improves manageability, and defines curls.  But polyquaternium-10 binds tightly to hair and can be difficult to remove even with a sulfated shampoo. 

Example: As I Am Born Curly Aloe Shampoo & Wash

Ingredients:  Aqua/Water/Eau, Aloe Barbadensis Leaf Juice, Disodium Cocoamphodipropionate, Polyquaternium-10, Vanilla Planifolia Fruit Extract, Citric Acid, Phenoxyethanol, CaprylylGlycol, Sodium Benzoate, Fragrance/Parfum

Polyquaternium-11: Provides light hold and is therefore often used in mousses. On the flip side, it can give hair a tacky feeling, before or after rinsing with water.

Example: Mixed Chicks Curl Sculptor

Ingredients:  Water (Aqua), Polyquaternium-11, Glycerin, Xanthan Gum, Ricinus Communis (Castor) Seed Oil, Polysorbate 20

Example: LUS Hydrating & Detangling Conditioner

Ingredients: Aqua/Water/Eau, Cetyl Alcohol, Cetearyl Alcohol, Ceteareth-20, Glycerin, Cetrimonium Chloride, Polyquaternium-11, Butyrospermum Parkii (Shea) Butter, Moringa Oleifera Seed Oil, Polyquaternium-7, Polyquaternium-37, Citric Acid, Phenoxyethanol, Ethylhexylglycerin, Fragrance/Parfum

Intermediate Potential for Build-Up (average molecular weight polyquats)

Polyquaternium-55:  This can over-condition fine or low-density hair. But it is an excellent heat protectant for dyed hair. 

Example: AG Hair Care Recoil Curl Activator

Ingredients: Water (Aqua, Eau), Polyquaternium-55, Hydroxypropyl Starch Phosphate, Cetyl Alcohol, Stearalkonium Chloride, Stearyl Alcohol, Ceteareth-20, Cetearyl Alcohol, Glycerin, Corn Starch Modified, Cetrimonium Chloride, Oryza Sativa (Rice) Extract, Acyl Coenzyme A Desaturase, Lactobacillus/Tomato Fruit Ferment Extract, Keratin Amino Acids, Salvia Officinalis (Sage) Leaf Extract, Urtica Dioica (Nettle) Extract, Chamomilla Recutita (Matricaria) Flower Extract, Humulus Lupulus (Hops) Extract, Rosmarinus Officinalis (Rosemary) Leaf Extract, Melissa Officinalis Leaf Extract, Achillea Millefolium Extract, Prunus Serotina (Wild Cherry) Bark Extract, Cymbopogon Schoenanthus Extract, Calendula Officinalis Flower Extract, Sodium PCA, Polyquaternium-10, Magnesium Sulfate, Silk Amino Acids, Hydrolyzed Keratin, Panthenol, Ethylhexyl Methoxycinnamate, Tetrasodium EDTA, Fragrance (Parfum), Butylene Glycol, Diazolidinyl Urea, Iodopropynyl Butylcarbamate 

Polyquaternium-59: This may protect against the sun due to its supposed UV light absorbing properties. Helpful if you spend a lot of time in the sun.

Example: L’ange Silk Vénom

Ingredients: Water/Aqua/Eau, Cetearyl Alcohol, Cetyl Alcohol, Behentrimonium Methosulfate, Stearyl Alcohol, Lactamide MEA, Stearalkonium Chloride, Ceteareth-20, Magnesium Aluminum Silicate, Fragrance/Parfum, Phenoxyethanol, Aloe Barbadensis Leaf Juice, Glycerin, Limnathes Alba (Meadowfoam) Seed Oil, Wheat Amino Acids, Sodium Benzoate, Hydrolyzed Keratin, Arctium Lappa (Burdock) Root Extract, Rosmarinus Officinalis (Rosemary) Leaf Extract, Caprylyl Glycol, Polyquaternium-59, Butylene Glycol, Ethylhexylglycerin, Hexylene Glycol, Disodium EDTA, Tocopheryl Acetate, Methylisothiazolinone, Limonene, Linalool, Hexyl Cinnamal, Butylphenyl Methylpropional

Low Potential for Build-Up (low molecular weight polyquats)

Polyquaternium-6: Strongly binds to damaged hair. However, polyquaternium-6 is more of a lubricating conditioner than a film-forming polymer so it provides less potential for build-up.

Example: Mielle Organics Pre-Shampoo Treatment with Mongongo Oil

Ingredients: Water (Aqua, Eau), Polyquaternium-6, Propanediol, Silk Amino Acids, Cetrimonium Chloride, Oleth-20, *Prunus Amygdalus Dulcis (Sweet Almond) Oil, *Plukenetia Volubilis (Sacha Inchi) Seed Oil, *Argania Spinosa (Argan) Nut Oil, *Schinziophyton Rautanenii,(Mongongo) Kernel Oil, *Vitis Vinifera (Grape) Seed Oil, Kukui Nut Oil, Hydroxyethylcellulose, Phenoxyethanol, Acrylamidopropyltrimonium Chloride/Acrylamide Copolymer, Mentha Piperita (Peppermint) Oil Benzoic Acid, Ethylhexylglycerin, Glycereth-2 Cocoate, Aminomethyl Propanol, Ci60730 (Violet 2)

Polyquaternium-37: Provides a nice moisturizing feel and softness. May create volume and shine so good for limp, thin, or fine hair. It thickens strands but is unlikely to weigh hair down. Polyquaternium-37 is not film-forming.

Example: Neutrogena Triple Moisture Silk Touch Leave-in Cream

Ingredients:  Water, Dimethicone*, Cyclopentasiloxane*, Glycerin, Behenyl Alcohol, Cyclohexasiloxane*, Ethylhexyl Isononanoate, Polyquaternium-37, Propylene Glycol Dicaprylate/Dicaprate, Behentrimonium Chloride, Phenyl Trimethicone, Fragrance, Cetrimonium Chloride, Limnanthes Alba (Meadowfoam) Seed Oil, Methylparaben, PPG-1 Trideceth-6, Propylparaben, Ethylhexyl Methoxycinnamate, Butyl Methoxydibenzoylmethane, Olea Europaea (Olive) Fruit Oil, Prunus Amygdalus Dulcis (Sweet Almond) Oil, Sodium Hydroxide (*note this product has a lot of silicones)

Polyquaternium-44: Causes less build-up than Guar Hydroxypropyltrimonium Chloride.

Example: Curl Junkie Coffee-coco Curl Creme™

Ingredients: Water/Aqua/Eau, Aloe Barbadensis Leaf Juice, Cetyl Alcohol, (Vegetable) Glycerin, Cetearyl Alcohol**, Behentrimonium Methosulfate, Glyceryl Stearate, Peg-100 Stearate, Panthenol, Cocos Nucifera (Coconut) Oil, Coffea Arabica (Coffee) Bean Butter, Orbignya Oleifera (Babassu) Seed Oil, Butyrospermum Parkii (Shea Butter) Fruit, Camelina Sativa (Camelina) Seed Oil, Hydrolyzed Wheat Protein, Hydrolyzed Wheat Starch, Vp/Va Copolymer, Peg -6 Caprylic/Capric Glycerides, Dimethicone Peg -8 Benzoate, Di-ppg -2 Myreth-10 Adipate, Polyquaternium-44, Sodium Pca, Lactic Acid, Sodium Lactate, Urea, Guar Hydroxypropyltrimonium Chloride, Sodium Chloride, Glycine Soja (Soybean) Oil, Mangifera Indica (Mango) Oil, Persea Gratissima (Avocado) Oil, Punica Granatum Linn (Pomegranate) Oil, Gardenia Tahitensis, Silk Amino Acids, Hydroxypropyl Starch Phosphate, Agave Nectar Extract, Tocopherol, Phenoxyethanol, Caprylyl Glycol, Tetrasodium Edta, Fragrance/Parfum, *Limonene. *Fragrance Component

Polyquaternium-47: Softens and detangles hair.

Example: DpHue Apple Cider Vinegar Detangling Conditioner

Ingredients: Water/Aqua/Eau, Cetearyl Alcohol, Caprylic/Capric Triglyceride, Behentrimonium Chloride, Cetrimonium Chloride, Stearalkonium Chloride, Diheptyl Succinate, Capryloyl Glycerin/Sebacic Acid Copolymer, Polyquaternium-47, Hydrolyzed Vegetable Protein, Apple Cider Vinegar, Glycerin, Hydroxyethylcellulose, Argania Spinosa Kernel Oil, Macadamia Ternifolia Seed Oil, Spathodea campanulata Flower Extract, Taraxacum Officinale (Dandelion) Leaf Extract, Lavandula Angustifolia (Lavender) Extract, Aloe Barbadensis Leaf Juice, Tocopheryl Acetate, Butylene Glycol, Helianthus Annuus (Sunflower) Seed Extract, Tetrasodium Glutamate Diacetate, Sodium Hydroxide, Phenoxyethanol, Ethylhexylglycerin, Fragrance (Parfum)

Polyquaternium-69: Provides hold and is often found in gels. Is a film-former but likely removed with 1-2 shampooings.

Example: Jessicurl Spiralicious Gel

Ingredients:  Aqua (Water), Polyquaternium-69, Hydroxyethylcellulose, Simmondsia Chinensis (Jojoba) Seed Oil, C12-15 Alkyl Benzoate, Panthenol, Polyquaternium-11, Diazolidinyl Urea, Iodopropynyl Butylcarbamate, Alcohol

Polyquaternium-87: Causes less build-up than Guar Hydroxypropyltrimonium Chloride. Good detangler and for frizz control. Is a film-former but likely removed with 1-2 shampooings.

Unclear What The Build-Up Potential Of These Polyquats Is:

Polyquaternium-16: Ability to add volume at the roots. Often found in hair sprays.

Example: Aussie Glossified Glossing Spritz Spray

Ingredients:  Water, VP/ Methacrylamide/Vinyl Imidazole Copolymer, Zingiber Officinale (Ginger) Root Extract, Fragrance, Polyquaternium-16, Phenoxyethanol, PEG-40 Hydrogenated Castor Oil, Sodium Benzoate, Disodium EDTA, Cetrimonium Chloride, Citric Acid

Polyquaternium-22: Leaves your hair more manageable.

Example: Maui Moisture Lightweight Hydration + Hibiscus Water Shampoo

Ingredients: Aloe Barbadensis Leaf Juice, Water (Aqua), Sodium C14-16 Olefin Sulfonate, Cocamidopropyl Betaine, Cocos Nucifera (Coconut) Water, Hibiscus Abelmoschus Flower/Seed Water, Passiflora Incarnata Fruit Extract, Citrullus Vulgaris (Watermelon) Fruit Extract, Polyquaternium-22, Linoleamidopropyl PG-Dimonium Chloride Phosphate, Polyquaternium-39, Undecane, Tridecane, Sodium Hydrolyzed Potato Starch Dodecenylsuccinate, PEG-150 Pentaerythrityl Tetrastearate, PPG-2 Hydroxyethyl Cocamide, Glycerin, Propylene Glycol, Maltodextrin, Hexylene Glycol, Sodium Citrate, Citric Acid, Sodium Hydroxide, Sodium Benzoate, Fragrance (Parfum).

Polyquaternium-28: Provides hold in gels.

Example: Ouidad ACC Humidity Resistant gel

Ingredients: Aqua (Water), Butylene Glycol, Polyquaternium-28, Sericin, Chamomilla Recutita (Matricaria) Flower Extract, Actinidia Chinensis (Kiwi) Fruit Extract, Lawsonia Inermis (Henna) Extract, Wheat Amino Acids, Hydrolyzed Wheat Protein/PVP Crosspolymer, Tocopheryl Acetate, Retinyl Palmitate, Panthenol, Polyquaternium-7, Guar Hydroxypropyltrimonium Chloride, Behentrimonium Chloride, Cetrimonium Chloride, PEG-60 Almond Glycerides Glycerin, PPG-26-Buteth-26, PEG-40 Hydrogenated Castor Oil, VP/DMAPA Acrylates Copolymer, Hydroxyethylcellulose, Potassium Sorbate, Disodium EDTA, Hexylene Glycol, Caprylyl Glycol, Ethylhexylglycerin, Phenoxyethanol, Parfum (Fragrance), Alpha-Isomethyl Ionone, Benzyl Benzoate, Benzyl Salicylate, Butylphenyl Methylpropional, Citronellol, Hexyl Cinnamal, Hydroxycitronellal, Limonene, Linalool

Scientific Resources We Found Helpful

Handbook of cosmetic science and technology.  Barel, André O., Marc Paye, and Howard I. Maibach, eds. Handbook of cosmetic science and technology. CRC Press, 2014.

Polymers in hair products. Robbins, Clarence R.  Chemical and physical behavior of human hair. Springer, Berlin, Heidelberg, 2012. 489-535.

Preparation and Potential for Application of Cationic Polysaccharides in Cosmetic Formulations.

Daly, William H., et al. Science and Technology of Polymers and Advanced Materials. Springer, Boston, MA, 1998. 493-512.

The Use of Cationizing Reagents in the Preparation of Conditioning Polymers for Hair and Skin Care. Feigenbaum, H., and D. Bischoff. SKW QUAB Chemicals, Incorporated Park 80 (2009).

A preliminary investigation of the interaction of a quat with silicones and its conditioning benefits on hair.  Nanavati, Shrenik, and Annette Hami, Journal of the Society of Cosmetic Chemists 45.3 (1994): 135-148.

Polymers and polymer chemistry in hair products.  Robbins, Clarence R. Chemical and Physical Behavior of Human Hair (2002): 345-385.

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View Comments (2)
  • Thank you, I have low-porosity, dense, thick, wavy hair and I have been struggling with finding the right products that don’t cause buildup. I just started to learn about Polyquats and I feel like this article has taught me everything I need to know! Thanks especially for mentioning the molecular weights – this was SO informative, thank you!!

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