Standard vs. Coacervate Conditioner

Industry expert Tony O'Lenick explores the difference between a standard conditioner and a coacervate conditioner.

Standard hair-conditioning agents, historically applied after washing and more recently during washing, are applied to soften the hair, to help dissipate static electric charges and otherwise aid in hair’s manageability. Conditioners are applied in the form of aqueous emulsions or dispersions, more or less creamy in nature, and are often referred to in the trade as "crème rinses." They often contain oily materials and fatty quats, which are often incompatible with the anionic water soluble shampoos.

With the advent of two-in-one shampoos, new technologies are needed to allow for the addition of conditioning agents to shampoos. This can be accomplished by selecting water soluble conditioners or by preparing special, small particles that do not defoam the shampoo. A coacervate is a spherical aggregation of lipid molecules making up a colloidal inclusion, which is held together by hydrophobic forces. Coacervates measure 1 to 100 micrometers across. They possess osmotic properties and form spontaneously from certain weak organic solutions. The term derives from the Latin coacervate, meaning to assemble together or cluster.1 

This approach often results in a milky shampoo that foams, cleanses and provides both good wet and dry conditioning. One of the first patents to cover coacervate technology in personal care applications is US Patent 3,964,500, assigned to Drakoff, titled "Lusterizing shampoo containing a polysiloxane and a hair-bodying agent," issued June 22, 1976. The conditioning agent incorporated was silicone coacervate. The patent states that “the reason for the enhancing effect of the hair-bodying and lusterizing is that the silicone precipitates upon dilution of the shampoo composition and application to the hair and deposits on the hair strands."

US patent 5,932,202 assigned to Guskey et al., titled "Conditioning shampoo composition," was issued Aug. 3, 1999, and discloses a coacervate composition that combines a surfactant system, cationic guar derived polymer, and nonvolatile silicone having a particle size of less than 2 microns. Applicants have reportedly found that utilizing a select cationic cellulose-derived polymer, in place of the cationic guar-derived polymer, in a specific surfactant system optimizes the conditioning coacervate formed, resulting in significantly improved conditioning performance.

Coacervate technology is a sophisticated way to deliver the benefits of silicone vis-à-vis conditioning while not negatively impacting foam and cleansing. There will likely be a number of new developments using this technology in many application areas in the personal care market.

-Tony O'Lenick, Siltech LLC

1. The Internet Encyclopedia of Science, Coacervate, Available at: (Accessed May 20, 2008)

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