Thousands of Americans, mostly women, have suffered major hair loss after using WEN hair products marketed by one of the nation’s largest direct marketing firms Guthy-Renker and its Hollywood celebrity hair stylist Chaz Dean, according to documents disclosed in a class action lawsuit filed this year in federal court in Los Angeles.
Court documents, which have not yet been publicly reported, show more than 17,000 American consumers have expressed complaints directly to Guthy-Renker, reporting that they had lost hair or gone bald after using WEN products. Under current federal cosmetic safety regulations, Guthy-Renker, whose second largest product line after the skincare treatment Proactive is WEN, had no obligation to report adverse health events or customer complaints to the Food and Drug Administration.
The federal law designed to ensure that personal care products -- a category that includes hair care products -- are safe has remained largely unchanged since 1938. The FDA does not require safety testing of personal care products before they are put on the shelf. And because the loophole-riddled federal cosmetics law permits companies to keep customer injury complaints secret from the agency and the public, the FDA was not notified of the scope of WEN’s problems.
It’s no surprise then that products like WEN can create an avalanche of adverse health complaints from thousands of people. This is yet another example of how desperately our federal cosmetic regulations need to be reformed.
Sens. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Susan Collins (R-Maine) have proposed a solution that would remedy this situation and others, introducing a bill called the Personal Care Products Safety Act (S.1014). This bipartisan legislation would reform regulation of personal care products, requiring companies to ensure that their products are safe before marketing them and giving FDA the tools it needs to protect the public. If enacted, this legislation would create a modern regulatory structure that would give the FDA some of the same basic tools it uses to regulate food and drugs, to ensure the safety of personal care products like WEN.
WEN products have been endorsed by such celebrities as Brooke Shields and Angie Harmon. On the WEN website, Brooke Shields states, “WEN dramatically changed the appearance of my hair. I haven’t seen this type of shine, volume and texture since I was a young model.” Many of Chaz Dean, Inc. and Guthy-Renker’s customers were convinced that if they purchased and used the hair care products, they too would possess the locks of these celebrity spokespeople.
Yet the public complaints tell a potentially darker story:
“Her hair literally just slipped right off her head,” wrote the mother of a 10-year old girl who had used WEN Cleansing Conditioner.
“I have now lost 50 percent (of my hair) since using WEN,” wrote “Kim” from Lubbock, Texas on October 10, 2015. “I’m down to washing my hair just once every two weeks because washing it makes the hair loss worse.”
“We both (HAD!!) thick hair, well, not anymore. It’s half the thickness it was. Two months is all it took to lose half of the thickness in our hair….not to mention how it burned our scalps and eyes,” wrote “Roni” from Mead, Wash., on September 24, describing injuries to herself and her mother.
So, what went wrong? Because the FDA doesn’t require companies to submit their product formulations, including specific ingredients in fragrance mixtures, no one has determined exactly which chemicals or what concentrations or mixtures of chemicals might have caused WEN customers to lose hair. WEN formulations on the market today may vary depending on the product distributor. Some chemicals used in WEN products are potentially risky ingredients. Methylisothiazolinone and its sister substance methylchloroisothiazolinone have been restricted in the European Union for use in personal care products, including hair products. These preservatives are sensitizing allergens. Methylisothiazolinone has been linked to contact dermatitis -- a red, itchy rash.
In addition, the WEN line is full of other chemical ingredients that are known allergens. For example, WEN uses an ingredient called Hydroxycitronellal, which is a fragrance component that has been strongly linked to allergic reactions. It also contains Hydroxyisohexyl 3-Cyclohexene Carboxaldehyde, which the European Union’s Scientific Committee on Consumer Product Safety has deemed unsafe for use in consumer products. Allergic reactions to these types of ingredients can be quite serious.
The legislative solution proposed by Sens. Feinstein and Collins would require companies like Chaz Dean, Inc. and Guthy-Renker to disclose the ingredients they use to the FDA. They would also be required to report adverse health events to the agency, including customer complaints like those submitted about WEN. The FDA would have the ability to recall dangerous products and require specific labeling and warnings for products that contain ingredients not suitable for all populations.
Until we reform our antiquated federal cosmetics regulations, consumers will remain vulnerable. When the settlement talks wind up, WEN products may still be on the market. The consumer’s best bet is to hope the Feinstein-Collins bill passes, so that companies like WEN will have to assess their products for safety and disclose the results to the FDA before they show up on store shelves.