The Wen Hair Controversy Is Not Over

Photographed by Christelle de Castro.
Update: Wen has responded to the FDA investigation with the following statement: "The Wen by Chaz Dean family cares deeply about everyone's hair health. We encourage people who inquire about any hair issues to seek qualified medical assistance because it is a complex topic. Wen by Chaz Dean is safe, and millions of bottles have been sold over the last 16 years. We have consistently cooperated with the FDA and will continue to do so. We love our brand and our customers."

Update, 11:30 a.m. July 21:
The FDA is now getting involved in the Wen controversy from last year. According to a recent statement, a team is investigating the 127 reports the agency has received from consumers about the brand's cleansing-conditioner products. The reports include complaints of hair loss, hair breakage, balding, and itching. The FDA also noted that it is looking into more than 21,000 alleged complaints reported directly to Chaz Dean, Inc. and Guthy-Renker, LLC.
This story was originally published on December 16, 2015, at 3 p.m.

You might've heard about the beauty brand Wen and its sulfate-free cleansing conditioner. And, if you're not familiar with the product, you've probably come across the brand's infomercials at some point during one of your late-night channel surfs. Wen basically ushered in the mainstream co-washing movement — bringing a non-lathering product to the market that has since given birth to a number of copycats. But the Wen name is quickly losing credibility with the latest news.

The Daily Beast reports that a group of 200 women in 40 states have filed a class-action lawsuit against Wen by Chaz Dean and maker Guthy-Renker, claiming that the products can cause "severe and possibly permanent damage to hair, including significant hair loss to the point of visible bald spots, hair breakage, scalp irritation, and rash."

These concerns are backed up by a number of harsh reviews and social media posts. The most recent review on Sephora reads: "I had been interested in Wen hair care for a while, because of the amazing shows/commercials. I have been using the conditioner for about two months. My hair started to fall out, and I wasn't sure why. I would see huge clumps in the drain, strands on my clothes, and I could just pull a handful of strands out of my ends. If you look at my hair, the hair loss is not visible, but I see it fall out everyday. The only thing that had changed was the Wen conditioner, and another Wen styling product. This conditioner makes my hair incredibly soft, but it's not worth it! I recently found out that lots of people have reported hair loss! This is not a coincidence! Don't take a chance! Do not buy this product! There are other conditioners that will provide the soft, shiny results, without the hair loss! I am starting my hunt for a new conditioner ASAP!"

Followed up by: "I was introduced to this product a couple of years ago and thought it was the most revolutionary product I had ever used. However, for the past year I have been loosing my hair at an alarming rate. I can't be 100% sure it is the Wen Product but let me tell you my hair is falling out by the handfuls!" One woman wrote a particularly heart-breaking cry-for-help post on the brand's Facebook page earlier this month (see below). The comment portion also includes a number of customers relaying similar instances.

I can't leave my house I'm depressed wen hair products is responsible for my hair loss I have been shampooing and...

Posted by Tracie Hashton on Monday, 7 December 2015

On top of the hair-damage claims, the class-action lawsuit states that Guthy-Renker reportedly removed negative online reviews and erased comments about hair loss from the Wen Facebook page (although, clearly, many remain).

The issue has been so hard to solve because nobody's been able to pinpoint what, exactly, is at the root of the problem. The Daily Beast states that the complaint claims Wen products contain a "caustic ingredient that causes a chemical reaction and damages hair and follicles,” as well as "numerous harsh chemicals and known human allergens.” But as far as cosmetic chemist Ni'Kita Wilson can tell from the product label, she doesn't see any red flags. "When a chemist hears 'caustic ingredient,' we’re looking for some type of alkaline ingredient that’s used in perms or hair relaxers...something like sodium hydroxide, potassium hydroxide," she says. "If they’re talking about the conditioning agents, well, that’s BS because these same conditioning agents are in every brand of conditioner from high-end to mass...I’m not disputing the claim at all; something is going on — that’s clear. It’s just not obvious just by looking at the ingredient list." (In addition, some blogs claim that Wen has not provided the full ingredient list to consumers.)

Hairstylist Nathaniel Hawkins stresses the importance of buying products from legitimate retailers and steering clear of sketchy sites — because, as we know, the gray market is real. “Sephora [and] QVC do a lot of due diligence on their side to make sure the products they sell are safe and effective. One of the issues with online shopping is lots of mysterious things like purchasing on Amazon and not really knowing who you’re purchasing from... Counterfeit beauty is a big business," he says. While he notes that he doesn't think this is the sole cause of the hair damage — since, according to Hawkins, the changes in formulations by these third-party distributors are typically very minor — it could be a factor.
Hawkins adds that it's important to keep in mind that people react to products very differently. "Maybe [these customers] don’t stop using it at the first sign of discomfort — especially a product that’s different from what they’ve used in the past — and they’re thinking, Oh, maybe I just have to get used to it," he says. "Maybe they’ve read that they have to get used to that un-shampoo’d feeling, and they think that’s just a part of the adjustment, and they’ve waited too long until they’ve had a longer exposure to the ingredient that is creating the irritation or an allergic reaction. And maybe the inflammation gets to the point where it becomes a bigger problem."

Joshua Zeichner, MD, dermatologist and director of cosmetic research at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City, has another theory. "Typically, when hairs fall out in clumps, it may be due to physical or emotional stressors on the body. In reaction to a stressful event to the body — be it an illness, childbirth, or in some cases even a severe allergic reaction — the hair can shift into a resting phase in which it is rapidly shed. The good news about the process, which is called telogen effluvium, [is that it] resolves on its own after several months, as long as the stressor has been removed from the picture.

According to The Daily Beast, the parties in the lawsuit are attempting to settle the case outside of court, so the hair-shedding mystery may never be solved. But one thing remains certain: Despite the complaints and suits, Wen will continue to stand by its products. "There is no scientific evidence to support any claim that our hair-care products caused anyone to lose their hair. There are many reasons why individuals may lose their hair, all unrelated to Wen. We intend to vigorously contest the allegations made," Guthy-Renker said in a statement. "We take great pride in the quality of our products and believe every product meets our high standards. We want all of our customers to have positive experiences with our products, and we encourage any customer with any questions to contact us."

If you are experiencing hair loss of any kind — whether associated with a new product or not — heed Dr. Zeichner's advice and make sure to visit a board-certified dermatologist for evaluation.

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