Since launching in 2014, Olaplex has become the go-to brand for hair repair. The company, with its patented technology designed to essentially reconnect broken hair bonds, paved the way for an entire category around 'bond repair hair-care — and it has resulted in countless imitators to boot.
But now, Olaplex is facing legal trouble due to customer complaints accusing the enormously popular products — which raked in $176 million in sales last year as of the third quarter — of causing dryness, damage, and breakage, with some users even reporting hair loss. If your mind just flashed to the Olaplex bottles in your shower right now, don't panic. While it’s true that there is an active lawsuit against Olaplex Holdings Inc. fuelled by a number of allegations from dissatisfied users, experts advise against jumping to any conclusions based on these claims.
What is the Olaplex controversy?
The class action lawsuit, filed in federal court in California earlier this month, seeks to hold Olaplex Holdings Inc. accountable for $75,000 in damages. The 28 plaintiffs in the suit claim that Olaplex products caused injuries to the hair and scalp, some reportedly resulting in hair loss.
These consumers allege that Olaplex products caused their hair to become "dry, brittle, frizzy, and dull" — a negative review, to be sure. The claims around hair loss are particularly alarming: one plaintiff, Jessica Auriana, told Good Morning America that after using shampoo, conditioner and clarifying shampoo from Olaplex for just two months, she lost 20% of her hair.
@nicolasjequierhair The olaplex lawsuit opens the debate on HOW you need to approach your hair treatments #olaplex #haircare #hair ♬ Spooky, quiet, scary atmosphere piano songs - Skittlegirl Sound
What is Olaplex saying?
Olaplex denies all of the above: "Olaplex products do not cause hair loss or hair breakage," the brand wrote to Refinery29 via email. "Olaplex products are safe and effective, as millions of our customers can happily attest."
The company points to its safety tests as proof: "We have publicly released test results from independent third-party laboratories, going above and beyond industry standards, to demonstrate this. We have full confidence and believe in the safety and efficacy of our products." It’s worth noting that these are Human Repeat Insult Patch Tests (HRIPT), which Olaplex explains via email is "an industry standard test which follows a strict protocol to ensure the product(s) tested do not cause skin irritation or skin sensitivity." The brand also said it has "conducted testing on sensitive skin for several product lines to further ensure the safety of products," with the results showing that the products have "no irritant or sensitising potential." The brand has released those findings, too.
Last week, the company's CEO, JuE Wong, posted a video to the Olaplex Instagram and Twitter accounts directly addressing the lawsuit. "We are prepared to vigorously defend our company, our brand, and our products against these baseless accusations," said Wong. "We want to reassure our community of professional stylists, customers, and fans that they can continue to use our products with confidence."
We are sharing this Statement for the millions of women who have been mentally stressed from the inaccurate narrative on the Lilial phase-out. We are calling for calm and for all of us to help each other and to let the facts guide us. #olaplex pic.twitter.com/pzpPcsQ0PW— Olaplex (@olaplex) March 3, 2022
Are there ingredients in Olaplex that are unsafe?
This isn't the first Olaplex safety concern to go viral. In March of last year, there were reports linking Olaplex to infertility, with customers calling out a specific ingredient, lilial, a fragrance banned in the European Union. Up until recently, this was used in very low concentration (0.0119%) in Olaplex products sold in the United States. In 2022, Olaplex phased lilial out of its hair products out of “an abundance of caution” (more on that in a moment), with the conversation around the decision to reformulate quickly devolving into a fear-mongering frenzy.
The recent lawsuit pinpoints another ingredient — panthenol, or vitamin B5 — as a potential irritant that could possibly cause the "inflamed, blistered, flaking, or scaling skin" these customers report having experienced.
But let’s start with lilial. "Llilial, otherwise known as butylphenyl methylpropional (BMHCA), is commonly known as a fragrance ingredient used in cosmetic products as well as in non-cosmetic products," explains Rani Ghosh, a registered toxicologist who has worked for some of the largest personal care companies in the world. That said, as of 2020, the EU classified lilial as “reprotoxic” (the potential risk from a chemical to adversely affect fertility).
Lilial was banned in the EU from cosmetic use as a precautionary measure after animal data (studies on rats) showed adverse response on the liver and male reproductive system. “There has been no direct data to suggest that lilial causes infertility to humans," Ghosh clarifies. There’s still no FDA regulation on lilial in the US, however, Olaplex no longer uses the ingredient. No clinical studies have been conducted testing the relationship between lilial and hair loss, so we don't know if there's a link.
Okay, but what about panthenol? "Panthenol is a ubiquitous ingredient used in many hair-care products, like shampoos and conditioners," says Ghosh. "Panthenol is derived from vitamin B5, also known as pantothenic acid, which is a natural constituent of hair." Ghosh says to turn your hair-care products around and check the ingredients list right now — chances are you’re already using it. Beyond Olaplex, countless hair-care brands highlight panthenol as a key ingredient in their products. The benefits of panthenol, according to trichologists and doctors, include smoothing and strengthening hair; some studies even show that it could stimulate hair growth.
So is it safe? "There is no direct data to suggest that panthenol causes hair loss or compromised scalp health," says Ghosh. "If there was any truth in this, it would not be a staple ingredient in a lot of our favourite hair-care products."
Furthermore, according to Bessam Farjo, a hair restoration surgeon at the UK’s Farjo Hair Institute, due to the cosmetic regulations that all companies have to comply with (the "test results from independent third-party laboratories" Wong mentions), hair products are proven safe for use — or they just wouldn’t be on the shelves. "Hair products are tested vigorously, and standard shampoos and [conditioners] don't cause hair loss," says Dr Farjo. "Only severe chemicals would cause such damage. If something is irritating to the hair, you're more likely to get temporary damage to the outside of the hair, rather than near the root."
Due in part to alarmist marketing tactics used by some “clean” beauty brands, and repeated by influencers that vilify so-called “dangerous” ingredients and “chemicals” that have been used safely in cosmetics for years, there’s a general air of distrust between beauty brands and consumers at the moment in regard to what’s safe and what’s not. “There is so much misinformation on the internet now; you should take that with a grain of salt and try to understand the reasoning behind a claim," says hair loss expert Dr William Yates, MD, FACS.
Cosmetic chemist Jen Novakovich says she would not worry about either lilial or panthenol as a consumer. “Like any other product,” Novakovich tells R29, “hair-care products are required to be safe when they are placed on the market.” Ingredients will come with toxicological data to inform best and safe usage, adds Novakovich, and other tests which look at the formulation as a whole will follow. When products are placed on the market by reputable companies, they should continue to monitor safety, says Novakovich. “For these brands, consumers should feel confident that they’ve done their due diligence to ensure products are safe.” What these experts are telling us, in no uncertain terms: Olaplex is fundamentally safe to use, and you don’t need a Reddit thread to tell you otherwise.
For what it’s worth, Olaplex is not the only popular hair brand to be accused of allegedly causing hair problems. In 2020, curl-care brand DevaCurl faced a public lawsuit with thousands of people claiming the brand’s hair products caused hair loss. Like Olaplex, DevaCurl denied the claims and then reformulated a handful of products. According to a Bloomberg Law article, Deva Concepts LLC and customers who alleged hair and scalp issues, secured final approval of a $5.2 million class settlement from a federal court in New York. In 2016, a very similar hair loss lawsuit was filed against Wen Beauty; the company denied allegations but agreed to a $26 million settlement. In many ways, this Olaplex suit feels a bit like déjà vu.
Can Olaplex cause hair loss?
Of course, these claims should always be investigated. As it stands, it seems that the ingredients of concern, lilial and panthenol, are technically safe according to US regulators — so why are some consumers claiming to experience hair loss after using Olaplex? As frustrating and devastating as hair loss can be, according to experts, the truth is that it’s remarkably difficult to peg to a single cause.
"The most common cause for hair loss in men and women is genetics," says Dr Yates — as in, it runs in your family. Additionally, there are specific health and lifestyle factors with proven links to hair loss, including hormone disruptions, like pregnancy and menopause; stress; nutrient deficiencies, like low iron; autoimmune disorders; certain medications; and potentially even COVID-19. The British Medical Journal reported that people experiencing long Covid have reported a wider set of symptoms than previously thought, including hair loss, though scientific information to support this is scarce.
So can hair treatment products, Olaplex or otherwise, actually be at least a partial factor in hair loss? It's uncommon. According to Dr Farjo, hair products have the potential to cause damage, but it's unlikely to result in hair loss. "Some products may cause damage to the hair shaft on the outside and this would be temporary damage," he explains. If a product or treatment comes in direct contact with the scalp, however, "it can burn the skin, which can affect hair loss," he adds.
A word to the wise: before linking hair loss to your Olaplex products, see a doctor. "It's never a good idea to self-diagnose," says Dr Farjo. "Once you notice you are losing hair — and by that I mean a visual difference and not 'I can see hairs in my hand,' as we all shed hairs each day regardless — then it's worth investigating.” Additionally, Dr Farjo says that if the hair loss is occurring over an extended period of more than three months then it makes sense to see a doctor, dermatologist, or trichologist for the purpose of obtaining a diagnosis.
Just remember to read the label — it's there for a reason. Beauty influencer Abbey Yung reminds us that Olaplex No.3 (the brand’s first at-home treatment product, which remains one of its most popular today) was designed to be used one to three times a week before shampooing, not as a leave-in product as many people on social media do, she explains. "I've seen a lot of people apply No.3 on their hair, slick their hair back in a bun, and then leave it on all day long," Yung said on TikTok. You’d be better off not deviating from the usage instructions.
What does this mean for the hair loss sufferers suing Olaplex?
For anyone else using Olaplex, if you’re happy with your hair and scalp, keep using that No.3. But if Olaplex isn’t working for your hair for whatever reason, switch to something else. One former Olaplex user claimed in a recent TikTok that switching to Kerastase improved their hair. Julie Fortiz, a colorist at Jenna Perry Salon in NYC, says she much prefers Epres, the new bond-repair brand made by the very same chemist who invented Olaplex, Eric Pressly.
There’s no way to say for sure that any claimants will succeed, and the lawsuit is ongoing — but hair loss, regardless of the cause, shouldn't be taken lightly. "Hair loss is an extremely debilitating condition,” Ghosh says. “For many of us, hair forms a large part of our external identity. We cannot discount the emotional suffering hair loss can cause.” Ghosh hopes those reported to be experiencing this condition are able to access the right level of primary care, both medically and emotionally. For further support regarding the issue of hair loss, visit the American Association of Dermatology website.
Correction: This article originally included a claim that overusing products like Olaplex could cause protein buildup on the hair, resulting in breakage. Olaplex is not a protein product and only Olaplex No.4 and No.6 contain hydrolysed vegetable protein at low concentrations, 0.0025% and 0.000625%, respectively. We have updated the article to clarify, and regret the error.