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  • Writer's pictureThe Pink Elephant Lady

The Bald and the Beautiful: Lawsuits Taking on Dangerous Hair Products

WEN. Brazilian Blowout. Rio. What do these three hair care brands have in common? All three are infomercial brands that claimed to straighten, smooth, and improve the condition of hair, yet all three have settled multimillion dollar lawsuits regarding dangerous products that allegedly caused hair loss, scalp injuries, and more. And all three companies have CEOs and attorneys that claim the products in question are perfectly safe, the lawsuits are bunk, and any problems experienced are due to 'user error'. L’ORÉAL USA, INC./SOFT SHEEN-CARSON, LLC is currently facing an ongoing class action lawsuit regarding its Optimum Amla Legend No-Mix, No-Lye Relaxer product, with plantiffs alleging the product caused burned scalps and bald spots.

Rio Hair Naturalizer System

I'm not quite sure why this product was called a 'hair naturalizer' system, when it actually chemically alters hair's natural state. The Rio system was advertised in 30-minute TV infomercials targeted to African Americans, airing on Black Entertainment Television and other networks. Rio offered a 'neutral' formula "for those who do not want to change their hair color," and a 'black/licorice color enhancer' formula to "add depth, luster and a rich black color" to hair. Shockingly enough, the claim is made in the infomercial that the product is 'chemical free' and 'all-natural' (when it was actually anything but!) Stylist Andre Desmond says in the ad, "Rio frees you by gradually reducing the curl. When you use chemicals, you go into bondage. Rio doesn't put you in bondage. With Rio you are free."

Skip to 8:40 in the video to see the clip about Rio Hair Naturalizer on NBC News in 1994

In her book 'Hair Raising: Beauty, Culture, and African American Women', Noliwe M. Rooks notes that, "What is perhaps most disturbing about (this) infomercial is its striking similarity to earlier mail-order advertisements undergirded by blatantly racist assumptions." In a 1996 New York Times article 'Get Out of Our Hair', author/journalist/professor Kristal Brent Zook writes, 'Promising black women an answer to the dilemma of kinky hair in a white society, the Rio hair-care system couldn't be shipped fast enough to enthusiastic mail-order customers' and that the infomercial 'resurrected the age-old notion that beauty equals whiteness'.

In 1994, the FDA advised against use of the Rio system after laboratory testing revealed the product had a lower pH than what was claimed on its packaging (the pH was listed as 3.4 but the 'neutral' product had a pH of 1.39, making it dangerously acidic), and consumer complaints indicated that the hair relaxers were causing severe adverse reactions. Some reported that their hair began falling out immediately after applying Rio. Many women said they had seen doctors for treatment of their scalp irritation, and many had to cut their hair short to deal with bald spots. Some said that the drastic changes in their hair's appearance and scalp condition led to social, psychological, and even physical problems. Many customers complained that the solution was turning their hair green. Some customers' facial skin and scalp erupted in allergic reaction. A study published in The Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) found that 'A nationwide outbreak of alopecia (hair loss) and scalp injuries involving tens of thousands of women (and some men) occurred following the marketing of (this) chemical hair-relaxing product. Most of those affected reported substantial hair loss, with a majority indicating growth of new hair that was abnormal in both quantity and quality.'

Rio stated it would stop all sales of the products, but the FDA received reports from consumers that the company was still taking orders and billing customers through mail-order sales. Eventually, only nine months after its debut, U.S. marshals acting on behalf of the FDA seized thousands of boxes of Rio from a California warehouse to prevent the product's further sale. 53,000 victims filed a class action lawsuit against World Rio Corporation, resulting in a judgment of $4.5 million. The authors of the JAMA study concluded, 'The nationwide outbreak of hair-related problems described (in this report) underscores the need for individuals to maintain vigilance when contemplating the purchase or use of cosmetic products, especially from companies that tout claims such as "chemical-free" or other claims that may be difficult to substantiate.'

Attorneys for Rio claimed that the company was not to blame for any suffering the product users experienced. Rio General Counsel Arthur Rieman added, "It's pretty clear to us that people who have problems with Rio didn't follow the instructions properly. I wouldn't call people smart or stupid. I don't know why people misuse the product."

Brazilian Blowout

The Brazilian Blowout brand is a hair smoothing product that is supposed to make hair straighter, shinier, and less frizzy. The company marketed its product as 'formaldehyde-free' and 'safe'. In 2010, regulators in Canada and Oregon issued warnings about Brazilian Blowout after complaints from stylists that it was causing nosebleeds, breathing problems and eye irritation. The product uses amino acids and methylene glycol to straighten frizzy hair; when heated, it emits formaldehyde gas. The product is not sold directly to consumers, but to stylists; a treatment takes about 90 minutes and costs about $300.

The company settled a class-action lawsuit for approximately $4.5 million in 2012 and was ordered to cease marketing its product as “formaldehyde free,” and to provide more detailed instructions on how to use it safely. In a separate suit, the company agreed to pay $600,000 in fees and penalties in a settlement with the California attorney general’s office in which it agreed to warn consumers that its product emits formaldehyde

gas. The federal government lists formaldehyde as a known human carcinogen (meaning it can cause cancer). The complaint filed by the Attorney General's office alleged that because the manufacturer did not inform customers or workers that formaldehyde gas was being released during a Brazilian Blowout treatment, product users did not take steps to reduce their exposure, such as increasing ventilation.

Michael Brady, Brazilian Blowout’s chief executive, portrayed the settlements as a victory. He said that the money would simply be paid by his insurance company and “We get to sell the product forever without reformulation,” he said. “In my eyes, that’s the acquittal we’ve been waiting for.” He also claimed the product posed no issues for stylists or consumers as long as it was used correctly in a well-ventilated area. Before the class action lawsuit settled, the company went so far as to actually sue Oregon's OSHA (Occupational Health and Safety Administration) and the scientists who found the product to be heavily laced with formaldehyde, even though it was labeled formaldehyde-free. The company even asked for an injunction to force OSHA and Oregon Health & Science University's Center for Research on Occupational and Environmental Toxicology, known as CROET, to stop reporting test results.

WEN Hair Care

Wen creator Chaz Dean believes regular shampoo is harmful to hair. "What sets Wen apart is its cleansing conditioner, a single-step process that cleanses and conditions the hair simultaneously," the product's website says. "The cleansers include a perfect blend of special ingredients, including natural botanicals and herbs, and do not contain sodium laurel sulfate or harsh chemicals."

Wen was hit with a class-action lawsuit in 2015 after over 200 women from 40 different states claimed that the line's cleansing conditioners caused hair loss, breakage, balding, irritation, and rashes. The product is made by Guthy-Renker, a company that promotes and sells products directly to consumers via infomercials, direct mail, telemarketing, and e-mail marketing. Guthy-Renker also owns infomercial acne-prone skin care line Proactiv.

According to the FDA's website, it received 1,386 reports of adverse reactions from consumers regarding WEN. When the FDA inspected the manufacturing and distribution facilities for these products, it learned that consumers had reported reactions in more than 21,000 complaints submitted to the company. "There's not a day I don't cry and just keep praying the hair will eventually stop falling out," one woman wrote. "I am down to washing my hair just once every two weeks because washing it makes the hair loss worse." The next statement, directly from the FDA's website, will shock you: The law does not require cosmetic companies to share their safety information, including consumer complaints, with the FDA, nor does the law require mandatory reporting of adverse events to the FDA.

Guthy-Renker settled a class-action lawsuit in August 2017 stemming from the complaints for $26.2 million. However, despite tens of thousands of complaints, an FDA investigation, and a $26.2 million lawsuit payout, WEN and its parent company are still selling that product online and through QVC. The company insists that none of these adverse reactions are the company's fault, and that the products are just fine. The brand has released research from a 2016 clinical study performed in an outside lab and involving over 100 subjects that it insists clears Wen of the previous allegations against it. Chaz Dean, Inc. issued the following statement:

"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. Through this experience, we have learned that there is an immediate need for more education about hair health and common hair concerns in the industry, unrelated to WEN. There is no evidence that WEN by Chaz Dean products cause hair loss, and the ingredients and formulations meet or exceed safety and quality standards set by the cosmetics industry. We stand behind them.​”

L'Oreal/SoftSheen-Carson Optimum Amla Legend No-Mix, No-Lye Relaxer

Los Angeles attorney Mark Geragos has demanded an urgent recall of a hair relaxer targeting African-American women. Geragos and Ben Meiselas are representing women who claim L'Oreal/SoftSheen-Carson Optimum Amla Legend caused hair loss and scalp burns in a class action lawsuit filed in September 2017. The product is widely complained about on Amazon, with many users reporting similar side effects as the plaintiffs. The lawsuit alleges the company falsely promoted their product as a safe alternative to lye-based hair relaxers, using celebrity endorsements like Real Housewives of Atlanta's Cynthia Bailey, Black-ish's Tracee Ellis Ross, and Michelle Obama's hairstylist, Johnny Wright. The lawsuit alleges that L’Oreal knew about the problems associated with its relaxer dating back at least three years, and that the cosmetics company even paid off users who posted negative reviews or complaints about the products online. Furthermore, the suit alleges that the product contains hardly any Amla oil at all. In marketing the product, L’Oreal claims the product contains amla oil from Indian gooseberry that would result in fuller, silkier hair. The lawsuit alleges that consumers were misled to believe that the Amla relaxer did not contain specific harsh chemicals.

Diane Bailey, celebrity natural hair stylist and SheaMoisture Brand Ambassador, told Essence Magazine, "Putting a few drops of natural oils in the solution does not counteract the caustic and abrasive chemicals in most relaxers. There is no magic potion, no matter who the manufacturer may be. All relaxers are made of harsh ingredients and can lead to permanent hair and scalp damage.”

L’Oreal continues to stand behind its product. L'Oreal told a California federal judge that the plaintiffs’ claims are “unreasonable,” pointing out that the complaint did not point out numerous safety warnings on the exterior of the Amla hair relaxer’s packaging. The packaging, L'Oreal says, contains explicit warnings about the possibility of serious injury to a user’s skin and eyes, and that it may cause damage or permanent hair loss. L’Oreal argues that they have not concealed the caustic nature of Amla hair relaxer, but instead have provided adequate warnings of the product’s ingredients, including alkali – a corrosive chemical compound. L’Oreal states that the label tells Amla relaxer users to wear gloves throughout the treatment process and to keep the relaxer off the scalp and skin areas. So, they're basically saying, "Yes, this product is dangerous. But we warned you it could hurt you, so we're off the hook. Next."

UPDATE: Many claims in the Loreal Amla case have been dismissed as of July 31, 2018, but the Court has allowed the case regarding all persons in New York who purchased the Amla Relaxer on or after August 19, 2003 to proceed to trial. The trial is scheduled to take place at 9:00 a.m. on January 22, 2019. Go to for the most current information on the ongiong case.

The Bottom Line

How does stuff like this happen? And how do we prevent things like this from happening again?

The Safe Cosmetics and Personal Care Products Act of 2018 (HR 6903) seeks to both reveal the presence of known chemicals of concern in cosmetics products and ban certain ingredients from these products. The Act requires both retail products and those used by professionals to contain labels naming all their ingredients in order of concentration in the product, including the identification of chemicals of concern. Second, the bill forbids several chemicals from being used in cosmetic production altogether, including toluene, the phthalates DBP and DEHP, styrene, triclosan, formaldehyde and parabens. The legislation also details procedures for expanding the lists of prohibited substances.

The introduction of legislation to exclude certain ingredients from personal care products is an attempt to give the FDA increased capabilities and authority to ensure the safety of personal care and cosmetics products. Other provisions of the proposed bill require manufacturers to remit a fee, register with the FDA, and submit relevant information pertaining to their products, including ingredients, warnings, and instructions for product use. The bill requires the FDA to create a database of information related to cosmetics information and implement procedures to detect contaminants in various cosmetics products. The FDA is also given the power to institute recalls if necessary.

As of December 2018, bill is currently under review in the House Committee on Energy and Commerce.

How was a product advertised as 'formadehyde-free', when it in fact contained formaldehyde?

Formaldehyde is a known cancer-causing substance. Exposure to formaldehyde can also cause eye irritation and damage, including blindness, nose irritation, including bloody noses, and skin sensitivity, rashes, and itching, and breathing difficulties, such as coughing and wheezing. The American Cancer Society has conducted studies that have shown that formaldehyde can increase the probability of nasopharynx cancer and leukemia.

Even blowout/smoothing products/keratin treatments that do not list formaldehyde on the label, or that claim to be "formaldehyde free" or "no formaldehyde," can still expose people to formaldehyde. Some products violate regulations by not listing their formaldehyde content on the label, and some contain other substances that can release formaldehyde during use, typically when the product is heated, such as during flat-ironing or blow-drying. Some manufacturers list “synonyms” for formaldehyde on their labels. All of the chemicals listed below are names for formaldehyde under the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s (OSHA) formaldehyde standard:

Methylene glycol Formalin Methylene oxide Paraform Formic aldehyde Methanal Oxomethane Oxymethylene Timonacic acid Thiazolidinecarboxylic acid

According to OSHA's website, "OSHA has found that some hair smoothing products may contain formaldehyde, may release formaldehyde at levels above OSHA's permissible limits during use, and may be mislabeled, all of which can pose health risks to salon workers. Salons and other employers, such as beauty schools, that use hair smoothing products that contain or may release formaldehyde must follow the requirements in OSHA's formaldehyde and hazard communication standards."

Environmental Working Group (EWG) reports that 15 of 16 companies claim there is little to no formaldehyde in their hair smoothing products when laboratory testing in fact showed their products contain substantial amounts of formaldehyde! Click here for a detailed list of those brands.

As far as relaxers are concerned, 'no-lye' does NOT necessarily mean 'safe' or 'better'. Lye is the common name of a strong corrosive chemical called sodium hydroxide, and it can be dangerous. It is used in products to unclog drains, like Drano, and is also used in making bar soaps. Lye straightens hair by breaking the strong chemical bonds in the hair itself to release the tight curling of the hair shaft. It can cause chemical burns to skin because it is a corrosive base. Both strong acids and strong bases are potentially corrosive and can burn skin.

'No-lye' products like L’Oréal’s Softsheen Carson Optimum Salon Haircare Amla Legend No-Mix No-Lye Relaxer contain calcium hydroxide or lithium hydroxide - while not the same thing as sodium hydroxide, they're close cousins. All are caustic chemicals designed to break the chemical bonds in hair, and thus all are caustic to the skin and can burn the scalp. Again, 'no-lye' certainly doesn't mean 'safe'.

Hair loss also occurs with chemical hair straighteners due to brittleness and mechanical fragility after straightening. Straighteners work by breaking chemical bonds within the hair structure. Understandably, this weakens the hair – making it more prone to further breakage. Skin that is burned by relaxers to the point where hair follicles are damaged or destroyed may not recover and may result in permanent hair loss.

Should hair smoothing treatments and hair relaxers be avoided, then? That's a loaded question. No one can make that decision but the individual consumer. However, we can unequivocally state that consumers deserve to have accurate, honest information about the chemicals in these types of products, and companies that deliberately mislead consumers should face consequences.

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