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The Wen Hair Loss Controversy

The reports of a class-action lawsuit claiming that Wen hair cleanser has caused hair loss for 200+ women have been all over the news. The lawsuit and controversy have actually been going on for a few years now, and there have actually been multiple lawsuits pending over the last couple years. Since the story is gaining traction over the mainstream and social media, I thought I would put forth my two cents on the topic.

I first learned of the issue a couple years ago when a woman emailed me asking for my opinion regarding the ingredients of Wen. She told me that she had used Wen on her daughter's hair and within minutes her daughter was losing hair in clumps. It was not a delayed reaction or slowly thinning hair, but actual clumps and bald spots that happened immediately. She told me that there were some lawsuits brewing and asked if I had any thoughts about the issue. I can only speculate, but I have recently developed some thoughts on the matter.

Some reports have said that the hair loss is caused by clogged hair follicles. Because it's a cleansing conditioner, they postulated that it isn't strong enough to cleanse the scalp, leading to buildup that irritated hair follicules and thus hair loss. It's an interesting theory, however many of the reports of hair loss with the product were like those from the woman with whom I spoke--immediate hair loss, in clumps. This wouldn't happen were it caused by gradual buildup.

Some have speculated that an irritant or allergen could be to blame. The formula contains several potential allergens including hydroxycetronellal, Hydroxyisohexyl 3-Cyclohexene Carboxaldehyde, and previous versions of the formula also contains methylisothiazolinone, also a known allergen.

Stearamidopropyl dimethylamine is another consideration that I haven't seen being discussed. In older versions of the formula it was listed lower on the label; current versions it appears to be higher on the list. I don't know if this is a formulation change or a listing change, or just a variation from scent to scent, but it is an ingredient to consider. While stearamidopropyl dimethylamine is a fairly widely used products (in more than 400 known formulas) it can cause contact allergen dermatitis (usually in a delayed fashion) when used at too high of a concentration. The culprit is a manufacturing byproduct called 3,3-dimethylaminopropylamine (DMAPA) that's usually left over in the finished product. (Source) Contact allergen dermatitis can cause telogen hair loss, happening a couple weeks after the initial allergic reaction. (Source) One theory that I pose is that perhaps there was a batch of the stearamidopropyl dimethylamine that contained a higher amount of DMAPA and it created sensitization/allergic reaction in some individuals. 

However, these are all purely theories and plaintiffs in the case have yet to provide evidence as to exactly how Wen causes hair loss. There actually have been two different lawsuits with about 200 people involved in each. With 10 million bottles of Wen sold over the years, that's really quite a low number of people. A .004% reaction rate. Although the statistics are not available, to me, it wouldn't be out of the realm of possibility that if you sold 10 million of anything that 400 people could have an allergy or problem with it. I mean this with no disrespect to the women in the case--while statistically they remain a small number, their hair loss is in no doubt emotionally distressing to say the least. Additionally, there are probably more people who had a problem but are not part of the lawsuits, so this statistic may not be accurate. 

So, if this case has been going on since 2013, why are we just now seeing it on the news? Well, they've been going back and forth with legal posturing for the last couple of years. This costs a lot of money--something that Guthy Renker (makers of Wen) has a lot of. So, they presumably have not had a problem with a drawn out legal battle. The plaintiffs on the other hand, without strong evidence of causation, and perhaps dwindling funds/patience, needed a strategy to get Wen to settle the case out of court. Sending press releases and news pitches to the national media about the emotional story that Wen was causing hair loss was just the thing to push Wen to start talking about a settlement. And indeed it worked--one day after the story broke, both cases against Wen started mediation. (Source)

The bottom line:

While Wen has a number of suspect ingredients that could cause an allergic reaction strong enough to cause hair loss, there has not been definitive proof that it did indeed cause these women to lose their hair. At the same time, these anecdotal reports appear to be legitimate and something indeed happened to those women. But until direct causation can be shown, the issue remains under investigation. 

The big issue to me, however, is that the product is marketed as this natural and oh-so-healthy option, but it's filled with potentially harmful synthetics. The three that I named above, as well as: 

Behentrimonium methosulfate--quaternary ammonium compound potentially linked to endocrine disruption

Phenoxyethanol--potential estrogen mimicker 

PEG-60 and Polysorbate 60--ethoxylated chemicals created with the carcinogen ethylene oxide, traces of which, along with its carcinogenic byproduct 1,4-dioxane can remain in the product

Fragrance--can contain anything from a list of over 2500 different synthetic chemicals, including endocrine-disrupting phthalates 

Reader Comments (8)

I appreciated how thoughtful this post was. I've been using Wen for 8 years, and it's given me the best hair of my life. It doesn't surprise me that some women might have had a bad reaction. I think that realistically, nothing is going to work for everyone. And there are other products that people love that I can't tolerate. Just like there are "healthy" foods that I'm completely allergic to. For me, Wen isn't about using a "natural" product. It's just about using an effective one. And I've been really happy with it.

Fri, December 18, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterCrystal

Way to go Stephanie! What a great write-up on this issue. What has happened to these people is a tragedy, but let us learn from this and use it as yet another wake-up call! So much of what is put into products we put into and on our body is not regulated or misconstrued as safe just for the all mighty dollar. If they are responsible by chance it was probably because of someone not paying attention to the quantity or quality of a particular chemical added into their products and then this is what could possibly happen! Many things are detrimental at high concentrations, but SO many chemicals people carelessly use at low concentrations just poison us slowly. Think about all that we use that does not effect us on a noticeable level like this, but is happening inside and then you get diagnosed with disease. I just don't understand why people do not find this alarming and do research before using a product. No one else is going to do this for us and children can't do it so the parents should be their advocates. The wonderful world of the internet is now here for us all to make this easy, do the homework and find safe products. Thank goodness for people and companies like you, thank you!

Fri, December 18, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterJen Schmidt

I am a licensed Cosmetologist, retired. I got samples of Wen from Sephora and some other professional brands similar to Wen ( but did not use these, only Wen.
The samples were large bags, of several formulas.
I first thought to my surprise, wow, this is great and I do not even need styling products, my hair felt great. This is the opposite of what I thought any product could do combining wash with condition!! It defies logic, but thought whatever I guess I should try it, seeing all the hype!
I probably use them for ten washes. I want to tell you my hair has not been the same since!! I loose so much hair every time I shampoo. I do not have bald spots, just a lot of thinning. The condition of my hair is NOT the same as before, not smooth and healthy. I was truly excited when I first tried the Wen, now I am scared it will never stop falling out!! This should be taken off the market!!
Thank you for your article on this. What is this doing to our bodies??

Fri, December 18, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterSue

I really appreciated the time and effort Stephani, you put into evaluating these products and the very high quality of Bubble and Bee. As the WARNING states. "If you can't pronounce the name of the ingredient or get through the list because it is so long, then buyer beware. It is not good to consume or apply these kind of synthetic chemicals to your body.Because of the lack or regulation on the term Natural anyone can use it on anything. I feel very strongly that all these pollutants in our food and products is the reason for the increase of the many different kinds of cancer. It is not worth the chance of getting sick. Be smart -buy quality!

Fri, December 18, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterAnne

Hi, Stephanie,

One thing a lot of people do not know is that the formula sold by Guthy Renker and the formula sold directly by Wen are VERY different. The Guthy Renker formula is highly inferior, having ingredients like those mentioned above. Probably, my guess is, to make it cost-effective to ship thousands and thousands of bottles quickly. The formula sold by Wen directly doesn't have the parabens and most of the other questionable ingredients. The original formula is a "safer" formula. Thanks for teaching me to read labels, Stephanie!!!


Fri, December 18, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterDaphne

I tried this product a number of years ago, and did not get good results. So glad I didn't use for long! So many people have no idea what these chemicals are doing to their bodies, even if getting good results they think. I wish I would have known all of this before developing health conditions that could have been avoided! Please watch what you are putting on your bodies not just watching what you eat. Thank you Stephanie for all you do!

Fri, December 18, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterRenee

I will simply add tbis to the discussion:
Re visit the preservative biocide cytotixic industrial chemical
Registered by the EPA as a pesticide: methylisothiazolinone.
Read the European Union and SCC opinion on methylisothiazolinoe - as NOT safe for the consumer and not safe when formulated as a leave on product.
You are missing the whole issue-and the chemical that causes sensitization and severe allergic contact dermatitis that can take months- for some years to recover from. The skin cells affected have no treatmebt to regain full function.
Look into that chemical group of Isothiazolinones. Look hard .

Fri, December 18, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterRebekah Baharestan

I'm just seeing this now. Wen has admitted to 21,000 complaints to the FDA, and far more in court, and I have evidence that they get many thousands of complaints *each and every day* as many as tens of thousands. They train employees escalate as few complaints as possible to their adverse event department and try to convince customers its not their product and if they still have hair, sell them a different formula!
Wow, this product is so scary especially for children. But their advertising would make you think this is a particularly good product especially for a child because of claims of being gentle and "no harsh chemicals" and "not ordinary shampoo - you want to use more, not less" and "you can't use too much". I'm in a support group on FB of 1500 who lost hair from Wen, and the effects are devastating and lasting. We need congress to act to give the FDA authority to regulate and issue recalls of dangerous products.

Wed, November 2, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterMiriam

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