After decades of expensive keratin treatments, snapped hair ties, and a vicious flat-ironing regimen that left a graveyard of charred ends in front of the mirror every morning, I had finally come to accept my thick nest of curly hair. So when I went to my dermatologist in 2018 to confirm my suspicion that some of this precious hair might be falling out, I was bereft. Absent any unusual lab results that would explain the changes, she said that I was likely suffering from a common form of genetic hair loss called androgenetic alopecia, reassuring me that about a third of women experience noticeable hair loss at some point in their lives. The fact that I was now part of this shedding sisterhood was hardly comforting; rather, it seemed a cruel irony that I might lose my hair when I had only just started to appreciate it.
Like so many other curly-haired women, it was a long road to embracing my unwieldy mop. I had done so, at least partly, in recent years because of DevaCurl — the widely beloved hair-care line that tamed my frizz into soft ringlets and gave me the confidence to finally quit my straightener cold turkey. I was making my way through the stages of hair-loss grief — hovering somewhere between bargaining (why couldn’t I have developed adult acne instead?) and acceptance (maybe I’ll just get really into hats) — when news broke last month that thousands of DevaCurl users were experiencing issues similar to my own.
Like me, most of these issues had only started cropping up around 2018, shortly after the company changed ownership. In a Facebook group called Hair Damage & Hair Loss from DevaCurl - You’re not CRAZY or ALONE! started by Florida-based hairstylist Stephanie Mero, which now boasts over 50,000 members, women posted photos of their patchy bald spots, flaky and irritated scalps, dryness, breakage, and limpened curl pattern, all of which I was also experiencing. Poring through their accounts, I was shocked, upset, and also … a little relieved. At least if DevaCurl was the culprit, there would be a concrete explanation for my suffering, other than some vague genetic sensitivity and the slow passage of time. Finally, I thought: an answer.
In recent years, largely thanks to the natural-hair movement led by women of color, the beauty industry has started paying attention to women with curly hair. DevaCurl, founded in 1994 by beloved Curly Girl: The Handbook author and curl evangelist Lorraine Massey, is regarded by many as the best product out there (Massey left the company in 2013). The curl world is premised on individuality — no two heads of hair the same, no two strands the same — but DevaCurl promised to have an answer for all of them, to bring out the “best in every curl,” from spiraling 2c waves like mine to kinky 4c coils. For many women, the road to hair acceptance had been long, hard, and expensive, and the brand loyalty they felt to DevaCurl was akin to religious faith. When I put out a call on the Facebook group asking for people to share their stories, the overwhelming sentiment was betrayal. “I don’t know what brands I can trust, I don’t know what stylists I can trust,” said 21-year-old D’Ambria Hinton, after experiencing bald spots after using DevaCurl for only eight months. “After years of trying to love and care for my naturally curly hair I just want to crawl back into my shell and go back to straightening it.”
How much did we know about any of the products we had been slathering on our scalps (in my case, for the better part of five years)? DevaCurl has described their products as “100% sulfate, paraben and silicone free and rich with botanical and plant-based ingredients.” I didn’t know what that meant, but it sounded fresh and natural, like bathing in a rain forest. I also knew that they were expensive and popular and used by all the influencers with the best curls — how could they possibly be bad for me?
The idea that something must be safe to have made it to market is a common misconception, said Steve Xu, an assistant professor of dermatology at Northwestern University’s medical school. The American cosmetics industry is worth $70 billion and largely unregulated. Unlike drugs, cosmetics can be sold based solely on tests and safety guarantees from the manufacturers themselves. Because manufacturers don’t have to report consumer complaints to the FDA, many people don’t find out that others are having the same problems until they see it online. “Social media definitely puts a spotlight on certain products that have gained a sufficient number of complaints and issues to really become fairly significant and scary,” said Xu.
DevaCurl isn’t the first hair product to come under such scrutiny. A few years ago, consumers levied very similar complaints against the hair-care line WEN by Chaz Dean. Wen settled the class-action lawsuit for $26 million, but there still has not been a conclusive answer to what was causing women’s complaints of hair loss and scalp damage, and WEN is still on the market. “You could replace the name Wen with DevaCurl and it’s really the exact same story,” said Xu, who published a paper calling for more government regulation over cosmetics in 2017. According to Xu, the reason it’s so hard to pinpoint an answer is because cosmetic products can contain hundreds, or even thousands, of chemicals. Cosmetics manufacturers are sourcing these ingredients from vendors all around the world — vendors they have no requirement to audit. What’s more, manufacturers can change their formulations without alerting the consumer.
Xu cautioned that these sorts of cosmetics crises are very rare. But once your trust has been betrayed, it can be hard to move forward. Lauri Stern has 18-year-old twin daughters. She and one of her daughters used DevaCurl and experienced scalp irritation and hair loss; her other daughter didn’t use it and her hair is fine. She is convinced that DevaCurl is the source of their problems; now, she spends hours reading ingredient labels trying to find a product that doesn’t contain a potentially harmful ingredient. What she has found, to her shock, is that a completely harm-free product probably doesn’t exist. “Hours a day of my life has been devoted to detective work on why this happened and what to avoid. It’s like a labyrinth,” she told me. On the Facebook group, angry ex-DevaCurl users scrutinized changes on labels from different periods and espoused theories about chemical compounds in rapidly unspooling comment threads. Perhaps it wasn’t that the formulation itself was harmful, they speculated; perhaps it was a storage issue, or one of the compounds reacting poorly to heat? In 2017 DevaCurl was purchased by a private equity fund named Ares Management, then sold again to the German consumer-goods company Henkel in 2019. The most popular theory in the group was that at some point during these transactions, the formulation of the products had changed and was now causing the hair and scalp issues women described. (Meanwhile, critics popped up to argue that the people experiencing issues were just using the products wrong.)
“Nothing is more important to us than the health of our DevaCurl community,” said Jennifer Smith, DevaCurl’s research and development manager, in a statement. “Based on rigorous testing conducted as recently as this week, consultation with medical professionals, scientists and stylists, we can conclusively say that our products are safe … Hair loss and scalp irritation can result from a wide variety of issues completely unrelated to hair care products. We encourage anyone experiencing these issues to seek counsel from a medical professional.” In response to the backlash, DevaCurl announced they were creating a “curl care council” of experts to look into user concerns and have released detailed information about product testing.
A spokesperson from the FDA said that 121 complaints about DevaCurl were filed to them between January 2018 and February 2020, and that they have been “investigating the mechanisms of hair loss caused by cosmetic haircare products.” While the FDA wouldn’t provide context on this figure, there were an average of 396 complaints a year for all personal-care products across the industry from 2004 to 2016, so DevaCurl’s numbers are high for a single product. (By comparison, the FDA started investigating Wen in 2016 after receiving 127 complaints, and found that an additional 21,000 complaints had been reported directly to the company.) Still, it’s hard to be optimistic. Xu said even if the FDA pokes around, what can be gleaned from these reports is limited. “It’s going to be very difficult to prove causality. I think ultimately there’s not going to be a smoking gun.”
Earlier this month, I went to the Philip Kingsley Trichological Clinic in Manhattan to see if they had any ideas about the source of my hair woes. In a plush, orchid-filled salon, I sat through a three-hour consultation that involved taking a detailed hair history — including what I ate, my stress levels, and what medications I took — and having my scalp examined under a microscope. (At $450 for an initial two-hour consult, this level of one-on-one attentiveness is a privilege beyond the reach for many DevaCurl users.) My trichologist, Elizabeth Cunnane Phillips, emphasized that our hair and scalp are influenced by so many factors, and everyone’s head tells a unique story. Apparently, it looked like mine was telling the story of high stress, hormonal changes, new medications, poor styling practices, genes, and also possibly DevaCurl.
“There’s a lot of pieces to this,” she said. While she agreed with my dermatologist that slow genetic thinning had likely been happening gradually for some time, she said there seemed to be other factors at play. I asked about the products that I had used so consistently and that my comrades online thought were poisoning us all. “I would not confidently say there’s no relationship,” Phillips said. “We know that if you’re using something that’s an irritant to the skin, it can lead to a spiral downward. Would your scalp be better in the absence of a product like that? That’s unanswerable. Bottom line is, they certainly might have been unhelpful.”
Dr. Kristen Lo Sicco, an assistant professor and dermatologist at NYU Langone Health specializing in hair loss, helped me understand that while a Facebook group with 50,000 testimonies can feel emotionally convincing, that doesn’t necessarily mean that everyone’s hair loss is attributable to the same thing. “The vulnerability with curly hair is, if you think of it as a spiral, it’s harder to go down a spiral staircase than a straight staircase, and it’s harder for our body’s natural oils to do the same,” she said. “As such, curlier hair is more vulnerable to breakage, dryness, or desiccation.” In short, curly hair is more likely to experience issues over time than straight hair — just one more thing to worry about.
Lo Sicco said that while it is plausible that one or multiple compounds in the DevaCurl products contributed to hair damage and breakage, we should also take into consideration that although balding men get a lot of the the attention, hair loss is also common in women, and there are a lot of things that could be making our hair look worse. “Curliness, dyeing hair, high heat, plus the fact that women with curly hair are more likely to have higher-tension hair-care practices,” she said. Looking at the product ingredients listed, she said there was nothing that jumped out as an obvious red flag. However, she added that things like fragrances can cause allergic contact dermatitis in some people, which, when severe, may lead to hair shedding or loss in some cases. She said it’s also possible to develop an allergy to a product you have been using for a long time, even if the formula hasn’t changed. Allergies to topical products, including hair dye, can be tested by a dermatologist. “It could be creating additional vulnerability for people that might already be prone to various types of either alopecia or something that’s an acquired problem, like a hair fragility and breakage problem,” she said. In my case, she agreed that while irritation from something in the DevaCurl could potentially have revealed or exacerbated other latent issues, it’s unlikely to have been the only contributing factor.
Was it possible that a group of women like me who didn’t know they had naturally vulnerable hair were placing all the blame on a product they had trusted to be their hair savior?
Back home, reading women’s accounts on the Facebook group, my pendulum of belief began to swing once again. I found myself playing detective: Based solely on photos (and absent a three-hour-long medical history), many of the women in the group seemed to have clear bald spots that correlated exactly with their Deva use, and hair loss that seemed much more sudden and dramatic than even my own. Maybe DevaCurl wasn’t the main cause of my issues, but could I really write off the concerns of 50,000 women as being “just what curly hair does” — and wouldn’t DevaCurl be likely to muster that exact same defense in order to avoid oversight on their potentially harmful product?
After an hour spent wallowing in the group’s shared panic and sense of purpose, I started to feel skeptical about the expensive, custom-tailored products that the Philip Kinglsey trichology team had given me, which I had accepted so readily at the salon. How did I know that any product I’d ever use again was truly safe? The cosmetic industry sells one-size-fits-all answers to hyperspecific problems: the miracle cream that makes every epidermis glow, the conditioner that nurtures every precious follicle. It’s human instinct to buy into this mythmaking, and to believe that complex problems can have simple solutions. I may have lost my faith in DevaCurl’s ability to bring out “the best in every curl,” but still, I wanted to believe in something. It’s easier to blame a product than to accept that change is inevitable — to believe that we have been betrayed by shoddy regulation and bad business practices and evil asset-management firms, instead of our own aging bodies. For now, we continue to scrutinize labels and share photos and ask each other “What are you using now?” — searching once again for our miracle cure.