In the past week, multiple TikToks and Facebook posts served as warnings for one popular, $8 drugstore hair product. “Yesterday I found out from my sister, who found out from her hairdresser, that OGX Shampoo is facing a class-action lawsuit,” one TikTok user said. “[The products] have a chemical called DMDM hydantoin, which is a base component in formaldehyde,” read a Facebook post with over 15,000 shares. “It can cause scalp irritation and hair loss as well as being a known carcinogen.”
The online chatter came after an Illinois woman named Larissa Whipple filed a class action lawsuit last month against Johnson & Johnson, which owns OGX, accusing the corporation of “false representation that the Products would smooth, nourish, soften, and/or revive her hair.”
But according to court documents, “the products’ formula contains an ingredient, or combination of ingredients, that has caused the Plaintiff and thousands of consumers to experience hair loss and/or scalp irritation.”
Kevin Laukaitis, whose firm represents Whipple, would not tell The Daily Beast how many other shoppers have come forward with allegations that they’ve experienced hair loss due to OGX.
“We believe and allege that it’s a widespread problem affecting customers nationwide,” he said. “We are aware of the folks who are complaining on the Internet, on Twitter, or going directly to OGX about the problem. We’ve had a great deal of folks contacting us.”
The problem allegedly lies in an ingredient called DMDM hydantoin, a preservative and antimicrobial agent that releases small amounts of formaldehyde over time to prevent mold and other bacteria from growing.
In 2012, Johnson & Johnson announced that it would remove the ingredient, along with other “harmful chemicals” from its products by 2015. While this occurred, DMDH hydantoin was not removed from OGX, which Johnson & Johnson acquired from Vogue Internationals in 2016.
When reached for comment, a representative for Johnson & Johnson provided the following statement: “We carefully select ingredients to ensure the safety and performance of our products and include a list of ingredients used on the product’s label. Our new product launches do not contain the preservative DMDM Hydantoin. In fact, we haven’t launched any new hair care products with this ingredient in the last several years. Some of our existing products contain a small amount of DMDM Hydantoin, which is used to prevent mold from developing while the product is in the shower. Every preservative used in our products must clear our rigorous safety assessment process. We also offer a range of formulas with a variety of different preservatives that meet evolving consumer ingredient preferences.”
But the lawsuit alleges that Johnson & Johnson “failed to properly warn consumers of the risks and dangers attendant to the use of such a strong ingredient on their hair and scalp—even well after Defendant knew or should have known of the Products’ hazards.”
“The company really is supposed to put accurate disclosures on products and accurate warnings,” Laukaitis said. “On top of that, they didn’t need to use this ingredient. There are other alternatives. Johnson & Johnson promised consumers they would remove the ingredient, recognizing the dangers of it, and they broke that promise when they took over the OGX line. Here we are today, and the ingredients are still in there.”
Laukaitis added that the FDA warned about the risks of formaldehyde in hair straightening products earlier this year. His firm is also currently litigating other high-profile class action suits against Unilever, alleging that DMDM hydantoin in Tressemé keratin products also cause hair loss. Along with that, Laukaitis has represented clients suing DevaCurl for similar claims about damaging products.
Carla Burns is the senior director of cosmetic science for the Environmental Working Group (EWG), a nonprofit group that researches and advocates for consumer protection against harmful toxins. She described DMDM hydantoin as an “irritant.”
“Since it is a formaldehyde donor, [DMDH hydantoin] can give off different concentrations of formaldehyde over time,” Burns said. “It does have irritation concerns on the skin, whether that be on face, arms, and hair. There are concerns that the allergen may induce sensitivity. You may use it one or two times and not necessarily have a reaction, but because it's a sensitizer as you continue to use it you may build up a reaction and have an allergy or other dermatological response to the product.”
Ultimately, Burns said, certain people might be more sensitive to the ingredient than others are. “There might be people who can use this their entire lifetime and maybe not have an issue,” she said. “And then there’s someone who uses it once and has a very strong reaction. It depends on the person.”
Burns also urged consumers to recognize how often they are exposed to DMDH hydantoin. “It’s important to consider that while you might use a little DMDM hydantoin in one product, a lot of consumers use multiple products a shower, or a day. You really need to look at your whole routine. You might use it in a shampoo, and also a body wash. It’s also used in other products like exterior stain, wood treatments, depending on if you’re outside doing projects on your home. You may be around this ingredient more often than you know.”
Last year, California became the first state to ban 24 toxic chemicals in beauty products, including formaldehyde. Last month, Maryland passed a similar bill. Regulations in both states will begin in 2025. The Personal Care Protection Act, which would strengthen FDA oversight of personal care ingredients, was introduced to the Senate in June.
But for now, in most states, ultimately customers are responsible for deciding what ingredients to use. “Ultimately, the burden is with them now,” Burns said. “It’s good to do your homework and really know what’s in the product you bring home.”