Editor's note: This story was updated on May 4, 2022.
July 19, 2021 -- A class-action lawsuit has been filed against Johnson & Johnson with the claim that the company’s OGX hair care products cause significant hair loss.
The products are sold at major national retailers, including Target, Ulta, CVS, Walmart, and Walgreens. Johnson & Johnson shampoos, conditioners, and some hair oils are among the products named in the lawsuit.
The plaintiff, Larissa Whipple, an Illinois woman, cites the ingredient DMDM hydantoin as the main concern. DMDM hydantoin is a preservative and antimicrobial agent sometimes found in hair care products. It’s considered a “formaldehyde donor,” meaning it releases a small amount of formaldehyde over time to keep the product fresh.
But formaldehyde donors like this one have been linked to allergies, rashes, hair loss, and cancer. The Department of Health and Human Services’ National Toxicology Program has said formaldehyde is known to cause cancer.
The lawsuit says that the company may have violated consumer protection laws by advertising the products containing this ingredient to people who want healthy hair.
“Johnson & Johnson made a number of affirmative misrepresentations ... that the products 'deeply nourish', ‘gently cleanse,' and 'repair hair.' However, the products’ formula contains an ingredient, or combination of ingredients, that has caused Plaintiff and thousands of consumers to experience hair loss and/or scalp irritation,” the lawsuit says.
Johnson & Johnson says all their ingredients are carefully selected and are listed on the products’ label. The company stated that none of their new products contain DMDM hydantoin and they have not launched any new hair products with this ingredient in several years. In September 2021, OGX said it was replacing DMDM with sodium benzoate, a common food preservative.
“We carefully select ingredients to ensure the safety and performance of our products,” Johnson & Johnson said in a statement to WebMD. “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.”
In August 2012, Johnson & Johnson announced it would remove DMDM hydantoin and other similar ingredients from their products by 2015. However, the lawsuit says that is a “broken promise.”
“Johnson & Johnson did in fact remove DMDM hydantoin from existing consumer products at that time,” the lawsuit says. “However, when Johnson & Johnson acquired Vogue International, including their line of OGX products, Johnson & Johnson failed to change the ingredient profile of the products that did not maintain the same standards for consumer safety.”
In the preservatives section of Johnson & Johnson’s safety and care commitment website, the company claims DMDM hydantoin does not meet their safety standards, but further down the page they say they use DMDM hydantoin in products when other preservatives are incompatible with other ingredients in a formula.
Dermatologist Shani Francis, MD, says hair product manufacturers should be striving to create a positive experience for their customers.
“Hair breakage and texture changes are important clues to pay attention to regarding overall hair health. We should always seek out products to enhance our hair care experience,” Francis says. “Having a great understanding of your individual hair needs is most important to avoid problems.”
DMDM hydantoin is listed by the FDA as one of the preservatives found to cause the most allergic reactions from the use of cosmetic products. The FDA requires certain products to list ingredients, but some ingredients may not be specifically identified and instead listed as “fragrance” or “perfume.”
Francis says an important thing to remember is that there is no “one size fits all” for hair care products and seeking out products with a company history of strong customer experience is a good way to look for new products.
“For ingredients, water-based products are generally a good place to start. Aloe vera high in the ingredient list suggests a more acidic pH. Glycerin also is a humectant that can help naturally add moisture to hair,” Francis says. “Ultimately, balance is most important. Often[times], too much of a good thing is not a good thing. Additionally, if you have an underlying medical, scalp or skin condition, you could have a unique situation and should seek the help of a board-certified dermatologist.”