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Can Olaplex Repair Its Reputation After Hair Loss Lawsuit?

Published February 28, 2023
Published February 28, 2023

Olaplex created an entirely new category in haircare when the brand launched its bond-building products in 2014. The brand known for its ability to repair damaged hair is facing its biggest challenge yet: repairing a damaged reputation brought on by numerous consumer complaints and pending lawsuit.

Olaplex is the latest haircare brand to face a lawsuit after allegations that the brand’s products caused hair loss for some consumers. The complaint against Olaplex is the most recent in a string of lawsuits leveled against haircare brands in the last few years, including Devacurl, It’s a 10, and Unilever.

Olaplex CEO JuE Wong addressed the allegations in a two-minute video posted to the brand’s social channels in which she says she wants to “address some misinformation” and calling the claims “not true.”

In the video, Wong explains that the brand has undergone rigorous human repeat insult patch tests (HRIPT) on all their products to ensure that they’re safe to use on the skin and hair follicles. Additionally, Olaplex publicly released the HRIPT tests for all of their products on their website to demonstrate the safety of Olaplex products for consumers who might be questioning using these products while the brand is battling these allegations in the court system.

“Olaplex products do not cause hair loss or hair breakage,” a representative from Olaplex tells BeautyMatter. “Olaplex products are safe and effective, as millions of our customers can happily attest. We have publicly released test results from independent third-party laboratories, going above and beyond industry standards, to demonstrate this. We have full confidence and believe in the safety and efficacy of our products.”

Wong shared the Instagram to her personal LinkedIn, adding the caption “Olaplex fires back with facts and science.” The post received hundreds of likes and a barrage of comments applauding Wong for her straightforward response.

The lawsuit was filed by a group of nearly 30 consumers represented by Dallas-based lawyer Amy Davis who allege the company's products damaged their hair and scalp. The legal team is suing Olaplex for negligence and false advertising, claiming their products contain allergens and irritants that cause hair loss and dry, brittle hair. The plaintiffs are seeking unspecified monetary damages and an injunction to stop Olaplex from making false claims about its products.

Olaplex was once only available for use in salons by professionals when it launched in 2014 and quickly became an essential treatment for colorists wanting to maintain the integrity and strength of bleached strands. Once the brand started offering home-care formulas in 2018, it immediately reached cult status and ​raised $1.55 billion in an initial public offering in September 2021. Olaplex’s market value surpassed $19 billion at the start of 2023, but since the news of the lawsuit broke early last week, the brand’s stock took a sharp decline.

BeautyMatter spoke with experts in cosmetic chemistry and consumer protection laws to understand what this lawsuit is really about and what the future may look like for Olaplex.

Ingredient Misinformation

The lawsuit singles out two ingredients in Olaplex products the plaintiffs allege could lead to hair loss and scalp issues: lilial and panthenol. Lilial was previously used in small amounts as a fragrance in Olaplex’s No. 3 Hair Perfector. In 2020, the EU's European Commission classified lilial as a “reprotoxic,” a chemical that adversely affects fertility and fetal development, and a ban on the fragrance went into effect in March of 2022. In January 2022, Olaplex removed lilial from the product globally but landed in hot water in March over reports that the UK and European Union were considering a ban on the product, which turned out to be false.

This misinformation led to widespread panic from consumers worried about their health, to  which Olaplex responded with a link to its ingredients and material safety data sheets where consumers could learn more about the safety of each product. Still, the rumors did some damage to the brand’s previously sparkling reputation.

“The way misinformation spreads like wildfire on social media makes it hard to contain and unfortunately this seems to be another example of that scenario,” cosmetic chemist Kelly Dobos tells BeautyMatter. “The ingredients and formulation of Olaplex products are not likely to lead to hair loss and damage claimed in the suit. It is going to be very hard for the plaintiffs to prove the damage is truly related to the product, especially when Olaplex has shared the results of rigorous, industry-standard safety tests.”

The EU has famously banned or limited more than 1,600 chemicals from personal care products, but if you ask cosmetic chemists, they’ll tell you that ingredients alone can’t tell you everything you need to know about the safety of a product.

“Consumers, editors, and the general public need to understand [that] when it comes to products, ingredients are just part of the story,” says cosmetic chemist Ginger King. “It is the final formulation that determines efficacy and performance. You can have harsh ingredients, but a good formulator can still use it to create gentle formulas. It's about the combination of ingredients.”

King notes that fragrance is a complex subsect of product formulation, as it can consist of thousands of materials. The amount of lilial in Olaplex’s fragrance before the brand reformulated is also unknown. “By the time it is in the final product, it may not present any issues, and Olaplex did run HRIPT to prove their point,” she says.

Panthenol, the other ingredient named in the suit, has not been banned in the EU or linked to any adverse effects. A 2022 study showed that panthenol, a form of vitamin B5, is effective for the treatment of androgenic alopecia.

“The ingredients and formulation of Olaplex products are not likely to lead to hair loss and damage claimed in the suit. It is going to be very hard for the plaintiffs to prove the damage is truly related to the product."
By Kelly Dobos, Cosmetic Chemist

Hair Loss Lawsuits

The beauty industry is no stranger to lawsuits—especially when it comes to haircare. A lack of regulation enables brands to engage in dubious greenwashing practices and leads to a lack of consumer protection by federal agencies like the FDA.

In January 2021, Devacurl agreed to a $5.2 million settlement to resolve the class-action lawsuit claims that the brand’s products caused hair loss and scalp irritation. In January 2023, a complaint was filed against Unilever from a customer who said she suffered scalp irritation, burns, and hair loss from TRESemmé’s shampoo products, which contained undisclosed levels of an ingredient called DMDM hydantoin (DMDM). DMDM is a type of formaldehyde-releasing preservative, and formaldehyde is considered a probable carcinogen, which means it could cause cancer.

“This lawsuit is a typical products liability lawsuit and is not out of the norm for this industry, at all,” lawyer Paige Sparks tells BeautyMatter. Sparks makes it clear she is not affiliated with this lawsuit, and her opinions are not to be taken as legal advice. Each situation is different, so she recommends consulting with an attorney in your state with any legal questions.

“Generally, there can be merit to a products liability case if the plaintiffs can show that Olaplex has misrepresented their product by deeming it ‘safe’ and making claims it will not cause hair loss, if they have been made aware of issues with the product causing hair loss due to chemicals or poor instruction, for example, and [if] the ingredients can be linked to hair loss directly caused by the chemicals or ingredients of the product,” she said.

The hair loss claims against Olaplex started making the rounds online before the lawsuit was officially filed. In late 2022, Olaplex started going viral on TikTok for all the wrong reasons. Customers were complaining that overusing the products was causing serious damage to their hair. Facebook groups dedicated to sharing customers’ negative experiences after using Olaplex were created, garnering thousands of members. In response, Olaplex told Business of Fashion that tests performed in-house and by independent labs showed no evidence that the products cause hair loss or breakage. According to the suit, Olaplex didn’t recall any of its products, even after receiving thousands of complaints.

“Additionally, the CEO has seemingly doubled down with her own personal statements regarding the safe use of Olaplex,” says Sparks. “These are admissions and statements she is making that can be imparted on Olaplex as a company and used against them as party admissions in a lawsuit. It is difficult because they are trying to do active damage control (no pun intended) with consumers by promising these products are safe and will not cause hair loss, but each action they are taking could be used against them in litigation.”

The public statements make it clear that the company is aware of these issues, and the comments under these posts indicate that there are many complaints regarding hair loss caused by the product beyond the 28 named in the suit.

“It is becoming both a PR and legal nightmare, from what I can see,” says Sparks.

Others disagree and praise Wong for her honesty in coming forward with the facts ahead of the trial while remaining compassionate for those who suffered from the devastating effects of hair loss.

“I do think it’s important for company leadership to let consumers know Olaplex has a demonstrated record of safety and has done all the ‘right things’ established brands do in order to bring products safely to market,” says Valerie George, a cosmetic chemist and haircare expert with Simply Formulas. “JuE Wong is a strong leader and will keep the brand on course through this storm for its shareholders. However, this rebuttal does seem a bit late as consumers have been complaining for months about breakage through various online channels.”

“This lawsuit is a typical products liability lawsuit and is not out of the norm for this industry, at all.”
By Paige Sparks, Lawyer

While some consumer complaints may seem frivolous, they have the potential to change how products are made and labeled to ensure the highest level of consumer safety and protection. 

Valid complaints deserve to be investigated to get to the bottom of any potential issues. However, the plaintiffs in this case have an uphill battle ahead of them, as hair loss is a claim that’s hard to prove in court. There are a wide variety of reasons for hair breakage or hair loss, including lifestyle changes, various medical and skin conditions, medications, COVID, and more.

Olaplex has provided the documentation to show they did the due diligence, and the HRIPT results proved that the brand’s products are non-irritating, but it’s up to the courts to decide if this is enough evidence to dismiss the case.

“Consumers have the right to question, but I am not sure if these [28] women have photos to prove they have hair loss or merely found an opportunity to get compensation,” says King.

“Brands will provide clinical data and whoever sues needs to have photos and documentation; otherwise it's he says / she says. In science, let the data speak.”

Olaplex has a history of digging in and fighting legal battles. In 2019, Olaplex won a second judgment against beauty giant L’Oréal after Olaplex accused the beauty giant of stealing trade secrets in a meeting in California in 2015, when the companies were conducting a due diligence process. A jury ruled in Olaplex’s favor in all four claims—two patent claims, plus trade-secret theft and breach of confidentiality. The judge granted awards upward of $20 million on each of the four claims, with a guarantee that Olaplex will get at least $37.4 million.

Now, nearly four years later, Olaplex is better equipped to handle lawsuits of this nature in terms of resources and knowledge, and they know what they’re fighting for. If this case goes to trial, the plaintiffs will be forced to present proof of claims, which may or may not convince the jury that Olaplex was the reason they suffered hair loss, notwithstanding other lifestyle factors. If Olaplex wins this case, the beauty industry may see less of these expensive and reputationally damaging lawsuits.

Winning a court case is only half the battle for Olaplex. This case is being fought not only in the court system but also in the court of public opinion. Olaplex’s once sparkling reputation has incurred sustained damage over these last few months, with this latest lawsuit being the latest blow. The brand will need to employ a strategic and extended communications and PR plan to win back consumer confidence.


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