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Woman alleges Johnson & Johnson OGX shampoo can cause hair loss, sues company

The ingredient highlighted by the lawsuit is a preservative commonly used in cosmetic products.
Johnson & Johnson acquired the OGX brand when it bought the company Vogue International LLC in 2016.
Johnson & Johnson acquired the OGX brand when it bought the company Vogue International LLC in 2016.TODAY
/ Source: TODAY

An Illinois woman has filed a class-action lawsuit against Johnson & Johnson, alleging a shampoo brand owned by the company contains an ingredient or combination of ingredients that “causes significant hair loss and/or scalp irritation.”

Lawyers for Larissa Whipple last month wrote there are "thousands” of people who may have had a similar experience, but added the exact number is unknown for now.

In a statement, Johnson & Johnson said it stands behind the performance and rigorous testing of its products.

The items in question are various OGX-branded shampoos and conditioners. Whipple bought them “because she wanted smooth, nourished, and healthy hair,” but the complaint alleges they have a “propensity to cause, and have caused, adverse reactions, such as hair loss, scalp redness, and scalp irritation.”

The ingredient highlighted by the lawsuit is DMDM hydantoin, a preservative commonly used in cosmetic products.

It’s a “formaldehyde releaser” or “formaldehyde donor,” meaning it slowly releases formaldehyde as it breaks down within the product over time, said Carla Burns, senior director of cosmetic science at the Environmental Working Group, a consumer watchdog.

“What it means is that there may not be formaldehyde listed on the label, but there will be formaldehyde in the product over time, which is surprising, but sadly not that shocking that formaldehyde, which is a carcinogen, can still be used in products in the U.S.,” Burns told TODAY.

Preservatives are absolutely necessary for any cosmetic or personal care items that contain water — like shampoos, conditioners and body washes — to prevent microbial growth, mold and bacteria in products that are used near the face and eyes, Burns said. But it's possible to make products that don't contain formaldehyde-releasing ingredients, she added.

Johnson & Johnson pledged to remove formaldehyde from its products by the end of 2015, The New York Times reported. It did so, but when it bought the company that makes OGX shampoo the following year, it kept DMDM hydantoin in some of the formulations, the lawsuit alleges, calling it a "broken promise."

Johnson & Johnson said it carefully selects ingredients and includes a list on the product label.

“At OGX, we are constantly evolving our formulas to improve hair care results and haven’t launched any new products with DMDM hydantoin in the last several years. Some of our existing products contain a small amount of DMDM hydantoin, a preservative used to prevent mold from developing while the product is in the shower,” the company noted in a statement to TODAY.

“Every preservative used in our products must clear our rigorous safety assessment process. We are working with our partners to ensure our evolved formulations are included across the entire collection of shampoos and conditioners.”

The lawsuit noted people exposed to irritants over time, including DMDM hydantoin, can develop irritant contact dermatitis and irritation of the scalp has been linked to hair brittleness and hair loss.

There are lots of ingredients in shampoos that can cause contact dermatitis, but the condition would have to be severe and go on for a significant amount of time to cause hair loss, said Dr. Debra Wattenberg, a dermatologist and founder of NY Skin RX in New York.

“Most people will have sought help before that and the hair loss ... is traditionally not permanent, so it may be just from chronic scratching or irritation that you could lose some hair in the area,” Wattenberg noted.

“Shampoo in general does not traditionally cause hair loss… hair loss is a very late manifestation of a long-term chronic problem.”

If a person is using a product that's causing irritation, he or she should stop immediately, she advised. Signs of irritation include an itchy or burning scalp, scaling or crusting all over the scalp, excessive or worsening dandruff, or peeling and dry skin on the scalp. For most people, switching their shampoo solves the problem, Wattenberg said.

Patch testing can determine if a person is allergic to any specific ingredient.

Formaldehyde is a skin sensitizer that could cause skin irritation and allergic contact dermatitis over time — the more you use it, the greater your chances of having an allergic reaction, Burns said. But it depends on each person: some people can use a product that contains formaldehyde or DMDM hydantoin once and have an immediate reaction; for others, it may take years, she added. Some people may never have a reaction.

“It’s also important to realize that you use many products throughout the day that may contain DMDM hydantoin,” Burns said.

“You may be using it in your shampoo and then also your body wash. It could be in your lotion after your shower, so you have to think about your overall exposure to these types of ingredients.”

Hundreds of products are listed as containing DMDM hydantoin in EWG’s Skin Deep database of potentially toxic chemicals in personal care and beauty products.

When choosing products, Burns said consumers should do their homework, read the label and not rely on marketing claims: There may be products that claim to be formaldehyde-free because companies are not directly adding formaldehyde to the product, but they can use formaldehyde-releasing ingredients.