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.
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.
“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.
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.”
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?
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.
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