this article on the Daily Beast about a class action lawsuit against WEN hair products alleging that their cleansing conditioner made users' hair fall out or caused permanent damage to their hair or scalp. The writer doesn't always get the chemistry right - she claims that fatty alcohols, like cetyl alcohol, in hair products "can be drying", which is not the case - but it's an interesting read.
A few thoughts I had while reading this article...
The ingredient list from Amazon, which may differ slightly that one that came directly from the company or QVC: Water, Aloe Vera Gel, Glycerin, Chamomile Extract, Cherry Bark Extract, Calendula Extract, Rosemary Extract, Behentrimonium Chloride, Stearamidopropyl Dimethylamine, Cetyl Alcohol, Emulsifying Wax, Panthenol, Trimethylsilylamodimethicone, Hydrolyzed Whole Wheat Protein, PEG-60, Almond Glycerides, Menthol, Essential Oils, Citric Acid, Methylchoroisothiazolinone, Methylisothiazolinone, Fragrance
WEN is a conditioner. They call it a cleansing conditioner, but because there's no definition for the words "cleansing conditioner", this really doesn't mean anything. Any conditioner could be called a cleansing conditioner. I think the no-shampoo concept suggests that you don't use anything with silicones in them, but there's no reason a conditioner with silicones can't call itself a cleansing conditioner. (This product does contain a silicone in the form of trimethylsilylamodimethicone.)
In the article, one of the lawyers notes, "What we understand about the product and how it causes hair loss is it contains virtually no cleanser". This isn't some big secret: There isn't anything in there that anyone would consider a shampoo-like cleanser. (In fact, I think that's one of its selling points?) The lawyer also notes it's like "using lotion to wash your hair", but there's no "like" about it. When you wash your hair using only conditioner, you are using a lotion - which is to say water and oil brought together with an emulsifier - to clean your hair.
In the article, the writer notes that a customer said, “Not only did it not clean my hair, it made it look like I combed it out with a pork chop". I'm guessing this customer had oily hair and conditioner washing didn't agree with her. This problem isn't exclusive to WEN products, and all hair types can have this experience when washing only with conditioner.
In the interests of disclosure, I have very oily hair and had the same experience the few times I conditioner only washed my hair. Others swear by this method. Not judging no-shampoo, just noting my experiences.
There are ways to "avoid sulfates" and still use a good foaming and lathery shampoo. There are loads of surfactants we can use that are mild and gently cleansing. Really, the only surfactant that might not be great is sodium lauryl sulfate because it's considered "harsh", but if we really wanted to use it, we can make it feel milder by reducing the concentration or including loads of ingredients to increase mildness.
behentrimonium methosulfate. It's a great positively charged conditioning agent, the main ingredient in Incroquat BTMS-50 or Rita BTMS-25, that is used as a conditioner and emulsifier. It isn't a foaming, lathering surfactant or one that cleanses in a conventional sense. (When someone says to avoid sulfates, they don't mean this one.)
I appreciate that everyone is entitled to choose their ingredients as they wish, but I would like to encourage you to read a bit on a surfactants rather than just eliminating ones that contain the word "sulfate". I think you're missing out on some lovely surfactants like sodium laureth sulfate or ammonium laureth sulfate, both of which are considered mild detergents and pH balanced.
Related post: How to interpret surfactant names.
Why is this happening to these customers? I don't know if anyone knows the answer to this. From the article: “WEN seems to be good for certain hair types, especially those that are coarse or frizzy,” says Kelsey Smart, a stylist at Fox & Jane salon in New York. “But for women with fine hair, it becomes more important for the scalp to stay really clean—otherwise, product can build up and lead to breakage.” Ironically, women who need a squeaky-clean scalp may be in most need of the sulfates that Dean has tried so diligently to avoid."
As a note, there are many ways to get a squeaky clean scalp without using sulfates, as there are many many lovely surfactants out there that will clean hair gently! You can see those recipes in the hair care section of this blog.
I did do some surfing to read complaints about WEN, and this issue came up again and again. This whole situation is awful, and I'm so sorry anyone had to go through this. My heart breaks, and I hope those affected find some consolation. As someone who is a little hair obsessed, I can't imagine how they feel. I hope they find some answers...