TRESemmé Faces Class Action Over Hair Loss Claims

Anjelica Cappellino, J.D.

Written by
— Updated on April 11, 2022

TRESemmé Faces Class Action Over Hair Loss Claims

Two plaintiffs have brought a class action lawsuit against cosmetics giant, Unilever Inc. and Conopco Inc. The plaintiffs claim that their TRESemmé keratin products have caused hair loss and scalp burns. A chemical preservative found in the products which releases formaldehyde, a known carcinogen, allegedly caused the damage. Despite the claim, the defendant companies maintain that their products are safe. However, the lawsuit has gained traction through social media, broadening its reach for other potential plaintiffs and additional lawsuits.

The Lawsuit’s Allegations

The plaintiffs originally filed the lawsuit, Lipetz and Keener v. Unilever United States, Inc., et al., 20-CV-6350, in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania. Now, the suit has been transferred to the Northern District of Illinois. By moving the lawsuit, it can be consolidated with related actions against the defendants pending in that jurisdiction. The products in question are TRESemmé Keratin Hair Smoothing Shampoo and TRESemmé Keratin Smooth Color Shampoo. The company advertised the products as being able to make hair smooth and shiny by coating it with keratin. The protein, naturally found in hair, helps combat frizz.

The products contain a preservative called DMDM hydantoin, a formaldehyde donor. Cosmetic products use formaldehyde donors to extend shelf life and prevent microorganism spoilage. A formaldehyde donor slowly releases small amounts of formaldehyde over time. DMDM hydantoin is a popular cosmetic preservative, most frequently used in shampoos, at concentrations up to 1%. Despite its popularity, scientists have conducted studies and patch tests since the 1970s for DMDM hydantoin, a common allergen. According to the complaint, one 1987 study found that DMDM hydantoin causes dermatitis in those allergic to formaldehyde. A 2015 study found that longer storage times and higher temperatures increased the amount of formaldehyde released from the preservatives. The increased amount could lead to more severe health concerns as well as hair loss and scalp irritation.

The complaint alleges that since at least 2013, customers have voiced concerns about their reactions to TRESemmé’s keratin products. According to online reviews, some customers experienced their hair falling out in clumps, resulting in noticeable bald spots. Others complained of scalp itchiness, dryness, and irritation.

Similar Complaints

These claims are similar to complaints made against Suave’s Professionals Keratin Infusion product. Unilever also owns Suave, a TRESemmé competitor. In 2012, Unilever recalled the Suave product, which also contained DMDM hydantoin, following complaints of hair loss and scalp irritation. After years of litigation, Unilever entered into a $10.2 million settlement with its consumers. In referencing Suave’s prior litigation, plaintiffs claim Unilever has known about the dangers of DMDM hydantoin since at least 2012. Despite this knowledge, Unilever failed to warn consumers about side effects. The company allegedly engaged in deceptive and misleading practices concerning the safety of its products. Additionally, the plaintiffs also allege that DMDM hydantoin is unnecessary when there are safer alternatives to use in preserving cosmetics.

The lawsuit is substantially similar to other actions filed in federal jurisdictions. Similar cases include Castillo  v.  Unilever  United  States,  Inc.,  et  al., 20-CV-6786, filed in  the Northern District of Illinois, Libbey v. Unilever United States, Inc., et al., 20-CV-08075 filed in the Northern District of California, and Arroyo  v.  Unilever  United  States,  Inc.,  et al., 21-CV-302 filed in the District of New Jersey. All of these cases are now consolidated together. Per the transfer order, the parties agreed to file a consolidated amended complaint and extend the time for the defendants’ answer.

Unilever’s Response to TRESemmé Class Action

Publicly, Unilever has maintained the safety of its products. “Consumer safety is always our top priority and all TRESemmé products are rigorously assessed to meet stringent safety standards,” the company wrote in a public statement. While the company has not commented on pending litigation, the company stated in their public statement that the beauty industry widely used DMDM hydantoin, and health authorities confirmed it is a safe and effective preservative. Proponents of DMDM hydantoin stress that formaldehyde is a naturally occurring substance. It’s produced as part of normal metabolic processes in most living things. Therefore, they maintain the concentration used in cosmetics is safe.

FDA’s Response

The TRESemmé class action will hinge on whether it can be proven that DMDM hydantoin directly causes hair damage and loss. The U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA) has weighed in on this topic. The FDA released an update this past March on its website concerning formaldehyde in heat-activated keratin hair care products. The FDA acknowledges when a flat iron heats these chemicals, formaldehyde becomes a gas and releases into the air. The presence of formaldehyde exceeding 0.1 ppm in the air can cause irritation and dermatitis.

However, the FDA warns that only qualified hair professionals in a salon setting should use such products. The federal agency’s notice does not specifically address formaldehyde donors found in at-home shampoos. Nevertheless, it does encourage consumers to read the labels on hair smoothing products before trying them at home. According to the FDA, ingredient lists of formalin or methylene glycol mean that the product contains formaldehyde or formaldehyde releasers.

How Can the Experts Weigh In the TRESemmé Class Action?

Regardless, some experts in the fields of cosmetic chemistry refute the claims that DMDM hydantoin is unsafe. The Cosmetic Ingredient Review and Scientific Committee on Consumer Safety concluded it’s safe for use in cosmetics at appropriate levels. What constitutes appropriate levels will partially hinge on the opinion of toxicologists and others in the field of chemical safety. It is generally accepted that certain levels of formaldehyde can cause cancer and other illnesses. However, a lesser-known question is if DMDM hydantoin slowly releases the chemical to such a dangerous level. Whether Unilever is accurately marketing the safety of its products to the public is likely a question for consumer safety and marketing experts to debate. Additionally, these experts may deliberate if Unilever is providing a comprehensive ingredient list to consumers.

Lastly, because of the social media attention, consumers are learning about the different ways these ingredients can affect them. Therefore, it is likely that these lawsuits will expand and grow as these issues gain greater exposure.

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