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Are Cleansing Conditioners Bad For Your Hair?


It’s been a bad few months for cleansing conditioners—specifically Devacurl’s. It started back in August when Stephanie Mero, a Florida-based hairstylist, created a private Facebook support group for those who believe they’d experienced hair loss after using Devacurl products. “I work day and night on this, investigating any patterns that could help us understand what is going on,” Mero wrote. “I am sure you all feel just as I do...frustrated, angry, confused, scared, and exhausted.” The group now has nearly 60K members. Similar reports quickly poured in from across the web: Sephora’s community forum is filled with angry customers, YouTube influencers who once shilled Devacurl recommendations have since denounced it, and most recently, a class-action lawsuit was opened against the brand.

If it sounds unusual that such a purportedly gentle hair care product should be picking up this much consumer flack, consider this: it’s happened before. Remember WEN by Chaz Dean? One of the first cleansing conditioners to go mainstream, WEN was beloved by curly-haired consumers until… it wasn’t. By mid-2014 enough complaints of hair loss rolled in to initiate an FDA investigation, and even now, six years later, the agency still has 21,000 complaints to sift through. Meanwhile in 2018, WEN settled on a $26 million payout in a class-action suit.

The complaints against WEN and Devacurl are similar. Both lawsuits note users experienced scalp itchiness and hair loss—though the Devacurl community tacks on dandruff and curl relaxation to its list of gripes. It might get you wondering: is cleansing conditioner, uh, safe?

What’s going on?

Well, no one knows for sure. Devacurl recently released a statement ensuring that their rigorous product testing for pH, fragrance, and toxicology have all revealed no safety concerns. Mero has urged her followers to file a report with the FDA. Considering WEN’s FDA investigation has been open since 2014, and no definitive link between their products and hair loss has been made, it could be years before anyone really has an answer for what’s happening with Devacurl.

That being said, I’ve got a few theories.

Theory 1: Fragrance

In a now viral video, hair blogger Ayesha Malik explained that although she believed in Devacurl’s purity standards in the past, a quick search on an app called Think Dirty revealed its dirty truth. On the app, all of Devacurl’s products scored an eight out of 10 for toxic ingredients! So Malik immediately threw all of hers out.

...Before you do, let’s look a little closer at Devacurl’s Think Dirty rating. As with many third-party clean beauty ingredient databases (like the EWG, for example, which is notoriously rejected by cosmetic chemists) Think Dirty comes with complications. If you were to look up Devacurl on the database yourself, you’d notice that one particular ingredient is dragging its rating down: fragrance. Think Dirty bunches all fragrance (clinically tested or otherwise, and at any percentage) together.

Think Dirty's perspective on fragrance is rooted in scientific studies that suggest phthalates in synthetic fragrances may act as endocrine disruptors. In reality, only four specific types of phthalates (di(2-ethylhexyl) phthalate, diethyl phthalate, di-n-octylphthalate, and di-n-butyl phthalate) have demonstrated health risks to the human body. Theoretically, something that screws with your endocrines might cause hair loss, but Devacurl products are phthalate-free. So while Malik’s personal experience is undeniable, “dirty” ingredients are unlikely culprits.

Still, there’s more to fragrance than its toxicity—it’s also an ingredient you can just be allergic to. If you think about how your face might get inflamed or irritated after you use a product high in essential oils, is it that much of a stretch to think the same might happen to your scalp? At a glance the complaints lodged against WEN seem to support this theory. There, more users reported unhappy results with WEN’s Sweet Almond Mint Cleansing Conditioner than with any other of the brand’s six fragrances. “Hair loss as a result of an allergic reaction to ingredients and essential oils is a possibility,” explains trichologist Bridgette Hill. But she notes that it doesn’t exactly match up with the Devacurl complaints—and that the WEN complaints are likely just coincidence given that Sweet Almond Mint was WEN’s most popular scent.

Longtime users of Devacurl are only now beginning to see hair loss or damage, while Hill says an allergic reaction would have a more instant, and violent, effect on the scalp. “Initially, the reaction would produce symptoms such as burning, tingling, soreness on the scalp, inflammation of the hair follicle, and sores and abrasions on the scalp,” says Hill. “You’d notice these signs before hair loss or shedding is experienced.”

Interestingly, while the fragrance theory doesn’t hold up for the Devacurl and WEN cases, Hill’s description does help explain a recent hair loss case against Monat. (Monat, by the way, often draws a different kind of ire from the public because the company follows a multi-level marketing structure, or MLM.) In a 2018 class-action lawsuit, Monat users claim to have experienced hair loss accompanied by scalp sores and abrasions. While these reactions were often instant and align with symptoms of an allergic response, Monat encouraged users to push past this "detox" phase, which ultimately led to more sustained damage. Instead of fighting through a bad reaction, Hill emphasizes that allergies can be easily confirmed with a test at your dermatologist’s office.

Theory 2: Scalp Buildup

A second theory speaks to the fact that both WEN and Devacurl’s lawsuits center around cleansing conditioners. In regards to the WEN case, an attorney representing the plaintiffs told ABC, “From what we understand about the product and how it causes hair loss is it contains virtually no cleanser… so instead of removing the product when you rinse it off, it just becomes impacted in your hair follicle.” Could this be the case with Devacurl, too? And, more importantly: are cleansing conditioners just not getting your scalp clean enough—in turn, triggering a hair loss response?

“Any product buildup on the scalp can lead to scalp congestion, poor cellular turnover and cause hair shedding and or hair loss,” says Hill. Malik mentions that her Devacurl routine left her with a flaky scalp, saying, “For the first time in my life I experienced dandruff… it was snowing every day, and my scalp was itchy, so I used more Devacurl thinking it would fix it." While they might appear to be a sign of dry skin, dandruff flakes are actually symptomatic of an oily scalp. Oil becomes trapped under layers of dead skin, which eventually flakes off. (More on that here.)

Adding to the confusion is the fact that some active in the online curly hair community have noticed similar symptoms when they only wash with conditioner, which is sometimes referred to as “co-washing.” Hair blogger Keisha Fadeyi of Naturally Curly shared in October of 2018, way before any of this Devacurl drama hit the mainstream, that co-washing seemed to leave her curls stringier and less defined. It’s an observation echoed in many current Devacurl complaints. Fadeyi elaborated, “I realized that the products I was using were not truly cleansing my hair and were only layering moisture, which stunted my hair growth progress. So I decided to go back to the drawing board and start cleansing my hair weekly with shampoo!” After some time, she noticed that her curl pattern and hair health rebounded. The parallels seem to indicate that even though cleansing conditioners are marketed as a shampoo replacement, they still might be too gentle to properly clean the scalp.

Scientists still aren’t sure exactly why scalp health has an effect on hair growth, but studies like this one help shed light on what might be happening. Its authors note that “Sources of oxidative stress with impact on the preemergent fiber,” or hair that hasn’t exited the follicle yet, “include oxidized scalp lipids.” That means that when there’s too much oil on your scalp and you go in the sun, those oils turn rancid, and can harm the growth of new hair. So, using a lipid-rich cleansing conditioner (clock the grapeseed oil in Devacurl’s Original No-Poo formula) alongside lipid-rich hair masks and conditioning treatments are not only a recipe for scalp buildup, but one for rancid scalp buildup.

Are there any other theories about what could be happening?

Mero thinks it might have to do with the products’ plastic packaging, formaldehyde potentially being released at the packing stage, or their preservative system which, as she shared in an August 2019 post, the brand can change without alerting consumers. And remember the issues with Monat mentioned above? When an FDA agent went to Monat’s factory, they reported that unsanitary conditions were contaminating the products. Which isn’t to say that’s what’s happening here! It just means: there’s only so much the consumer can gather from what a brand chooses to make public.

Also, remember that hair loss in women can be triggered by things other than the products you’re using. Before you jump the gun, consider if your hair loss might be caused by hormonal changes, supplements or medications, medical conditions, radiation therapy, extreme stress, or certain hairstyles.

So… is cleansing conditioner safe?

I’m not going to pretend I know the definitive reason so many women are experiencing hair loss with Devacurl—I don’t! But I do know that if you’re going to use a cleansing conditioner, make sure you’re alternating it with something stronger to keep your scalp healthy and happy. That could mean a traditional conditioner, or a specifically formulated scalp treatment. (This one from Oribe, with a targeted tip and combination of physical and manual exfoliation, is a good one.) And if you’re noticing a bad reaction to something you’re using, stop! There’s no such thing as a detox period: inflammation is your body’s way of telling you something’s wrong. Now, go forth and co-wash with confidence. We’re not throwing out the category just yet.

—Ali Oshinsky

Photo via ITG