FDA issues safety alert for popular hair care product over hair loss complaints

11-year-old Eliana Lawrence seen after using shampoo that thinned her hair. (Source: CBS NEWS)

WASHINGTON (CBS News) – Two years ago, 11-year-old Eliana Lawrence was worried she would be bald forever.

“I was scared I wasn’t going to get my hair back.”

Her mother Miriam says Eliana went nearly bald after using a WEN by Chaz Dean hair care product, which has celebrity endorsements and boasts of stronger, fuller hair.

But not for Eliana, says her mom.

(Source: CBS News)
(Source: CBS News)

“I noticed that her hairbrush was overflowing with hair. I’d never seen her brush in that condition before.”

The FDA began investigating the company after reports of hair loss, balding and rashes. Last month, the agency took the rare step of issuing a safety alert after learning the company had received 21,000 complaints.

The company tells CBS News it is cooperating, and its products are safe.

“We have shared our formulations and ingredients with the FDA,” it says. “We … exceed the FDA’s requirements for cosmetic manufacturers and have always been transparent.”

But the FDA disagrees, saying “the company … did not address safety concerns related to hair loss. We do not know if the company has other safety data, and we do not have the legal authority to require a cosmetics firm to provide product safety information.”

It has no authority, because under a law that’s been in effect since 1938,  the FDA has limited power to regulate the $62 billion cosmetics industry.

“We’re talking baby wipes, toothpaste, deodorant, shampoo, hair gel,” said attorney Tina Sigurdson, with the Environmental Working Group.

“There’s no legal requirement that a company makes sure a product is safe before they sell it,” she told us.

How is that possible? “FDA has no access to safety records. They have no legal power to get those. Only Congress can give them that power,” Sigurdson said.

Meanwhile, WEN products remain on the shelves. The company says “the truth is that there are many reasons why people suffer from hair loss, but using Wen is not one of them.”

As for the Eliana and Miriam Lawrence, they are now part of a class action lawsuit against Wen.

© 2016 CBS Interactive Inc. All Rights Reserved.

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