When a photo of Malik went viral with naysayers questioning whether her hair was natural, she uploaded a video demonstrating her hair care routine to prove that she didn’t wear a wig or use extensions.

That routine consisted entirely of DevaCurl products; she said she used nothing else for six straight years. 

“I have to focus on my family business and I can't really focus on my hair, so when I figured out a good routine for my hair, I just stuck with it for years on end,” Malik told MedTruth.

She only had 2,000 YouTube subscribers at the time — she now has 240,000 — but DevaCurl representatives reached out and offered to fly her to New York to appear in their promotional content after seeing her video. Although she said she was only paid to promote DevaCurl a few separate times, Malik became an ambassador for the brand.

“I was like their golden ticket, because my hair — it really was perfect. I’m never gonna deny that. I had great hair, and the fact that I only used their products, they probably were so happy about that, and they used me a lot for promotions and posting my photos,” Malik said. “The feeling was mutual. I really did love them. I didn’t see any red flags. I only saw it after the damage happened.”

Illustrations by Saloni Kothari

Red flags emerge

DevaCurl was founded in 2002, during a resurgence of the Black-led natural hair movement dedicated to embracing natural hair as people of color continued to be discriminated against for wearing curls, coils or traditionally Black hairstyles like dreadlocks. The products appealed to women of color, especially Black women, who wanted to reclaim their identities through their hair. 

Although Malik is not Black, she considers wearing her hair curly to be a manifestation of her Pakistani identity. She gave up straightening it in 2010 and transitioned to embracing her naturally curly tresses with the help of DevaCurl products.

Malik started noticing changes in her hair texture around July 2018. DevaCurl had just flown her out to New York again to promote the launch of a new product.

Shortly after using the new product, “my hair just started to decline,” Malik said. “It started to straighten out and it got really frizzy.”

Searching for answers, Malik blamed herself.

“I was like, ‘it's gotta be me.’ But I wasn't stressed out. I was hydrated. I was eating right. I stay out of the sun, so I don't even get UV damage,” she said.

For the first time, Malik struggled with dandruff. She began to suffer chronic headaches, and her curls gradually lost their shape and density. Clumps of her hair fell out in the shower. Her scalp became so itchy that it distracted her from her daily life. Some days, she said, her scalp felt like it was “on fire.” 

Malik doubled down on using DevaCurl. Since it was the only brand she had used for years, she trusted it to fix her hair problems. In hindsight, she said she was convinced that the brand couldn’t be at fault, especially after representatives had been so friendly to her. In one video, she compared her loyalty to DevaCurl to being in a “Deva trance” or a “cult.” 

Malik said she ruled out many common causes of hair damage and loss, from depression or dehydration to alopecia. She started receiving messages from women on social media at the beginning of January 2019 telling her that they used DevaCurl products at her recommendation, but were experiencing side effects that rang true with Malik’s recent experiences. They sent her pictures of hair damage, scalp sores, bald spots and new “baby hairs” — wispy hairs that grow around the forehead and take a different texture than the rest of a person’s hair.

She joined a Facebook support group called “Hair Damage & Hair Loss from DevaCurl - You're not CRAZY or ALONE!” that has just shy of 61,000 members. In the group, Malik found even more personal accounts from women who say DevaCurl products have damaged their hair and scalp, perhaps irreparably.

‘Spisha, is that you?’

Malik’s followers know her for her beauty content on social media, but she also harbors an activist streak. 

She speaks about her Muslim faith and Pakistani roots on social media. She protested the 2019 lockdown in Kashmir and what Malik calls Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s threats of nuclear war with Pakistan. And last year, she garnered international attention when she confronted Bollywood actress Priyanka Chopra during Chopra’s speech at Beautycon Los Angeles

Chopra, who is Indian, referred to herself as a humanitarian at the event. Malik took offense at the label, remembering that Chopra tweeted in support of the Indian National Forces during a time when military tensions were high between India and Pakistan. Malik pushed her way through the crowd, “snatched the mic out of somebody’s hands” and told Chopra that as a Pakistani, she felt Chopra was being a “hypocrite.” 

Chopra responded, calling herself “patriotic” and describing her work with UNICEF and the United Nations. Within 24 hours, the actress had lost three million followers on Instagram, while Malik’s follower count doubled.

After videos of the exchange between Malik and Chopra went viral, some of Malik’s followers focused not on her words — but on her dry and damaged hair. 

“My followers hit me up, and they’re like, ‘Spisha, is that you? This can’t be you. This looks like you, but it's not you. Right?’ and I was so embarrassed. I was like, ‘yep, that's my hair now,’’’ Malik said. 

“It was like they put a mirror up to me. I finally got to figure out like, ‘okay, yep, I've been damaged.’”

‘Why I Stopped Using DevaCurl’

Malik quit using DevaCurl after the viral video with Chopra. 

Where before she sang DevaCurl’s praises on social media, Malik now urges her followers to beware.

“If you’ve bought DevaCurl products because of me, I am sorry. And if you are currently using these products, stop immediately,” she said in a video called “Why I Stopped Using DevaCurl.” “I was in disbelief. I was lying to myself, therefore I was lying to all of you. Silence makes me complicit … there are a lot of people who are suffering right now.”

While Malik has used her voice against DevaCurl, others have taken the company to court.

As of July 2020, at least three proposed class-action lawsuits allege the brand’s products cause scalp irritation, hair loss, shedding, thinning, breakage and balding. The lawsuits, based in New York, California and Florida, specifically blame the company’s “No-Poo” and “Low-Poo” cleansers.

These products were a boon for curly-haired consumers who subscribe to the adage that curly hair doesn’t need to be shampooed, since shampoo has been rumored to dry out and therefore suppress curls. Plaintiffs allege that the company touted No-Poo and Low-Poo products as gentle, but failed to disclose the possible negative effects.

In response to the lawsuits, DevaCurl said the brand's products are safe, but announced that the company would be “conducting additional testing with an independent party.”

Since the tests were completed, the brand now addresses the four main product-related hair complaints:  breakage, loss, curl pattern changes and scalp irritation. 

The company denies using any harsh chemicals that could penetrate hair bonds and cause breakage; creating any products that penetrate the scalp or hair bulb, which the site says would be necessary to instigate hair loss or change curl patterns; and selling products that have shown “skin irritation or allergic contact sensitization” after tests.

Illustrations by Saloni Kothari

Multi-level marketing company Monat faces similar allegations

DevaCurl isn’t the only hair care brand blamed for hair damage and loss in the last several years. Monat, a multi-level marketing company that sells a variety of hair care products, has been sued after users developed scalp sores and experienced hair loss. 

One putative class-action lawsuit was launched in 2018 on behalf of Donna Stefforia, who alleged that the company was aware of complaints of side effects but did nothing to investigate them, according to Law360. Stefforia’s suit, brought from Florida, challenged the brand’s usage of the terms “naturally-based” and “safe” in describing their products.

“Plaintiff and other class members have been damaged by defendant's concealment and nondisclosure of the defective and/or harmful nature of the Monat products,” the complaint said. “They were misled into purchasing products represented to be natural and beneficial — and certainly not harmful — which is not what they received.”

Monat responded that it “stands behind its products, which have been independently tested and found to be non-irritating, hypoallergenic and dermatologically safe for their intended use on all skin types,” per a statement. “All Monat formulations use ingredients, in concentrations, that the Cosmetic Ingredient Review (CIR), the (U.S. Food and Drug Administration), Health Canada and the European Commission consider 'safe for their intended cosmetic purpose.”

That same year, Trisha Whitemore and Emily Yanes de Flores filed a class-action lawsuit against Monat for $5,000,000. Whitemire and Flores said that Monat claims that some of their products stop hair loss or promote regrowth of lost hair, but the products had the opposite effects on many consumers. Dana Sohovich sued in March 2018, alleging that she lost half of her hair due to Monat products. Kelley Botallico sued the next month for damage that her physician said was linked to Monat.

Just like with DevaCurl, consumers created a Facebook support group for those who experienced product-related side effects after using Monat products. It’s a closed group called “Monat-My Modern Nightmare” and, at its peak, it had 12,000 members.

Monat launches suits of their own

While Malik said that DevaCurl hasn’t responded to her advocacy besides sending a quick email, Monat has been much more litigious. 

In January 2018, the brand sued the woman who started the Facebook group, North Carolinian Vickie Harrington, for defamatory statements and “unfair and deceptive acts.” Harrington was formerly a Market Partner, the term Monat uses for independent contractors who buy Monat products to market and sell for commission. 

Monat also sued both Kayla Baker and Toni Miller in separate suits in February 2018. Both were former Market Partners who made social media posts alleging that the products caused damage.

The same year, Monat also sued hairstylist Mags Kavanaugh for defamation

A licensed hairdresser debunks the “detox phase”

Kimberly Schiavo, 27, is a licensed hairstylist and former beauty school teacher in New Jersey. Schiavo studies MLMs in her free time and has a particular interest in Monat.

She said that many Market Partners, when asked about hair loss from people who bought from them, will chalk it up to a “detox phase.” The idea is that a new cleansing hair product strips the hair of any leftover residue from previous products, such as silicones and parabens, and causes hair to fall out so it can then begin to recover. 

In fact, the “detox phase” is the exact wording that convinced Flores, who sued the brand in 2018, to continue using the products after noticing hair loss. 

“From the time that Mrs. Flores began using the MONAT products, her hair didn’t appear healthy but she had been convinced by the MONAT representative that sold the products to her that her hair was undergoing a ‘detox’ process where all of the bad things that were in and on her hair and scalp were being removed,” her case reads.

But Schiavo said there is no such thing as a “detox” phase.

“People should only lose 100-150 hairs a day. A person losing more than that should go to a doctor and discontinue any product they’re using,” she told MedTruth.

Schiavo said she doesn’t know what could truly be causing some users to experience hair loss after using Monat.

“But when you have so many people that are using the same product, and they're all experiencing the same thing, it does make me believe that it could be the product,” she said.

The problem with multi-level marketing

A major difference between Monat and DevaCurl is that Monat is a multi-level marketing company, which many liken to illegal pyramid schemes. According to the Federal Trade Commission, some MLMs really are pyramid schemes in disguise, although the agency hasn’t called Monat one.

MLMs like Monat hire independent contractors or distributors, who must buy the products that the company sells in order to accumulate their own inventory to sell. Most of them, however, are encouraged to make money or receive other incentives by recruiting more distributors among their circles of friends.

Government watchdogs and independent reports have found two major problems with MLMs. First, more than 99% of people who sign up as distributors lose money rather than make a profit, according to the F.T.C. as reported by TIME. Second, these companies target women to sell and recruit via social media, especially those in financially precarious situations, as well as immigrants and racial minorities. By focusing on marginalized groups, MLMs like Monat recruit vulnerable individuals to promote their products with the promise of financial independence, luxury cars and glamorous vacations paid for by the brand. 

Schiavo herself, a stay-at-home mom, was approached by MLM recruiters who she said tried to use a shaming tactic to get her to join.

“I get reached out to by a lot of MLMs including Monat, saying, ‘don’t you feel bad that you can't financially contribute to your family?’” she said. “Somebody that’s not me could read that that, (have) no idea that it’s just a tactic and think, ‘Oh my god, she's right. What if my husband does kind of resent me a little bit for not bringing in any money?’”

Schiavo said that most MLMs, including Monat, don’t vet their distributors for hair care expertise, so many Market Partners will sell products that they know very little about. She said that’s exactly the case with Monat.

“I know there is no educational requirement. You don't have to be licensed. You don't have to have gone to school, nothing,” she said. “So if you, you know, are a mechanic that works on engines and you have Wi-Fi, ‘hey, guess what? Come sell shampoo with me.’”

According to Monat’s Policies and Procedures document, all that is required to become a Market Partner in the U.S. is to be the age of majority in their area, reside in the U.S., provide a social security number or equivalent, purchase a Monat Starter Kit for $99 and sign the agreement.

Schiavo said the lax eligibility requirements could be one reason why many Market Partners deny consumers’ claims that Monat has damaged their hair: they just don’t have the scientific knowledge to reconsider the company’s hair care claims or to question the ingredients in the products they sell.

“A lot of people say, ‘well, it's not rocket science. I'm just selling shampoo.’ But in order to really understand how shampoo works, why shampoo works, you kind of have to understand the scalp,” Schiavo said. “I see all these people that have never been to school for it, and they're trying to talk like they know what they're talking about, and for somebody like me that is a professional, I hear these things and I'm like, ‘that's not how that works,’ and there's somebody that’s gullible out there that's going to eat it up.”

No happy ending

Although Malik hasn’t used DevaCurl for about a year, her dermatologist can’t say whether she’ll ever heal.

“I know everybody wants to hear, like, a happy ending,” Malik said. But so far, she has seen “not that much improvement” in the health of her scalp and once-vibrant curls.

Yet, there’s much more to the story of hair loss and damage than vanity, and that’s something Schiavo and Malik are both committed to discussing.

Schiavo said that when women have lost their hair after using products they believed would help them, she as a hairstylist finds it devastating. It “hurts her heart,” she said, when women lose the locks that make them feel beautiful or special.

For Malik, “as a Pakistani girl, all I’ve ever wanted in my life was my hair to grow down to my hips,” she said in a video. However, her hair damage has caused her to contemplate cutting it short and starting over again.

Now, it’s as if a piece of her identity is missing.

“My hair represented my personality, so please try to understand what it’s like to have your physical representation of your personality taken away from you without your consent,” she said.