Health

‘My Hair Was Coming Out Like Straw’: Inside the Function of Beauty Backlash

Customers are leveling some pretty serious accusations at the ubiquitous #sponcon hair care brand.
Katie Way
Brooklyn, US
April 22, 2021, 4:37pm
Woman bathing and washing her hair
Photo by Torwai via Getty Images

Madison Hoover, a 24-year-old health and fitness coach who lives in Atlanta, can’t remember exactly where she first heard about Function of Beauty’s hair care products. She thinks it might have been on one of the Bachelor-related podcasts she used to listen to. Regardless, she was optimistic when she decided to give the brand a try in October 2020. “I was just looking for a good hydrating moisturizing shampoo and conditioner and I had seen influencers promoting Function of Beauty for probably the past four or five years,” she told VICE. Unfortunately, she said the month or so she used the shampoo was a stretch of the worst hair days of her life. Function of Beauty’s main hook is that it’s customized hair care, and consumers are steered towards a specific formulation depending on their needs. “I said I wanted [my products] to moisturize, give volume, and condition,” she said. “I went from having gorgeous hair to my scalp being incredibly super oily, but then the rest of my hair falling out and being so dry and brittle. I could not brush it. It was coming out like straw.”

Hoover is one of a handful of women and girls using social media—TikTok in particular—to air her grievances about Function of Beauty. Her complaints seem to fit within a mold of issues customers claim they’ve had while using Function of Beauty products: Women film themselves pulling their hair apart, flash their scalps to reveal apparent thinning, or even turn the camera to clumps of hair on shower floors or retrieved from hair brushes after a single comb-through. The most popular of these posts, from user @honestlyjustkara, received more than 3.9 million views and almost 800,000 likes with the hashtag #lawsuit attached. (VICE could not reach @honestlyjustkara for comment.)

Function of Beauty, however, told VICE that they’re already attempting to address these concerns head-on. “Hopefully, it goes without saying that hair damage is the very last thing we want a customer to experience and we take these claims very seriously,” Lorna Sommerville, chief marketing and customer experience officer, told VICE. “We tried to reach [@honestlyjustkara] directly through various methods to learn more about her experience and the specific product she was using. We also shared an email address on our social channels for anyone else who may want to contact us and received fewer than 10 responses.”

In the meantime, Sommerville said Function of Beauty is ready to conduct further product testing in response to the outcry. “Although this type of event has been extremely rare for us, we do have a process in place to keep samples from every production run we make, so that if ever there is a concern such as this one we can go back and investigate,” she said. “We’ve been eager to connect with the original creator and subsequent commenters to learn more about their experiences—not only to work together to make it right, but also to get the information we need (lot # for example) so we can fully investigate the products used.”

Advertisement

To determine which products they’ll receive, customers who order through Function of Beauty’s website take a short quiz, where they specify their hair type and select “hair goals” they want their custom products to address, like thermal protection, anti-frizz, or oil control. Then comes the fun stuff: selecting a shampoo and conditioner color from a number of shimmery pastel hues that look designed to be posted on social media; choosing a scent like “true l(o)vender” or “all (you) calyptus;” and personalizing the bottles with a stylized label that reads “function of [your name here].” The bottles are hefty—but, fortunately, not too big to grip while subtly showing off a manicure on Instagram. Function of Beauty also touts the 60-plus “cruelty-free + 100 percent vegan” selection of potential ingredients, depending on the customer’s customizations

The internet isn’t the only place to purchase Function of Beauty’s wares—its products have also been available in brick and mortar Target locations since the beginning of 2021. Customers who shop for their Function of Beauty products at Target are rewarded with a lower price point, but they lose out on some of the more fine-grained customization options. “There are over 87 trillion possible formulations available to customers ordering directly from our website— individually formulated based on the results of a quiz they take about their hair type, hair structure, scalp moisture level, and hair goals,” Sommerville told VICE. “On the shelves of Target, we offer a more streamlined product assortment tailored to different hair types and goals; while the product selection is more limited, our standards are the same.”

Instead of walking away with bespoke aesthetic hair care, they choose a shampoo and conditioner “base” according to hair type and buy “booster” ampoules to address more specific hair concerns—a process that still provides “1000s” of possible formulations according to Target’s website. Target directed VICE back to Function of Beauty in response to a request for comment for this article.

Madison Taylor, 22, said she was excited to see Function of Beauty products on Target shelves, especially after she took the online hair quiz a few months earlier but couldn’t justify the customized product price tag as a “broke college student.” She used her Function of Beauty shampoo and conditioner for around two months, from mid-February until early April 2021, washing her hair every few days. During this time, she said she started noticing bald patches on her scalp and experienced extreme changes in her hairline. She even started using Rogaine to counteract the hair loss. “I have tried plenty of shampoos in my life, and I have never experienced anything like that,” Taylor told VICE. “Even after bleaching my hair, it's never felt that awful. I used to be able to put my hair in a ponytail. After using the shampoo, it almost felt like I had no more hair—it felt like there was nothing in my hand when I would grab it.” Eventually, she cut “all her hair off” as a result of the damage. 

On its Instagram page, which has 831,000 followers as of this writing, Function of Beauty regularly reposts photos from “small” accounts, artfully staged images or glowing selfies from women happy with their custom goods. But the company also appears to have a robust influencer program made up of women with follower counts in the hundreds of thousands on various platforms. See: the Instagram influencers offering discount codes in their #ad posts; cherry placements in YouTube videos like this one from fitness influencer Linda Sun or these sponsored videos from prolific vlogger Emma Chamberlain; and discount codes offered to listeners of the “what if girls were sleazeballs too” podcast Call Her Daddy.

The company’s website touts “over 68,000 five star reviews” on its products; Hoover said that during the “seven or eight” times she checked, she found nothing but love for Function of Beauty’s hair care online. “If you went to a drugstore, and got relatively decent products, you’d end up spending maybe $40 or $45. And Function of Beauty, their products are like $60 in a bundle for shampoo and conditioner—it's not inexpensive, it’s pretty up there price-wise,” she said. “I looked into it a lot before buying, and I could not find one negative review about it.” 

Taylor said the sheer volume of influencers recommending Function of Beauty products certainly impacted her choice to try them and has made the end result even more exasperating, “especially [given] how hard it's pushed towards people my age, people who are very into the beauty community watching all these YouTube videos—it affects people who really, really care about what their hair looks like.”

Advertisement

A wide variety of factors and health issues can cause hair loss: age, hormonal imbalances, scalp infections, dye jobs gone wrong, stress-inducing hairstyles, literal stress, nutrient deficiency as a result of disordered eating, alopecia, psoriasis, thyroid disease—the list is long, which makes diagnosis here particularly tricky. Hoover and Taylor, however, remain convinced that Function of Beauty was the culprit in their cases, especially because both told VICE that they noticed hair regrowth and healing after discontinuing their use of the products. Taylor even discontinued her Rogaine usage after she dropped Function of Beauty from her routine. “I haven't been using any heat styling or anything, and I've been using hair masks daily to try to get the hay-like texture out,” she said. 

The social media fervor around Function of Beauty makes it only the latest popular hair care products to catch heat for allegedly damaging users’ locks. In 2016, Wen Beauty’s cleansing conditioner became the subject of a class action lawsuit and an FDA investigation over alleged damage it caused customers’ hair. The former resulted in a $26 million dollar settlement in October of that year, where impacted customers could receive up to $20,000 a person. (Neither Wen Hair Care nor its distributor Guthy-Renker admitted wrongdoing and Wen has stated that they have begun a clinical trial to prove safety and effectiveness. Claims notwithstanding, Wen Hair Care remains FDA-approved.)

Advertisement

In February 2020, VICE reported on the backlash against DevaCurl when influencers broke rank and reported damage to their hair and scalps as a result of using DevaCurl’s products. In response, the brand promised to conduct additional testing on its products, adding that “we don’t speculate on why some people are attributing the challenges with their curls to our products.” In April 2020, the New York Times reported that DevaCurl had 10 pending class-action lawsuits against it for damages as a result of using its products. According to the latest court documents, litigation is still underway, but the company maintains that there is insufficient evidence supporting claims of false advertising or damage incurred from using its hair care products.

Unlike these brands, Function of Beauty is not currently involved in any legal proceedings related to customer complaints about its products. In fact, according to its own TikTok page, the company is actively looking to get into contact with the TikTok user @honestlyjustkara who posted the most-dueted clip on the topic, posting the following message to its feed

At Function of Beauty, we want every customer to have a great experience with our products. We stand by our product integrity, and we’re confident in the rigorous process we undertake to develop and test our products before they ever make their way to a customer. 

That said, we take Kara’s concerns very seriously and would love to hear from her directly to learn more about her situation and to understand all the variables that may be impacting it. We would also love the opportunity to have our team of chemist work of a specific formulation designed just for her—that offer stands for any customer that needs extra support. 

We hope to hear from Kara at social@functionofbeauty.com.

Lorna

CMO & Customer Experience Officer

Sommerville emphasized that “to date, fewer than 0.1 percent of all Function of Beauty products sold have resulted in complaints of this nature,” meaning directly to the company. For her part, Taylor said she lodged a complaint with the FDA on April 8, and reached out to Target instead. She even submitted her information online to ClassAction.org so she can participate in a lawsuit in case one ever arises. “I feel like there's so many people now that are affected by this that probably something here,” she said. “But, I haven't heard back yet.” In the meantime, she’s been wearing wigs in public while she waits for her hair to grow back in.

Follow Katie Way on Twitter.