Hundreds of consumers have filed complaints about an array of expensive hair care products — marketed by a company in South Florida — that they say led to hair loss, balding, itching, sores and skin lesions.
Many have filed federal lawsuits against Monat Global Corp., which has signed an agreement with Florida’s attorney general’s office promising not to engage in unlawful and misleading sales and marketing practices alleged in complaints to the Better Business Bureau and U.S. Food and Drug Administration dating back to 2015.
Some customers said that when they reported the problems to the sales reps, they were told that their hair was undergoing “detoxification” and they should continue to use the product.
“After two weeks using the product I started noticing extreme hair loss with every shower," a customer posted on the Better Business Bureau website in 2017. "It would cover the drain and come out in clumps. I contacted the rep and she told me that my hair was detoxing. I continued to use [it] another week and my hair still was falling out in clumps after washing.”
Some complained that they weren’t told that by accepting discounts offered for initial purchases of Monat products, they were enrolled in VIP memberships and automatically charged for future deliveries they did not request.
In an “Assurance of Voluntary Compliance" that took effect this month, Monat certified that it would refrain from engaging in activities alleged in complaints reviewed by the state. Monat did not admit to the conduct alleged in the complaints, and the agreement states that the attorney general “takes no position” on whether Monat “acted reasonably and in good faith or conducted its business fairly and honestly” or whether “clinical studies demonstrate the safety or efficacy of [Monat’s] products.”
Many of the complaints under investigation mirror charges by customers in 10 class action suits filed by 18 lead plaintiffs from 15 states against the lucrative multilevel marketing company, which is headquartered in Doral.
In 2018, those suits were consolidated into a single multidistrict suit underway in U.S. District Court in Miami. The consolidated lawsuit accuses Monat of representing its products as clinically proven to promote hair growth and prevent baldness — claims it says only a drug regulated and approved by the FDA can make. The suit also accuses the company of falsely claiming its products contain only natural ingredients and no toxins, petrochemicals, sulfates, or gluten.
Monat, founded in 2014, declined to answer specific questions about allegations outlined in the agreement and the class action lawsuits. But the company released a statement that reads, in part:
"We’ve have been working closely with the Florida attorney general’s office to address a number of matters related to customer relations and our rapid growth since 2017. After a lengthy process, we are pleased this matter has come to a close with no findings of wrongdoing.
“We grew incredibly fast in 2017 and 2018 — faster than we expected. We also grew faster than we were prepared for and as a result, we had some issues to address. Those issues have now been resolved.
“Our working relationship with the Florida [attorney general’s] office was productive and positive and they brought some important matters to light while empowering us to address them. We have clarified and more carefully addressed our marketing messages and our process for handling complaints to improve the customer experience.”
Complaints piled up quickly
After its founding in 2014, Monat evolved rapidly into one of the nation’s largest sellers of hair care products through its system of sales reps extolling the brand’s benefits and offering discounts to customers willing to become sales reps themselves.
Within three years, the company sold more than 20 million units of its product in the U.S. and Canada and generated about $300 million in 2017 alone for its corporate owner, Alcora Corp., according to the consolidated suit.
Customers are typically sold Monat products in small bundles called “treatment systems” that include a shampoo, a conditioner and a “leave-in” product with names like Moxie Magnifying Mousse, Rejuvabeads, Replentish Masque and Reshape Root Lifter.
On its website, the company sells a one-ounce container of a pre-shampoo treatment called Rejuveniqe Light for $99 — $84 for “VIP Customers" — that the company states will leave skin and hair “looking healthy, radiant and vibrant."
What Monat promises not to do
In the agreement with the attorney general, Monat affirmed that it will permanently refrain from:
Making any representation “about the health benefits, safety, performance, or efficacy” of any of its products unless it “possesses and relies upon Competent and Reliable Scientific Evidence ... to substantiate that the representation is true.”
Misrepresenting that a product “causes hair loss because your scalp is detoxifying and the hair follicles are enlarging.”
Misrepresenting that a product “is clinically proven to increase hair growth and significantly decrease hair loss.”
Misrepresenting that the benefits of its products “are scientifically proven" or that independent lab tests confirm their safety and effectiveness.
Misrepresenting that the company was certified by any entity, including governmental entities.
Misrepresenting that a product “does not and never will contain polyethylene glycol, petrochemicals, sulfates, harmful fragrances, and harmful colors,” and that its products are “100% vegan or gluten free.”
Misrepresenting that customers are receiving a 100% money-back, satisfaction guarantee, and the total cost that will be incurred as a result of accepting a discount.
"Falsely or deceptively using stock photos as ‘before and after photos’ in its advertisements.
In addition, the company agreed to “clearly and conspicuously” disclose its terms and conditions before obtaining customers' billing information and/or charging the consumer’s credit card, debit card, bank account or other financial account.
Monat agreed to pay $250,000 to cover the state’s attorneys fees, costs and investigative fees, and to refund at least $82,782 to customers whose complaints were reviewed in the investigation.
Kylie Mason, spokeswoman for Florida Attorney General Ashley Moody, said by email that investigators reviewed 21 complaints to the Attorney General’s Office and 874 complaints to the Better Business Bureau submitted between June 2015 and March 2019. The office has received another 30 complaints since the agreement was signed on Aug. 13.
The agreement required the company to voluntarily comply with its terms within 30 days after signing it. Failure by Monat to comply with the terms will be considered evidence of a violation of the Florida Deceptive and Unfair Trade Practices Act and could result in the Attorney General’s Office reopening the investigation and taking further action, Mason said.
“In entering into this [agreement], our office obtained restitution for consumers, strong injunctive terms to prevent future violations, and a provision establishing penalties if any future violation occurs,” Mason said.
Mason said the office will be in contact with consumers eligible for refunds and is working to establish a process for further “consumer redress.” Once in place, the office will issue a notice about the Assurance of Voluntary Compliance on its website along with instructions on how consumers can request refunds.
Suit says Monat lied about product safety
Janet Varnell, a Tampa-based plaintiffs attorney representing one of the lead plaintiffs in the class action suit, said in an interview that the agreement with the attorney general’s office is an important development in a long-running awareness campaign waged by Monat’s dissatisfied customers.
“I certainly hope it’s going to curb the practices that so many people are complaining about,” she said in an interview. “I’m encouraged because the attorney general’s office will go after them if they violate any of the terms.”
Defendants in the suit accuse Monat of marketing its products as a revolutionary anti-aging “treatment system” with the ability to grow hair and impact hormonal levels to prevent hair loss.
The suit says Monat or its agents touted the products as “safe,” “naturally based,” and “clinically tested, proven and guaranteed to deliver longer, fuller, stronger, younger-looking hair in just 90 days.”
The lawsuit accuses the company of representing that its products are “FDA approved” and made in the United States in a facility approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. They have “curative benefits such as the ability to treat medically diagnosed hair and scalp conditions.”
But the company never sought nor received FDA approval, the suit states. “Far from the panacea promised by [the company], Monat Products can cause embarrassing and extreme hair loss, hair breakage, head sores, infections requiring antibiotic treatment and other severe skin reactions,” it claims, adding, "Once hair loss begins, it can often continue for weeks or months “even if the consumer immediately discontinues use of the products.”
Plaintiffs in the consolidated lawsuit include Amber Alabaster, an Oklahoma resident who said her hair turned yellow, dry and brittle, and she developed cystic acne after using seven Monat-branded products over two months in 2017.
Alabaster’s suit, filed in December 2018 by the Coral Gables firm Colson Hicks Eidson, also accused Monat of concealing customers' reports of adverse effects by deleting negative comments from the internet, suing critics, and issuing cease-and-desist letters to individuals who complained publicly about the products.
Vickie Harrington, a North Carolina customer who started a Facebook group for other alleged victims, was sued by Monat in January 2018 for more than $75,000. Monat’s complaint, filed in federal court, accused Harrington of making defamatory statements about its products, including by posting “an altered photograph of Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa portrait, with the subject’s hair removed so she appeared bald, which Harrington titled ‘Monat Lisa.’”
Harrington settled with the company for terms that included turning over control of the Facebook group to Monat, Alabaster’s suit states.
Since then, alleged victims have created another Facebook group. The word Monat is not in its name and participants are careful not to use the company’s name when commenting.
Plaintiffs ‘should have known’ about allergies
In the response it filed in court to the consolidated lawsuit, Monat denied all charges by plaintiffs and said it was victimized by smear campaigns organized by hair stylists who “struck back” against Monat out of concern that Monat’s sales were displacing their salon-brand products.
Among its defenses, Monat accused the plaintiffs of breaching their “duty of care” by failing to determine whether they were allergic and hypersensitive to any of the ingredients in its products, and by not avoiding use of products to which they are allergic or hypersensitive.
The company also accused plaintiffs of “failing to mitigate their damages by using products with ingredients to which “they knew or should have known they had allergies or hypersensitivities,” using products “that allegedly caused them harm for longer than was reasonable under the circumstances,” and of failing to seek immediate medical attention or follow doctors' advice.
While the consolidated suit claims Monat sales reps told customers experiencing adverse reactions that they were “detoxing” and should continue using the product, it also says that the company now tells consumers to stop using the product in such cases. And in a response to a complaint about hair loss and scalp itching on the Better Business Bureau site, the company said it recommends “that anyone who may have a problem with any of our products should cease using the product immediately” and speak with their physician.
In its statement for this story, Monat said it now has more than 2 million customers in five global markets. Of its 1,000 employees around the world, nearly 500 are in South Florida. The company donates more than $1 million a year to charities through its Monat Foundation.
“We continue to focus on manufacturing the most safe and effective premium hair and skin care products,” the statement said. “Each year we spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to conduct thousands of tests to ensure our products are safe and effective. We continue to engage third-party scientific testing laboratories to validate the safety and effectiveness of our products. In each case the findings are conclusive — our products are safe and effective for their intended purpose.”
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