When it comes to children’s toys, parents hope that what they buy will provide some harmless fun. But when Jasmine Nikunen bought her daughter Scarlett a pack of Bunchems, the latter’s fortune took a turn for the worse when 50 of the little toys became fused in the young girl’s long, blonde hair.
But before we discover just what happened to young Scarlett, let’s find out more about the company behind Bunchems. It all began in in 1994, after Ronnen Harary and Anton Rabi graduated from The University of Western Ontario. The childhood friends founded a toy company called Spin Master that year, and their first creation came to life after they put an initial $10,000 investment into their business.
Ronen and Anton – along with classmate Ben Varadi, who joined Spin Master in 1994, too – first manufactured a toy called the Earth Buddy. They constructed the simple toy, which the company describes as “a nylon stocking-covered head of sawdust topped with grass seeds.” And with regular watering, the Earth Buddy’s grass grew to look like its hair.
Meanwhile, the Earth Buddy quickly became a success for the trio, and it allowed Spin Master to begin manufacturing a number of other toys. Nowadays, the company has more than 1,600 employees across the world, and their creations include the 2017 Toy of the Year, Hatchimals.
To that end, Spin Master also makes a toy called Bunchems, which are packs of squishy interlocking balls used by kids to build different shapes and figures. And those who have purchased Bunchems say that they’re ideal for children as they learn colors and counting and hone their motor skills. Plus, many parents love that they’re a non-electronic toy option in today’s high-tech world.
Indeed, for those reasons and ostensibly more, Bunchems have earned several accolades since they hit the shelves. For starters, the connectable orbs won the Activities Toy of the Year in 2016. They also made the list of Parents magazine’s Best Toys of 2016 and Target’s Top Toys in 2015.
But not everyone has had such a positive experience with the simple stacking toys. Indeed, just ask management consultant and business manager Jasmine Nikunen. Her story began in late 2018, when she took her daughter Scarlett to a playdate with her cousin, Collin.
As Jasmine told KTHV in January 2019, she had no idea what Bunchems were before she dropped off her young daughter to hang out with her little cousin. But she would quickly learn about the squishy interlocking toys when they became a big part of Scarlett and Collin’s day of play.
Jasmine would come to find out that “Collin… poured the whole bucket [of Bunchems] over [Scarlett’s] head.” After that, her daughter instinctively tried to get them out of her long blonde tresses, but the toys wouldn’t budge. Instead, the colorful orbs locked into her hair like they do with one another.
And, as Scarlett tried to free them from her hair, things only got worse. Jasmine continued, “She tried to shake them out and they immediately started to matte up like dreadlocks.” And even with help from the grown-ups, she couldn’t get the Bunchems out of her locks.
Stumped by the task at hand, Scarlett’s dad, Leland Gough, logged onto Facebook. There, he reached out to his local community through a North Little Rock neighborhood page on the site. He shared his daughter’s story, writing, “Until yesterday my baby had the most beautiful hair you could ever imagine.”
In fact, Scarlett hadn’t once cut her hair in five years, thus explaining why her blonde tresses stretched all the way down her back. But the young girl’s long hair had also served as the perfect place for Bunchems to stick. Leland added, “This happened to clean, dry hair in less than five minutes.”
Leland added on Facebook that he and Jasmine had “been trying for two days” to remove the Bunchems from Scarlett’s hair to no avail. And he concluded his post with a call to action, begging local stylists to come forward if they could help remove the toys from his daughter’s blonde mane.
Subsequently, various Facebook users then chimed in with advice. One wrote, “There’s a recipe with fabric softener and water that supposedly helps with doll hair.” And another advised simply, “WD-40.” Meanwhile, those with first-hand experience of the same issue chimed in as well.
And the Facebook users’ comments on Leland’s desperate post revealed another twist in the story – Bunchems have a reputation for sticking to children’s hair. Indeed, as far back as 2015 – before the interlocking balls earned a Toy of the Year Award and made the Parents’ list of Best Toys – other grown-ups had noted how fiercely Bunchems clung to their children’s locks.
At that time, parents had taken to Amazon, where their negative reviews had caught the media’s attention. One reviewer wrote, “Unless you were planning on getting your kid a pixie cut or shaving their head already, don’t buy these!” And another complained, “Worse than gum in hair,” helping describe just how impossible the toys could be to remove.
And, in response to such negative reviews, Spin Master made a statement about their clingy circles. Vice president of marketing, Arlene Biran, wrote, “They are intended only to be adhered to other Bunchems. This is particularly important for parents and caregivers to understand.”
To her point, Arlene pointed out that Bunchems boxes had – and continue to sport – warning labels that make parents aware of the toys’ sticky nature. The marketing VP continued, “Packaging and directions clearly state: ‘Caution: Keep away from hair. May become entangled.’” And plenty of parents agreed with her point of view, too.
“I understand accidents happen,” one mom shared via BuzzFeed. “But it’s not the toy’s fault if your kid gets them wrapped in their hair. If it happened to my kid, I’d be upset about the hassle, but I’d be more likely to give my kid a lecture about being more careful and explaining why the balls got stuck…”
Meanwhile, Global Toy Experts CEO and founder Richard Gottlieb shared a similar sentiment with NBC News in November 2015. He said, “It’s a good toy with some unexpected and potentially uncomfortable consequences. Let’s not forget the fun and learning that great tools of play can provide before we get too carried away with focusing on a problem that can be fixed with a little parental direction and observation.”
Still, in May 2016 Spin Master decided to go a step beyond the initial apology and warning labels. To help those adults who had children stuck with Bunchems in their hair, they uploaded an instructional video to YouTube that showed how to remove the toys. And their process took several steps to safely and comfortably complete.
In the video, Spin Master first tells parents to grab hair conditioner or any type of vegetable oil they have in the house. Next, they advise, “Apply the hair conditioner to hand and rub into fingertips.” Then, parents must slather the liquid onto the spots where the Bunchems have locked into their children’s tresses.
With hair properly conditioned, parents can then “brush the non-tangled hair below the Bunchems to remove any hair tangles first,” the video continues. Meanwhile, the last step seems simple enough. It says, “Gently pull and slide the Bunchems with fingers to the hair ends.”
And, if that didn’t work, Spin Master recommended more conditioner or vegetable oil, more combing and more gentle pushing on the Bunchems. Eventually, mom Jasmine Nikunen tried her own version of this method, but it didn’t go to plan. Indeed, it became a much more difficult process than what the video demonstrated.
As Jasmine described the task to KTHV, she enlisted the help of five others to remove the Bunchems from Scarlett’s hair. She said, “It took six hands [and] 12 and a half hours to get them out. We had about 12 containers of coconut oil and vegetable oil and any hair oil you could think of and we drenched her in it.”
On Facebook, one mom shared how she similarly tackled her daughter’s tangles while relying on help from technology. She wrote, “I covered my daughters hair in coconut oil, [then] turned on a movie and let her watch it. I took easy sections and worked from bottom up with little tweezers, comb, and scissors.”
Indeed, that woman had chimed in to help parents Leland and Jasmine to remove the Bunchems – and Scarlett’s mom returned the favor by publicizing her story so other parents would know to be more careful. Jasmine said on THV11 in January 2019, “Definitely watch your kids if you do have [Bunchems], keep them away from the hair.”
Thankfully, Jasmine didn’t have to take more extreme methods, like cutting Scarlett’s hair to remove the toys. Still, she noted a change in her daughter’s extra-long tresses. The mom continued, “She lost a lot of it, like her scalp has thinned out now. We’re just grateful we were able to salvage it.”
Fortunately, Bunchems, too, have weathered what was once called “Hairgate.” Indeed, the toys continue to bring in positive reviews on sites like Amazon. And as of January 2019 the sticky spheres had upwards of 1,000 reviews, 95 percent of which laud the toys for all of their non-hair-related assets.
And Spin Master also has plenty of warnings for Bunchems users, both on the toys’ packaging and on their website. Indeed, the support section reads, “Do not put Bunchems in hair. During play, tie hair back to avoid entanglement. Keep [them] away from pets [and] do not eat Bunchems.”
Meanwhile, this wasn’t the first time that a toy had so famously sunken into children’s hair unexpectedly. That’s because nearly 20 years before Bunchems hit the shelves, a then-new Cabbage Patch Snack Time Kids Doll made waves for a unique reason – the toy’s mouth opened and closed to mimic eating, just like a real child would.
There was just one problem with the doll’s design – it had no on-off switch. This worked fine when children put the plastic foodstuffs that came with the doll into its mouth. But it also chomped away on other, non-toy-food items. Indeed, most famously, it began to eat young children’s hair.
According to The New York Times, young Sarah Stevens ironically sat in a hair salon alongside her aunt when her Cabbage Patch doll got hungry for hair. And as the doll ingested Sarah’s tresses, her aunt and the salon’s owner disassembled the doll and pulled apart its mouth to stop it.
It took the grown-ups a half-hour to stop the Cabbage Patch kid and, luckily, Sarah didn’t have any damage to her hair afterward, other than a headache. At that time, a spokesman for the toy brand Mattel, said “he knew of no other complaints about it,” the newspaper reported.
Then, just two days after Sarah’s story broke, two more young girls had similar and more traumatic experiences with their Cabbage Patch dolls. This time, a toddler named Carly Mize had her hair gobbled up by the doll – and it even ripped some of the girl’s hair straight from her scalp.
Carly’s mother, Tammy Mize, told the Associated Press, “When I picked [her] up, the doll was attached to the back of her head.” Worryingly, Tammy couldn’t pry the Cabbage Patch Kid from her daughter’s scalp, and there was, of course no on-off switch to stop the toy from devouring the toddler’s hair.
Meanwhile, by the time Tammy did get the doll off of Carly’s head, the damage was done. The mom continued, “It kept rolling her hair inside the head. It pulled her hair from the root. She is completely bald all the way down the back of her head.” Fortunately, Carly’s hair could grow back, but the doll’s reputation wouldn’t recover.
By January of 1997, Mattel had agreed to remove the Cabbage Patch Snack Time Kids dolls from the market in accordance with the Consumer Product Safety Commission. Indeed, along with multiple cases of hair stuck within the dolls, some children had their fingers ensnared in the toy’s mouth, too.
Like the makers of Bunchems, Mattel responded quickly to the safety concerns and acted accordingly. Today, Wicked Cool Toys holds the license for producing Cabbage Patch Kids. And they, like Spin Master, continue to make playthings that provide a fun and fresh alternative to tech-based toys – and, with the right safety nets in place, kids can play on.