How Hazardous Is Your Hair Dye?

How Hazardous Is Your Hair Dye?

With the recent emphasis on avoiding any and all carcinogens, you might wonder why some people, especially women, dye their hair so frequently with chemically-laden hair dye. I did too, especially after my scalp burned so feverishly during a recent at-home exposure. What I learned is troubling — the list of harmful and potentially carcinogenic ingredients in your typical hair dye is both long and dangerous and includes arylamines, ammonia, parabens, aromatic amines, and resorcinol, among others.

Arylamines have been proven to cause cancer in laboratory animals; scant amounts of the chemicals are known to be absorbed through the skin during every hair dyeing session, toxins that move through your system via urine and pass through the bladder.

As it turns out, there is evidence that frequent use of permanent commercial hair color can increase your cancer risk. Those risks, however, are much higher for salon employees who handle hair dyeing chemicals as a part of their everyday jobs. For the rest of us, the risk is purported to be modest.

But the U.S. Food and Drug Administration does not strictly regulate and test each chemical used in the manufacture of hair dye, so who knows what damage years and years of skin exposure can manifest?

Are You At Risk?

About 75 percent of American women use hair dye, but according to the American Cancer Society, it’s only the semi-permanent and permanent colors with which you should be concerned (those dyes that penetrate the hair shaft and cortex). The darker the color, the greater the cancer risk. And several recent studies done with both people and animals show an increase in certain types of cancers with exposure to various common dye-containing chemicals.

For instance, in a 2013 meta-analysis that examined all of the past studies of hair dye risk to both humans and animals (those done after 1980 when many harsher chemicals were effectively banned from use), researchers found a “likely increase risk of developing non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma” as well as bladder cancer, especially in higher-risk groups: those whose hair dye exposures are greater than 200 applications per lifetime, especially with dark brown and black shades of permanent color.

A separate study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association found an association between the use of semi-permanent and permanent hair dye and an increased risk of brain tumors and ovarian cancer. But even blondes should take note: a population-based case-controlled study published in Archives of Biochemistry and Biophysics in 2007 showed a “positive association between the presence of carcinogenic-DNA adducts in breast cancer patients who were also users of light-colored hair dye.”

Other studies indicate that even temporary hair dye (that which rinses out after 2-3 shampoos) can be harmful to an unborn fetus, so those women who are pregnant or who wish to become pregnant might want to forgo the hair-dying process altogether. Other less compelling research links hair dyes with an increased risk for pancreatic cancer and/or leukemia.

Besides pregnancy, you might want to limit your use of hair dye for other reasons, such as potentially adverse allergic reactions and other skin sensitivities. For an unlucky few, the use of permanent and semi-permanent hair dyes can also cause hair loss and damage, such as breakage or the dryness that can lead to uncontrollable fly-a-ways.

What’s the Alternative?

If you must use a semi-permanent or permanent at-home hair dye, cover your hands and follow the manufacturer’s directions precisely. Do not, under any circumstances, leave the product on your hair for longer than suggested. Cover your hair line scalp in a thin layer of petroleum jelly to protect the skin and follow with a hair conditioner with a natural oil.

Better still, search food and health stores for natural hair dyes that use an alkaline mediums instead of ammonia. Not only will you not miss the smell of the heavy chemicals in the mainstream dye, but your hair will also likely be softer and silkier to the touch later. Finish with a homemade hair masque made with crushed avocado and a few tablespoons of honey for hair that is shinier and healthier than any style you’d achieve in a salon.