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Hair Dye and Cancer: Should You Worry?

Aging usually means gray hair. Getting gray hair means deciding whether to dye it another color or not. Many of us have dyed our hair but concerns of cancer-causing ingredients in hair dye can leave us feeling uncertain about whether to continue.

Some studies performed in the 1970s did show cancer in tested animals from certain ingredients called aromatic amines in hair dye. Due to this finding, most manufacturers removed those ingredients by 1980.

According to the National Cancer Institute, some people who used hair dye before they were removed in 1980 do have a higher risk of developing non-Hodgkin lymphoma.

Bladder cancer risk in professional hairdressers has been found in a meta-analysis that reviewed 42 studies. This is due to their occupational exposure, particularly in those who have worked with hair dyes for over 10 years. 

The National Cancer Institute stated that research on hair dyes for personal use did not show increased bladder cancer risk while other studies have shown conflicting results.

Breast cancer risk has not been found to be increased with permanent hair dye use. The Susan G. Komen Foundation website states “cohort and case-control studies have shown the use of permanent hair dyes is not related the risk of breast cancer. A meta-analysis that combined the results of 14 studies confirmed these findings.” 

Risks of hair dye use and leukemia have conflicting results with different outcomes for those who used dye before 1980 and those after. The risk was found to be highest in those using hair dye for over 15 years. The National Cancer Institute stated that no increases were seen among those who have used more recent formulations of hair dye.

A 2005 Italian study indicated that use of black hair dye was associated with increased cancer risk but the study did not collect information on the frequency of hair dye use. 

Pregnant mothers are also often concerned about the risk of birth defects from exposure to hair dye. About.com stated that animal studies have shown birth defects from high doses of hair dye, but birth defects have not been linked to human studies.

To err on the side of safety, “Motherisk Program at Toronto’s Hospital for Sick Children recommend that women limit coloring their own hair to three to four times during a pregnancy.” 

There are over 5,000 chemicals in permanent hair dye. Some are thought to be carcinogenic but research to prove actual cancer risk is limited and inconsistent. In addition, the research that has been done has not always differentiated between temporary and permanent hair dyes.

What is recommended, since we don’t have a clear answer, is to reduce or limit your exposure to hair dye.

  • Delay the use of hair dye until you have enough gray hair that you want it covered.
  • Leave the dye on for only the recommended amount of time.
  • Always wear gloves when handling hair dye.
  • Make sure to do the allergy patch test 48 hours prior to dying your hair.
  • Never mix different hair dye products to avoid unexpected reactions.
  • Never dye your eyelashes or eyebrows.
  • To stretch the time between total head hair dying sessions, use a root touch up product, which stays on the hair for a shorter period of time.
  • Consider using henna, which is largely plant-based.

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