Hair Dye Chemicals Are Dangerous

Woman with hair dyed in a rainbow
November 25, 2014 (Updated: August 16, 2018)
Lily Moran

If you’re one of the millions of Americans who color their hair, you need to read this.

Many of the personal care products sold in this country are highly toxic, or at the very least, untested when it comes to long-term health effects.

In other words, when you color your hair, you’re slathering your head with toxic soup—and sometimes combining it with heat—even though no one knows what the health consequences might be.

In 2007, the European Commission banned more than 20 hair dye ingredients after a study at the University of Southern California linked hair dyes to bladder cancer. Yet these products continue to be sold in the U.S.

And a second study shows that women who’ve been coloring their hair with permanent dark or red dye since before 1980 have a 40 percent higher risk of developing non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, cancer of the lymph system.

Admittedly, these findings are tentative. Some studies have declared hair dyes to be safe for occasional users, while others show that only hairdressers and barbers could be at elevated risk of health problems from continued exposure to dyes.

Still, I take concerns like this seriously, and I think you should, too. You’re already being assaulted by thousands of chemicals in the air, water, and food, and many of them are untested. Is it smart to compound the problem with more chemicals? I don’t think so.

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And here’s a news flash for anyone who thinks hair dye affects only your hair—not true! Many of the ingredients in personal-care products can be inhaled or enter your body when applied to your scalp. After all, that’s how “patch” medicines work, and it’s why hairdressers wear gloves—and sometimes even goggles—when applying hair products.

Cancer isn’t the only concern. Hair coloring products can trigger asthma attacks, conjunctivitis (pink eye), skin allergies, and, rarely, even deadly anaphylactic shock for people with severe allergies.

If coloring your hair is important to you, here are my 8 guidelines on how to do it safely.

  1. Understand that there are varying degrees of risk with different hair dye products. Temporary products, like hair “chalk,” shampoo-in, or semi-permanent colors are considered less dangerous than permanent dyes, particularly dark shades.
  2. Lighter is better. Bleaches are harsh, but have fewer effects on your health than dark shades. Similarly, highlights, when only a few strands of hair are colored, and other lightening techniques that involve small amounts of hair are less likely to be harmful.
  3. Don’t use hair dyes more often than is absolutely necessary. Some people touch up their roots weekly—not a great idea for anyone using a dark or permanent dye.
  4. Don’t use hair dyes on eyebrows or eyelashes unless the product specifically states that it is safe to do so. And even then, please be cautious.
  5. Avoid hair dyes made with artificial coloring ingredients, especially phenylenediamine, a chemical used in printing, photocopying, and developing photographs. Phenylenediamine is extremely irritating, especially to your eyes, so stay away from this one.
  6. Ammonia is another chemical commonly found in hair dyes that you’re better off avoiding. You’ve probably encountered ammonia in cleaning products, but it’s also used in pesticides, plastics, fertilizers, and explosives, which should give you an idea of why it’s best avoided. Ammonia does a terrific job preparing hair to accept color. But it can also irritate your nose, throat, and eyes, and cause chemical burns on the skin, as well as your lungs. Ammonia is especially dangerous when combined with bleach of any type. The pairing creates dangerous chlorine gas, which is extremely toxic.
  7. Use plant-based hair-dye products instead. A number of hair-care product companies cater to customers who are concerned about their health with organic and plant-based dyes. Your hairdresser can help you choose one that’s appropriate for your needs.
  8. Do it yourself with tea, henna, or other natural elements. Results are not as dramatic as with chemical-heavy formulas, but you can alter your hair color at home with lemon juice or chamomile tea (best for blondes), packaged henna products (good for darker hair), or black walnut powder (for very dark results). There are dozens of recipes on the Internet for making these natural coloring products.

With something like 5,000 different chemicals—some tested, some not—in hair coloring products, it’s hard to believe they’re all safe enough to apply to your hair and skin.

In fact, the World Health Organization (WHO) takes the position that all synthetic colors are potential cancer-causing agents and should be avoided.

If you’re not ready to give up hair coloring, please discuss safe alternatives with your hairdresser. Until there’s serious data on the safety of these products, don’t put your health at risk for purely cosmetic reasons.

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