As the popularity of hair dyes continues to soar, many are worried about the possible side effects of its high chemical content. There are mixed opinions about the relationship between hair colour and cancer. Allergies to hair colour are common and it can also damage hair in the long run. While research shows it is also relatively safe to use hair colour while pregnant or breastfeeding, err on the side of caution. There are several natural alternatives to chemical hair colour such as henna that could be better for hair health.
What used to be a way to surreptitiously conceal rogue gray hairs in the privacy of your own home a few decades ago is poised to become a $29 billion market by 2019!1 We’re talking about hair color or hair dye, and it looks like men and women alike can’t get enough of it.
Hair dye is no longer just for concealing grey hairs either. People are choosing to colour their hair to express their personality, experiment with their looks, and simply to achieve a vibrant and healthy looking head of hair!
But how safe is it to colour your hair? Are there health implications you need to be aware of? Let’s find out.
Hair Dye Versus Hair Color: Is It The Same Thing?
Yup! The words hair colour and hair dye are used interchangeably and they mean the same thing. However, more often that not, you’ll find colorists and stylists use “colour” rather than “dye.” After all, it sounds less harsh and obtrusive!
Types Of Hair Dyes
Hair dyes are broadly classified into permanent, semi-permanent, and temporary dye depending on the amount of peroxide contained in the formula.
Permanent hair dye contains the highest concentration of peroxide and it opens up your hair shaft to deliver colour deep into your hair. Although “permanent” hair dye will fade and grow out over time, it is still the most long-lasting formula of all three, lasting about 8–10 weeks.
Semi-permanent hair dye adds colour to your hair without opening up the hair shaft. This formula is designed to deposit colour into the cuticles of the hair shaft and also add shine. These are gentler alternatives to permanent colour because they contain low amounts of peroxide, but they only last about 6 weeks.
Temporary hair dye is truly temporary and works for those who are looking to briefly experiment with a different hair colour or want a very subtle colour change. This formulation only lasts until the next time you wash your hair and the colours only sit on the surface of your hair, outside the cuticle.2
Side Effects Of Hair Dye
No matter which formula of hair dye you favour, you should know what’s in it. Hair dyes contain more than 500 different chemicals, and so it is natural to be concerned about its potential side effects. Scientists have been investigating whether exposure to these chemicals poses health hazards, not just to those who use hair colour but to professional colorists as well. Here’s what we know so far.
1. Hair Color And Cancer
In its earliest formulations, some specific components found in hair colour were found to have carcinogenic properties when tested on animals. In the 80s, hair colour manufacturing companies got rid of some of these chemicals to make hair colour safer.3 However, today, scientists don’t have a definitive verdict on whether current formulations of hair colour still contain cancer-causing chemicals.
A Swedish study of about 45,000 hairdressers showed that hairdressers were not at an increased risk of developing bladder cancer.4 But a 2009 survey of several research studies found that hairdressers who had been colouring clients’ hair for 10 or more years were at a higher risk of developing bladder cancer.5
Additional research studies have established a relationship (not necessarily causal) between using hair colour and the likelihood of developing non-Hodgkin lymphoma.
Researchers have also found some evidence to suggest that long-term use of permanent hair colour can possibly make one more likely to develop adult acute leukaemia. But other studies have not supported these claims. Research also does not indicate a relationship between hair colour and breast cancer.
Because of these mixed results, the scientific community remains largely ambiguous on whether hair colour can be categorically said to be linked with various types of cancer. At most, there is a “very minimal” link between modern hair colour and the risk of developing cancer.
The Food and Drug Administration notes that hair colour manufacturers are no longer using the two key chemicals that were found to have carcinogenic properties back in the 70s and 80s and that it does not have enough “reliable evidence” to establish a definitive link between hair colour and cancer.
2. Hair Dye And Allergies
Allergic reactions to hair dye are fairly common because it contains paraphenylenediamine (PPD), a common allergen. People prone to contact dermatitis may be especially likely to develop an allergic reaction to hair color.11
As a safety precaution, always perform a patch test before colouring your hair. Instructions that come with the box of hair dye will usually recommend that you apply a small amount of the hair colour solution on the inside of your elbow. You need to allow it to dry and see if you develop any allergic reaction, including rashes, itchiness, swollen eyes, wheezing, and nausea.
3. Hair Dye And Fertility
Lead acetate is often a component in progressive hair dyes, used to color hair over multiple applications. Some research studies have shown that lead acetate can possibly affect fertility in both men and women.13 A recent study also revealed that due to being constantly exposed to chemicals found in hair products (including hair dyes), hairdressers are more likely to have a reproductive disorder.14 The FDA, however, maintains that the level of lead acetate is not sufficient enough to cause lead to be absorbed by the body. They do, however, ask for a cautionary note to appear in all products with it.15
4. Hair Dye And Hair Health
Regular use of hair dyes, especially permanent colour, can render your hair brittle and over-processed. Ammonia contained in hair dyes gets inside your hair shaft and into the cuticles, and the peroxide is meant to neutralize the pigment that gives your hair its natural colour. With frequent colouring, the hair cuticle and the hair shaft gets damaged and hair tends to lose its lustre. Many hair colour manufacturers have stopped using ammonia in their products but, even so, all the other chemicals in hair colour aren’t exactly super-kind to your hair. 16
Color-treated hair also needs a little extra TLC which most people ignore. This usually leads to rough, dry, color-damaged hair, especially if you return to your salon every few months to colour your hair.
Safety Precautions To Take When You Dye Your Hair
Research may still be on the fence about the health impact of hair dyes. But you can play it safe by not overusing hair dyes. For instance, reduce the frequency of dyeing your greys if you are unwilling to cut it out altogether. And ask yourself if you really need to randomly change colour every other week!
When you do use hair dyes, make sure to follow some safety precautions.
- Always follow the instructions outlined on the hair colour product packaging.
- Perform a patch test as directed, especially if you’re colouring your hair for the very first time or trying a new brand. In fact, with the constant modifications in ingredients, a patch test is a good idea every time!
- Keep the colour solution away from your eyes, and always wear protective gloves.
- The FDA recommends that you don’t leave the colour solution on your hair longer than directed on the packaging.
- Don’t colour your hair if your scalp is itchy or sunburned.
- Also, never use hair colour on your eyelashes or eyebrows. This can be very harmful to your eyes and you even risk going blind.
Colouring Your Hair During Pregnancy
Many women are hesitant to colour their hair during pregnancy or immediately after childbirth due to the presence of so many chemicals in hair colour. The American Pregnancy Association, however, maintains that chemicals found in permanent and semi-permanent hair colour are not really toxic and that there’s no harm in using hair colour while pregnant. In addition, only very little dye is absorbed by your skin and even less is actually likely to reach the unborn baby. The same also holds true for breastfeeding. There is little to no chance of hair colour chemicals entering your bloodstream and contaminating your milk supply.19
That said, due to the possible risks associated with exposure to chemicals in hair dye, many OB/GYNs recommend that you wait until the end of your first trimester to colour your hair.20To be safe, always check with your OB/GYN and avoid if you can.
Natural Alternatives To Chemical Hair Color
If all this talk about chemicals has you worried about what you’re subjecting your mane to, don’t worry. There are plenty of natural ways to tint your hair that doesn’t involve harmful chemicals.
Henna has been used for centuries by women in Asia to add a reddish, burgundy hue to hair. Henna hair dye also conditions your hair and leaves it luxuriously soft. With regular use, your hair becomes naturally henna-colored, which can work well if you have dark brown hair.
- Lemon juice can help lighten hair if that’s your goal.
- Chamomile tea can help add natural highlights.
- Black tea and coffee, brewed and then cooled, can help make hair darker.