There are many people around the world who use hair dyes. It is estimated that more than one-third of women who are over the age of 18 years and nearly 10 percent of men over the age of 40 use some form of hair dye. Today’s hair dyes are classified as being oxidative or permanent, temporary or semi-permanent. Permanent hair dyes are the majority of all marketed products available today. Due to the widespread use of hair dyes today, the question of whether or not hair dyes cause cancer is important. Research studies so far have been inconclusive and contradictory. So can hair dyes cause cancer? Let’s take a look.
Can Hair Dyes Cause Cancer?
There is over 33 percent of women over the age of 18, and 10 percent of men who are over the age of 40 are known to use hair dye frequently.(1) Due to this high statistic, it is important to understand whether hair dye can cause cancer or not.
The research studies that have been done so far have been contradictory and inconclusive. However, the available research to date shows that it is unlikely that using hair dyes significantly increases the risk of getting cancer.
In 2010, the International Agency for Research on Cancer came to the conclusion that there was not sufficient amount of evidence to prove whether or not the personal use of hair dyes increases the likelihood of developing cancer.(2)
Since 2010, there has been more research that has been done, and things have gotten a little clearer.
Hair dyes were once known to contain chemicals that were known for being carcinogenic on animals. Between 1980 and 1982, though, all the hair dyes were reformulated to take out these carcinogenic chemicals. The fact is that the more exposure you get to a carcinogen, the higher is the likelihood of developing cancer.
There are some factors that are related to the amount of exposure you have to the chemicals contained in hair dye. These include:
- Frequency: The more frequently you dye your hair, the more often you are also getting exposed to the chemicals present in the hair dye.
- Exposure Type: People who are working with hair dye for making a living, including barbers and hairstylists, are going to have significantly more exposure than people who are getting their hair dyed.
- Length of Use: People who have been using hair dyes before the reformulation of the chemicals in hair dyes in the 1980s, have been drastically exposed to much more severe carcinogens as compared to people who started using hair dyes at a later stage.
- Color of the Hair Dye Being Used: Darker hair dye colors such as brown and black are known to contain more chemicals that might potentially be carcinogenic as compared to the lighter colors.
Recent research has also hinted at the fact that genetics might also be a factor that affects your risk of developing cancer-related to using hair dye.
What Types Of Cancer Can Be Caused By Hair Dye?
According to studies by the American Cancer Society (ACS), some research has suggested that hair dyes can slightly increase your risk of developing non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma and leukemia in women.(3) However, the studies indicated that this risk was most for the women who were dyeing their hair before 1980 and were also opting to use the darker dye colors. However, there are other studies that suggest that there is no association between hair dyes and these cancers.
In recent studies, a 2017 research indicated that there was no significant association between using hair dyes and leukemia in women.(4) On the other hand, though, in 2018 a meta-analysis done by the Henan University of Science and Technology in China suggested that there might be a minor increase in the risk for developing non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma in women who are using hair dyes frequently, and primarily those women who have been using it for 20 or more years.(5)
A 2017 study carried out by the Rutgers Cancer Institute of New Jersey found that there is an association between the use of darker color hair dyes and breast cancer in African American women.(6) However, the researching team themselves cautioned that there were several limitations to their study, and therefore, advised that further research was still needed to support these results.
Many older studies have found a small increase in the risk of developing bladder cancer in people who were working with hair dye regularly.(7) However, the research is not conclusive due to the fact that the studies were including a lot of participants who began using hair dye before 1980.
A more recent review done by the Fondazione IRCCS Istituto Nazionale Tumori in Italy of all the available research has provided strong proof that the use of hair dye, even darker hair colors, does not increase the risk of developing bladder cancer.(8)
The Kaohsiung Medical University in Taiwan carried out a study in 2016 that found that hair dye might increase a person’s likelihood of developing prostate cancer.(9) However, many medical experts believe that this study cannot be considered as valid since there were problems in how the study was carried out and also in how the results were interpreted.
There have not been any other studies that have been done on the impact hair dye has on increasing the risk of prostate cancer. Due to this, there is no evidence that hair dye is associated with prostate cancer.
Types of Hair Dyes and Which One Increases Cancer Risk
Hair dyes can be found in two forms. They differ in how they work in changing your hair color and how long the color lasts for. These include:
Oxidative or Permanent Hair Dye
Permanent or oxidative hair dyes are activated by mixing a developer or an oxidizing agent like hydrogen peroxide along with ammonia and a coloring agent.
The ammonia is responsible for opening up the outer layer of your hair shaft. This allows the oxidizing agent to enter the hair shaft and removes the natural pigments of the hair, while at the same time bonding the new color to the hair shaft. This helps to permanent change the hair color.
Semi-permanent and Temporary Hair Dye (non-oxidative)
This type of semi-permanent and temporary hair dye does not need to use a developer. Non-oxidative hair dyes work by simply coating or staining your hair shaft. Since these hair dyes do not remove the natural hair pigments, they cannot make the hair lighter, but only darker.
Non-oxidative hair dyes are of two types. These include:
Temporary: These hair dyes are manufactured with the purpose of the color disappearing after one wash only. Examples of these include hair chalk and Halloween spray color.
Semi-permanent: These types of hair dyes are known to move a short distance into your hair shaft and washes out after a couple of weeks or approximately after five washes.
Oxidative hair dyes are known to contain more chemicals than the non-oxidative dyes. They are also stronger and more likely to cause irritation on your scalp. This creates a potential entry point for the hair dye to enter into your body. So if any of the chemicals used in the hair dye are carcinogens, then the risk of developing cancer becomes significantly higher when you are using oxidative hair dyes as compared to using non-oxidative hair dyes.
Bleach or Hair Dye?
Many people prefer to use bleach on their hair for changing their hair color. Bleach is also an oxidizing agent, and it works by stripping off the natural pigments from your hair and lightening it. Semi-permanent as well as temporary hair dyes do not contain oxidizing agents, which is why they cannot lighten your natural hair color.
Hair dyes are made up of a mixture of ammonia, oxidizing agents, and coloring agents. They are the exact opposite of bleach because they end up adding pigments and chemicals to your hair. The oxidizing agent that is present in hair dyes also tends to remove your natural hair pigment before it adds the new pigment.
Are There Any Hair Dye Options That Are Safe?
There are some options available that can help you change your hair color and are also safe, with no risk of developing cancer. These include:
Henna: Henna or Mehendi is a natural plant-based hair dye that not only lends color to your hair but is also known to have many benefits for your hair. The color imparted by henna only lasts for about six weeks.
Organic Hair Dyes: It is possible to buy organic hair dyes, but they will still contain some type of chemicals in order to work. Usually, these dyes contain synthetic substances. The other natural ingredients present in these organic hair dyes might be easier and softer on your hair, but the chemicals present are likely to have the same potential of causing cancer as the chemicals present in the regular hair dyes.
Graphene: One of the newest options for hair dyeing is graphene. This non-toxic alternative to hair dyes involves combing or spraying it into your hair. It leaves behind a coating of color as you comb or spray it through your hair. Unlike the regular hair dyes, graphene does not chemically damage the hair and also lasts for over 30 washes. The only disadvantage of graphene is that it is only available in brown and black.
Except for evidence that associates the use of hair dye to an increase in the risk of developing non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, there is no other solid proof that links the personal use of hair dyes with cancer. If there is an increased risk of developing cancer, then also it is only minimal.
If you are concerned about increasing your risk of being exposed to carcinogens contained in hair dyes, then you should limit the frequency and the number of years you use a hair dye. This is especially for darker colors. Cutting down on the use of hair dyes will reduce your risk of developing cancer from hair dyes.
- National Cancer Institute. (2019). Hair Dyes and Cancer Risk. [online] Available at: https://www.cancer.gov/about-cancer/causes-prevention/risk/myths/hair-dyes-fact-sheet [Accessed 13 Jul. 2019].
- Monographs.iarc.fr. (2019). [online] Available at: https://monographs.iarc.fr/wp-content/uploads/2018/06/mono99.pdf [Accessed 13 Jul. 2019].
- Cancer.org. (2019). Hair Dyes. [online] Available at: https://www.cancer.org/cancer/cancer-causes/hair-dyes.html [Accessed 13 Jul. 2019].
- Towle, K.M., Grespin, M.E. and Monnot, A.D., 2017. Personal use of hair dyes and risk of leukemia: a systematic literature review and meta‐analysis. Cancer medicine, 6(10), pp.2471-2486.
- Qin L, e. (2019). A Meta-Analysis on the Relationship Between Hair Dye and the Incidence of Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. – PubMed – NCBI. [online] Ncbi.nlm.nih.gov.
- Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/?term=30583293 [Accessed 13 Jul. 2019].
- Llanos, A.A., Rabkin, A., Bandera, E.V., Zirpoli, G., Gonzalez, B.D., Xing, C.Y., Qin, B., Lin, Y., Hong, C.C., Demissie, K. and Ambrosone, C.B., 2017. Hair product use and breast cancer risk among African American and White women. Carcinogenesis, 38(9), pp.883-892.
- Rollison, D.E., Helzlsouer, K.J. and Pinney, S.M., 2006. Personal hair dye use and cancer: a systematic literature review and evaluation of exposure assessment in studies published since 1992. Journal of Toxicology and Environmental Health, Part B, 9(5), pp.413-439.
- Turati, F., Pelucchi, C., Galeone, C., Decarli, A. and La Vecchia, C., 2014. Personal hair dye use and bladder cancer: a meta-analysis. Annals of epidemiology, 24(2), pp.151-159.
- Tai, S.Y., Hsieh, H.M., Huang, S.P. and Wu, M.T., 2016. Hair dye use, regular exercise, and the risk and prognosis of prostate cancer: multicenter case–control and case-only studies. BMC cancer, 16(1), p.242.