Dangers of Hair Dye

By Bonnie Jenkins, Advanced Natural Wellness

Gray isn’t my favorite color, especially when it’s on my head. Sure, I tried yanking out the occasional gray hair during my thirty-something years. But by the time I reached my forties, it was becoming increasingly hard to keep up. So, like many other middle-aged women, I decided to dye my hair.

Fortunately, I hated the results. My hair looked flat and anything but natural. Instead of the golden highlights I used to have, the reflection in the mirror showed a head-full of a monochromatic brown.

Why was that fortunate? Because new research shows that the repeated use of hair dye can significantly increase your risk for developing one particularly deadly form of cancer.

Color to Dye For

For years, researchers believed that hair dye could cause cancer, especially in women who used the darker colors. In fact, some studies even showed that using hair dye repeatedly could increase the risk of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma and multiple myeloma. But, despite scores of studies, the results linking hair dye to cancer were often contradictory and inconclusive. Until now.

New research in the American Journal of Epidemiology has found that women who have spent years coloring their hair do indeed run a greater risk of developing non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a cancer of the lymph system that claims about half of all its victims.

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The six-year study involving more than 1,300 Connecticut women was conducted at Yale University. Why Connecticut? True, the state is home to the university. But there has been a worldwide increase in non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma since the 1970s and Connecticut is one of those areas with a particularly large number of confirmed cases.

The Yale team divided the women into two groups, 601 women who had been diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma and 717 controls. The women were then asked to identify the type of hair coloring products they had ever used, length of time used and their age when they stopped using it.

After analyzing the data, the researchers found that those who began coloring their hair before 1980 increased their chance of developing the disease by 40 percent. But the risk only appeared in women who used permanent rather than non-permanent dyes, chose dark colors (browns, reds and black) and who dyed their hair eight or more times a year for at least 25 years.

The Likely Suspects

While hair dyes have always been a witches brew of chemicals, two specific compounds may be responsible for the increased risk of non-Hodgskin’s lymphoma and other cancers. The first is a tongue-twisting chemical called phenylenediamine. This chemical, which is often preceded by an m-, o-, or p-, is usually found in permanent hair dyes commonly known as oxidation dyes or peroxide dyes.

Protected under a 1938 FDA exemption, this chemical has been shown to cause cancer in animal experiments, and at least two studies have shown that repeated exposure to phenylenediamine increases the risk of bladder cancer in humans. The most recent, which was conducted by researchers at the University of Southern California, found that women who routinely dye their hair are more than three times more likely to develop bladder cancer. Another study of more than 45,000 hairdressers by researchers at Sweden’s Karolinska Institute found that frequent exposure to the chemicals in hair dye also increases the risk of lung, colon and upper digestive cancers.

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Although the FDA is unable to ban its use, the agency proposed a requirement ordering manufacturers to place warning labels on products containing this substance. If the proposal had been accepted, the label would have read, “Warning: [this product] contains an ingredient that can penetrate your skin and has been determined to cause cancer in laboratory animals.” At the same time, the FDA also proposed that beauty salons using these products post warnings for their customers. But, as often happens, cosmetic industry lobbyists successfully defeated both proposals and no warnings were ever seen on products containing phenylenediamine.

Phenylenediamine isn’t the only hazard found in hair dyes. Coal tar colors, which are listed on hair dye labels as FD&C or D&C colors, are derived from the tar found in bituminous coal. The problem is that this thick tar also contains a number of toxic contaminants, including benzene, a substance which was banned from a number of household products in the 1970s because it increases the risk of leukemia.

Some coal tar colors also contain heavy metal impurities, including lead and arsenic, both of which cause cancer and can disrupt hormones. Although many of the synthetic colors used in hair dyes have never been tested for safety, the World Health Organization considers them all possible carcinogens.

Natural Hue

For a truly natural hair dye option, consider henna, which is made from the powdered leaves of a desert shrub called Lawsonia. Available in health food stores, henna has been used for thousands of years to color hair and skin. Although traditional henna only produced red hues, today’s formulas come in black and various shades of brown.

Because henna is natural, there are limits to what you can do with it. You can’t lighten or bleach with it, but you can use it on gray hair and the brown shades work particularly well. Just don’t use it on color-treated hair or if you’ve had a perm. Henna can react with the chemical residue still left on your hair and the results can be . . . well, interesting to say the least.

Like any semi-permanent dye, henna will only coat the hair and lasts an average of six weeks. But one advantage to henna is that it can be mixed with ingredients from the kitchen to customize color, like coffee to deepen brown tones, tea to add highlights and apple cider vinegar to help hold color on resistant gray hair.

But if you’re a natural blond, henna won’t work for you. Luckily, there are a number of natural hair dyes that do work on blonds – and without relying on ammonia or phenylenediamine. Instead they’re based on soy extracts, herbs and other plant-based ingredients.

One Last Thing …

If you’re a man, don’t think you’re immune to the dangers of hair dye. A study by Xavier University in New Orleans found that the gradual hair dyes many men use contained so much lead acetate that the researchers couldn’t wash it off their hands! Based on this and similar studies, the Center for Environmental Health, a San Francisco-based non-profit group, sued Combe, Inc., the makers of Grecian Formula, for violation of California’s Proposition 65. Although the suit was settled and Combe reformulated the hair dyes to reduce the amount of lead acetate, lead is a cumulative chemical and even low-level exposure can ultimately result in cancer, brain damage, muscle weakness and depression. This just in . . .

Hives – those small red bumps that itch like mad – are all too familiar to folks who are allergic to certain foods, medicines or plants. Although hives usually last less than a day, if you’ve got them, it can be the longest 24 hours of your life. But sipping a cup of green tea just might keep you from scratching that incessant itch.

According to lab experiments, two of the polyphenols in green tea, epigallo-catechin and epicatechin gallate, have an antihistamine effect. Since histamine is the inflammatory substance responsible for those red itchy bumps, some doctors recommend drinking three cups of green tea a day. You can also try taking supplemental green tea in capsule form. But, although animal studies have used up to 3,000 mg. a day, no human trials have studied the effects of supplemental green tea in people with hives.

For fast relief, try dabbing a bit of witch hazel on the hives. Because the herb has astringent properties it acts like a counterirritant and soothes itching on contact. Simply apply the witch hazel with a cotton ball as needed, but don’t use it more than five times a day and make sure you keep it away from your eyes.


Gago-Dominguez M, et al. “Use of permanent hair dyes and bladder-cancer risk.” International Journal of Cancer. 2001;91:575-579.

Mielke H, et al. “Lead-based hair products: too hazardous for household use.” Journal of the American Pharmaceutical Association. 1997;85-89.

Yamashita K, et al. “Epigallocatechin gallate inhibits histamine release from rat basophilic leukemia (RBL-2H3) cells: role of tyrosine phosphorylation pathway. Biochemical and Biophysical Research Communications. 2000;274(3):603-608.

Zhang Y, et al. “Hair-coloring product use and risk of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma: a population-based case-control study in Connecticut.” American Journal of Epidemiology. 2004;159:148-154

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