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by author, natural beauty expert & cancer survivor Britta AragonRSS

Perming or Coloring Hair: Safe During Chemotherapy?

By Britta Aragon on May 25, 2009 | 18 Comments

You’d like to look as good as you can during cancer treatments, but can you still dye or perm your strands?

Chemical Treatments Contain Harsh Ingredients
Unfortunately, these process can be particularly unhealthy while you’re body is battling cancer. The chemicals in common hair treatments like hair dyes or perm solutions can not only irritate fragile skin and hair, but give off fumes that can cause nausea, eye irritation, and other problems. (Read more here.) Since the scalp is covered with skin, which can absorb what’s placed on it—particularly if the product is left there for a period time (like hair dyes)—some of those chemicals could end up in the bloodstream.

Some studies have indicated that prolonged use of extreme hair dyes (black hair dye for over 20 years, for example) may lead to increased rates of cancer in female participants. Other studies have found no such connection. Either way, hair dyes contain potentially harmful chemicals like ammonia; quaternium-15, which can release formaldehyde; and phenylenediamine (PPD), which may be carcinogenic.

It’s Best to Avoid It During Treatment
The University of Iowa Hospitals & Clinics explains that cancer fighters with hair loss or breakage from chemotherapy or radiation treatments should “avoid coloring, bleaching or applying perm solutions to their hair at this point.” Not only will dying or processing hair expose patients to additional chemicals, but these processes can also weaken the hair shaft or make it fall out at a faster rate.

Even after treatments are over, your hair needs sufficient time to grow back at a healthy rate before undergoing aesthetic treatments. The majority of stylists and doctors suggest waiting until hair is at least 3″ long—or 6 months after treatment ends—before attempting to perm or color, although many patients experience scalp sensitivity and pain for up to a year after treatment.

Carolyn Vachani, a nurse educator, adds, “As the hair grows back after therapy, it is often more fine—almost like a baby’s hair—and thus probably will not handle the stress too well.” She advises waiting until the hair has returned to its previous fullness and health (not necessarily length) before applying processing agents, and researching the most natural options available.

Seeking Safer Products
Though there’s no such thing as a completely natural hair dye, you can find organic and natural brands that may have fewer potentially harmful chemicals. Brands like Herbatint or Aubrey Organics are some good examples.

In the end, check with your personal physician before applying anything to your scalp or hair during or after cancer treatment, especially if you may be continuing medication or additional procedures. For extra style during treatments, rely on wigs, scarves, and hats. I did, and I found after a time that I loved how they accented my look!

Did you dye your hair during cancer treatments? What did you do to preserve hair health, or what kind of natural brands have you tried? Please share!

Photo courtesy of Snap Village.

Posted in: Hair Care, Side Effects

18 Comments to “Perming or Coloring Hair: Safe During Chemotherapy?”

  1. Joyce Duffy says:

    2 years ago I had 5 rounds of 2 different types of chemo which have a 100% rate of hair loss. I used the Penguin Cold Caps and kept over 3/4’s of my hair through out my treatment. My hair did thin but only I knew it. The Cold Caps were applied before, during and after my infussion and only on my chemo day. Google PenguinColdCaps if you want to keep your hair through your chemo treatment. I was able to have base color and high lights within 2 months after treatment was completed.

  2. Jennifer a Mother to be says:

    Everyone one tells me all the time , I look excellent. I know this is a different topic but I have dealt with and invisible disability for 5 years now and now that I am pregnant I worry even more. I found this site and it has even made me more alert of things we trust that may affect us. Hope this helps someone else with their quest for answers. Take care, jennifer

  3. Britta says:

    Thank you for the great resource Joyce! I am sure that my readers will appreciate the information. Thanks so much for commenting and congratulations on your survival – Britta

  4. Britta says:

    Thank you for commenting Jennifer and stay positive! I’m glad that you were able to take away some valuable information from my site that you can use to take better care of yourself and your family. Please let me know if you ever have any questions or need any additional information. Best, Britta

  5. BARBARA says:


  6. Britta says:

    Hi Babara, thanks so much for reaching out about your concern. Unfortunately, I cannot comment if the chemo was affected by your hair dye. This is a question for you doctor. Make sure whatever you decide to do while on treatment that you always discuss with your doctor. No matter how insignificant you think it may be (we never know what can have adverse effects with the drugs). Please keep me posted on what your doctor says. Best, Britta

  7. Jeannie says:

    My hair is not thining. In fact it is falling out less than before my ovarian tumor was removed and I started chemo. But the gray/white on my dyed brown hair is really looking horrible. Is there anything I can do to color my hair. I’ve been told that the next treatment will make my hair fall out, so I’d like to enjoy my hair while I can. Thank you for any suggestions.

  8. Judith Small says:

    I am a hairdresser I have put foils in a clients hair with ammonia free bleach when the client left she was happy she had brought a photo in the photo was bleached white she said she did not want it as white wanted it warmer which it was they have returned to salon unhappy now saying it is not white enough I have found in the past chemotherapy has an effect on hair colouring the bleach with the chemical seem to not let it go white unless you use harsh chemicals which put the hair in bad condition they want to take it further I feel I don’t have control over this.The chemotherapy would have finished may be 3to6months chemicals would still be in the body.which affects the hair. Judith Small

  9. Britta Aragon says:

    Hi, Judith. How interesting, huh? Yes, it seems we’re always finding new ways that chemotherapy affects the body. I feel for you as obviously you wanted to make your client happy, and because of something outside of your control, that didn’t happen. You may not have control of what the client wants or how the coloring came out, but remember you do have control of what you agree to do to the client’s hair. If you truly feel that more chemicals will hurt more than help (and I would agree, of course!), then I would follow your conscience on that.

    As for whether or not the chemicals were still in the body 3-6 months later, I’ve read some information from doctors that says the drugs themselves are probably flushed out of the body within days to weeks, but the effect on the body cells can last a long time. The American Cancer Society says that how long the actual drugs stay in the body depends on the type of cancer you have, the goals of treatment, the drugs used, and how your body responds to them.

    Cancer survivors have already been exposed to so many chemicals—exposing them to more only further stresses the body. I would agree with you that the fewer chemicals the better. There are always options for hairstyles! Good luck.

  10. Nancy says:

    I have had 6 treatments of chemo which ended in December – 5 months ago and also completed 30 rounds of radiation in April – 1 month ago. I currently get herception infusion every 3 weeks until September, a total of 12. My question is can I color my grey hair either with an ammonia free dye or with henna color dye?

  11. Britta Aragon says:

    Hi, Nancy. Good for you hanging in there through all those treatments! As far as I know, the henna is completely safe. Other dyes, however, even if they are ammonia free, have other chemicals that I would advise you to avoid at this point, until you are farther out from your last treatment. Remember that your scalp can absorb some of the chemicals, and your body has enough to deal with right now. I mentioned some safer options in this post—try those, or give yourself a few more months with scarves, wigs, and hats if you like. Your number one priority is your health. My best to you!

  12. Deb says:

    I have been battling cancer since 2006, I was a cosmetologists and doctors said no more working, I have a question, I lost all my hair last year and it has grown back . Its baby fine of course but I was taught not to color or perm the hair, I will be taking Chemo forever so do you think I should not color or perm hair.Im just trying to umph it.

  13. Britta Aragon says:

    Hi, Deb. I would agree that it’s best to avoid more chemicals during your chemotherapy treatments. You can try natural coloring options—I talk about some of those here. ( In the meantime, try dressing it up with scarves, or maybe a sharp new short style? Good luck!

  14. Cathy Dalton says:

    After I found out that my chemo wasn’t going to take my hair, I personally have used a salon hair dye to cover gray that excluded amonia; e.g., Matrix (through some Regis Salons) and some french brand from another colorist. It gave me good coverage. While my hair was dryer and duller from the chemo, and one of the chemos thinned my hair a little bit, I didn’t have a problem. One colorist didn’t start the color at the scalp line, the other did. I didn’t know if she did this for safety or profit). I have dark brown hair. I didn’t attempt to put in highlights during the time I was on chemo and several months after.

  15. lisa says:

    Please be careful with henna it is a metallic dye.

  16. Gina says:

    Thank you for all this wonderful information. I’be had 4 rounds of chemo and have 8 left. My hair is thinning but shouldn’t fall out cause its all GI related. My hair is grayingat the roots. I’m thankful I haven’t hate hair loss but the greys make me feel old. I have been styling it different. My question is can you pull it up and use clips or pony tails someone told me I can’t. Thanks for a wonderful site.

  17. Candy Bennett says:

    I have stage I Breast cancer and currently going through Radiation, I will not have chemo….Is it safe to dye my hair now, or should I wait until after treatment?

  18. Maria olmeda says:

    Just start chemotherapy on August the 31st I had cancer on my feliciano tubes everything was I am just trying to educated my self thru other patients that been thru hat journey I am all concern about my appreance
    but I also want to do was safe for in my opinion is to read and fellow some advice to be in the safe side,But thank you.

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