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by author, natural beauty expert & cancer survivor Britta AragonRSS

The Evidence is In: Hair Dyes Can be Dangerous—Choose Your Brands Carefully!

By Britta Aragon on April 19, 2010 | 11 Comments

We love to change and update our appearance, don’t we? And what easier way than to dye our hair? A different color can make you feel renewed, young, and energetic. However, depending on the type of dye you use, it can also put your health at risk.

Let’s review some of the evidence. According to the National Cancer Institute, over 5,000 different chemicals are used in hair-dye products, some of which are reported to be carcinogenic in animals. Some population studies have found an increased risk of bladder cancer in hairdressers and barbers, and a 2008 report concluded that some of the chemicals these workers are exposed to were probably carcinogenic to humans.

Other studies have been conflicting, but researchers have found increased risk of follicular lymphoma in women who use dark-colored dyes. They’ve also found links between prolonged use of dyes (for 15 or more years) and increased risk of leukemia. Some scientists feel the improved formulations that came about after 1980 have reduced risk, since some harmful ingredients were removed, but recent studies are inconclusive, particularly concerning dark hair dyes.

Samuel Epstein, author of Toxic Beauty and chairman of the Cancer Prevention Coalition, feels these study discrepancies are the result of shortcomings in the studies themselves. A well-designed study in Nebraska in the 1990s found that hair-dye use would account for about 20 percent of all non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma deaths in women, he says, and points out that U.S. rates for this cancer have increased more than 100 percent since 1950: “There is substantial evidence on the carcinogenic hazards of petro-chemical hair dyes. Their use represents a major class of avoidable cancer risks to some 50 million United States women.” The Harvard School of Public Health’s epidemiology department, for example, found that women who use hair coloring five times or more annually are twice as likely to develop ovarian cancer than women who never use hair dye.

Some of the toxic chemicals in hair dyes include quaternium-15, which can release formaldehyde; phenylenediamine (PPD), which was shown to be carcinogenic to the breast; and alkylphenol ethoxylates (APEs), some of which are suspected hormone disruptors. PPD, which is present in over 2/3 of chemical hair dyes, is known to be toxic to the immune system, skin, nervous system, respiratory system, liver, and kidneys, and has been classified in the European Union as a toxin and irritant dangerous to the environment. France, Germany and Sweden have banned the use of PPD in cosmetics.

Do you have to go gray or stick with your natural color to avoid risk? Not necessarily. Your best option—choose some of the newer, more natural dye alternatives. Epstein recommends a new German product called “Logona,” which makes dyes containing only 100 percent natural botanical coloring and conditioning ingredients. Naturtint and Herbatint are other options. Also, try using dye less frequently, and avoid very dark shades. If you dye your hair yourself, be sure to wear gloves, try not to rub the dye into your scalp, leave the dye on your hair only as long as necessary, and rinse thoroughly.

Have you switched hair dyes as a result of health risks? Please share any product recommendations you may have.

Photo courtesy Aurora Feizul via

Posted in: Hair Care, Toxic Talk and Labels

11 Comments to “The Evidence is In: Hair Dyes Can be Dangerous—Choose Your Brands Carefully!”

  1. Can you recommend any holistic cancer treatments? « Alternative Breast Cancer Treatment says:

    […] The Evidence is In: Hair Dyes Can be Dangerous—Choose Your Brands Carefully! | Cinco Vidas […]

  2. Lisa Cohen says:

    I have been a colorist for almost 10 years and have had experiences with many of my clients having neative reactions to the hair color products I have used. Also, I have experienced pervasive irritation to my eyes and respiratory system. I have tried several professional hair color products like Ecocolors, Teinture, and the recently released Inoa by L’oreal. I had pretty much the same experience with all of them.

    A product called Organic Color Systems was by far the best. It performed better than any other color product I have ever used and I never experienced negative reactions in me or my clients. When I read your article, I began to wonder if PPD had a role to play in the products. Sure enough, Organic Color Systems products have no PPD and it seems like all the others do.

    My only question is Organic Color Systems is made in the United Kingdom. Do they have stricter limitations on chemical ingredients?

  3. Britta says:

    Thank you for sharing your experience Lisa, and the great resource. Typically, countries in Europe, specifically those in the EU, do have stricter regulations on the chemicals in cosmetics and other personal-care products. We will take a look at Organic Color Systems. Thanks again!

  4. valerie says:

    i am 33, have been dyeing my hair for 15 years and have been a hair stylist for 4 years. for 8 years i have had intersticial cystitis, a disease of the bladder. my new urologist just informed me that i am at high risk of bladder cancer because of what i do. i love what i do and i dont know what to do with this information. (except google) any response would be appreciated.

  5. Karen says:

    Using a cap removes risk and gives truer Youthful
    natural blendings looks over the solid color look.

    It uses less color and can be saved for next shading!

  6. taylor slinn says:

    i have dyed my hair about 5 times and have not seen any difference but that dosnt mean that there is not a risk i am 14 and have dyed my hair red but it always ends up a lighter orange a few weeeks after so i constantly dye my hair!

  7. Judy Ajifu says:

    I stopped dyeing my hair in 2009 after developing allergies to various brands of hair coloring products. For six months I tolerated the intense burning, itching with scabs and oozing from my scalp. I tried the natural products found in Whole Foods including Herbatint and I even got allergic reactions to those so I let my hair go grey and I feel so much healthier for it.

    PPD is toxic whether or not you develop an allergic reaction. Being asymptomatic to PPD in hair dye doesn’t necessarily mean PPD is harmless to you.

    Sadly, I became aware of PPD and its toxic effects when my late mother was still dyeing her hair in 10 years ago. I warned her that there were studies linking PPD to cancer, especially lymphomas and leukemia. She refused to stop coloring her hair despite her allergic reaction and she suffered hair loss as well. She eventually developed leukemia and passed away from it in 2008. Can I say unequivocally that her leukemia was the cause of PPD in her hair coloring products? No, but it is evidence enough for me to stop poisoning my scalp with harmful chemicals for the sake of vanity.

  8. Britta Aragon says:

    Hi, Judy. Thank you so much for sharing your story. I’m very sorry to hear about your mom’s passing. You’re right—no way to prove that the hair dye had anything to do with it, but it is something that makes you think. It is concerning that so many women remain unaware of the potential dangers of hair dyes, particularly the dark ones. I think in our culture today women are pressured to always look younger, which is a shame. We should appreciate them for who they are, right? I’m hopeful that role models like Jamie Lee Curtis, Vanessa Redgrave, Helen Mirren, Judi Dench, Betty White, and others who are comfortable with their silver locks will help pave the way for women to feel more comfortable with themselves, no matter what color their hair is. Our health may depend on it, right?

  9. TJ says:

    I have been dying my hair darker for the past 8 years or so. In March 2012 I was diagnosed with follicular lymphoma . I am just sick reading this information because I never thought it was a cancer risk. This disease is usually diagnosed in those 60+ but I am only 35. I have no other risk factors. Healthy weight, diet, and lifestyle.

  10. Britta Aragon says:

    Oh my gosh, TJ. I’m so sorry to hear that. Yes, it is a travesty that more people are not aware of the potentially harmful effects of these beauty treatments. Though of course we can’t prove that was the cause, I can certainly understand why you’re suspicious. Fortunately, your type of cancer seems to be highly treatable. Please stay strong and take care of yourself—and spread the word about using safer hair dyes.

  11. DP says:

    Thanks for this informative info. It is important that women (and all hair color users) educate themselves and weigh the risks vs. benefits of using hair color. I would like to point out that even two of the three ‘safer option’ brands you mention in your article contain ppds. I am contemplating embracing my gray!

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