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A large-scale study of over 50,000 women investigated the cancer risk for those that use hair color and straighteners. The research builds upon previous studies on the health dangers of commercial hair dyes.
Oprah once declared that hair color was the “greatest cosmetic invention of the 20th century that has carried over to the 21st.” (1)
Unfortunately, this chemical-laden quest to look younger than your years may be exacting a heavy toll according to the peer-reviewed International Journal of Cancer.
Hair Chemical Toxicity
It is well known that conventional hair care products contain endocrine-mimicking substances that disrupt hormones. Some of these chemicals are known carcinogens.
This is particularly true of permanent hair color and straighteners.
To examine the risk of breast cancer from exposure to these products, researchers analyzed the health outcomes of 50,884 women. Their ages ranged from 35 to 74 years, and they lived in the United States and Puerto Rico. (2)
The participants all had a sister with breast cancer. However, they were free of the disease at the start of the study.
It is important to note that the researchers did not test participants for BRCA gene mutations. Hence, it was unknown whether they were at genetically elevated risk themselves despite having a close family member with breast cancer.
Each participant completed an enrollment questionnaire about hair product use over the past 12 months.
Dyes and Straighteners
During follow‐up 8.3 years later (mean), researchers identified 2,794 breast cancers. The diagnoses were either invasive breast cancer or ductal carcinoma in situ (DCIS).
For those who had reported using permanent hair dye at the start of the study (55% of participants), breast cancer risk was associated with a 45% higher risk of breast cancer in black women and 7% higher in white women.
Among all participants, the use of chemical hair straighteners was positively associated with breast cancer risk. In addition, the frequency of exposure and the elevated risk rose together in tandem.
Of note is that neither the use of semi-permanent dye nor temporary dyes appeared to affect breast cancer risk.
Stephanie Bernik, MD, chief of breast surgery at Mount Sinai West Hospital in New York City, called the study “provocative”. She further suggested that the research raises questions as to the safety of permanent hair dyes and straighteners and their role in breast carcinogenesis. (3)
Is Coloring Your Hair Safe?
The large scale of this study should definitely be of concern to those that use permanent hair color or straighteners on a regular basis.
The study adds to previous research about the long-term safety of hair dye, especially permanent black, brown, and red. Yale researchers found that these colors double the risk of developing non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. (4)
In conclusion, if hair color is a cosmetic enhancement that cannot be avoided entirely (best option), then opting for natural, temporary hair dyes such as henna is a smart strategy to avoid potential cancer risks.
While only hair color and straightener have been studied so far, it seems prudent to seek out natural brands when it comes to other hair care products as well.
If you’re looking for some ideas, these are the natural personal care products I use.
This article on how to do a hair detox can give you some ideas on how to transition from dyed to natural locks.
Some women such as 60-something “Groundhog Day” actor Andie MacDowell are increasingly embracing their gray locks. “I’m a silver fox”, MacDowell declares proudly. She goes on to explain that forgoing hair color does not equate with “letting yourself go” and that her children view her natural look as “badass”. (5)
(1) Oprah Considers This the Greatest Cosmetic Invention
(2) Hair dye and chemical straightener use and breast cancer risk in a large US population of black and white women
(3) Hair Chemicals Linked to Elevated Breast Cancer Risk
(4) Increased risk of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma linked to hair dye
(5) Andie MacDowell is Embracing Her Gray
I colored my hair in High School. I colored it several times then I decided to stop because the results were not what I had hoped for and I couldn’t afford a salon. I let it grow out. It took a year to get back to normal. I really should have let it grow for a couple months then a pixie cut would have taken care of it!
I have been using Hairprint for the last 5 years. It’s a longer process but the colour concoction is safe enough to eat 🙂
Thank you for this article!! It just confirms my suspicion about hair dyes being bad for us. I’ve been trying to find an alternative though as I’m only 36, just had my fourth baby, and have a TON of grey in my naturally dark hair. I’ve looked into DIY natural henna dyes and looks like maybe I’ll give them a try. Thanks again!
“The participants all had a sister with breast cancer. However, they were free of the disease at the start of the study.”
OK start with a cohort which has a proven breast cancer risk factor (a sister with breast cancer). Now add time. No surprise that you will find more breast cancer.
For a fair study as to whether or not permanent hair dye causes breast cancer, one must first control for the ingredients being used in the dyes. Since the dye ingredients were not included as a factor in the study, right there it falls to the level of junk science – just another “correlation is not causation” study.
Also for a fair study regarding hair dye’s long-term health effects, the initial cohort should have included women who had NO close relatives with cancer, and also, the study should have tracked and controlled for other health issues.
50,000 individuals is a large study, but the fact that they were cherry-picked to only include women who had a sister with breast cancer is a built-in bias which undermines the validity of the study’s conclusions.
Sarah Pope MGA
Did you see that this study builds on previous peer-reviewed research that permanent hair dyes are carcinogenic?
HairPrint has been my product choice for several years. It’s so clean that I could eat if I wanted. :-).
And it works well once you get comfortable with the process.
I often wonder if ANY form of cancer could be higher from using hair dyes/straighteners. Since all of us are very different genetically, it seems very possible that while one chemical may cause breast cancer in one person, that very same chemical may cause another type of cancer in someone else; or even cause another disease altogether.
Sarah Pope MGA
Yes, good point which is one reason I included the link to the permanent hair dye/non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma study.
This product seems to be a good one. I’ve used it for a while.
I switched to using henna (and indigo) when I was pregnant and haven’t looked back. I remember my Mom doing it when I was a child since since chemical products weren’t freely sold in my country back then. It seems like a project because you have to color the hair twice. However, I’m only doing the roots every 4 weeks or so and it’s 30-40 minutes of active time spread out over a period of 3 hours and it helps me save at least $150 on the salon visit (not really an option these days since I try wearing a mask as little as possible).
Sarah Pope MGA
I did something similar. When I got pregnant with my first child in 1997, I stopped getting my hair highlighted. I haven’t colored my hair since and don’t intend to ever start again.