Why I Don’t Color My Hair (and you shouldn’t either)

I’m bringing out the big guns this week in my mission to inform on the topic of cancer. My apologies to my dear friends who are hair stylists. I know coloring hair is a major source of income for you but after what I have learned, I have to share. Lives are at stake, including your own.

The problem with hair dye is that it has been linked in multiple studies to cancer and specifically, but not exclusively, to the two cancers that I got, breast cancer and non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. I will go into specifics of which chemicals and what colors are the worst offenders but first I’ll address the argument that I hear for it being safe.

The Argument For Its Safety

I have heard that the toxic chemicals in hair dye are fine to use because the dye touches the hair and not the skin and so is not absorbed into the body. As anyone who has had their hair colored will tell you, this is ridiculous. I had my hair colored every 4-5 weeks for about 15 years. The hair dye was on my scalp touching my skin every single time.

That is the only argument for it being safe. No argument about the chemicals used being non-toxic or something along the lines of “if the government is allowing us to use it, it must be okay”. That I hear a lot about other personal care products like deodorant, lotion, shampoo and makeup. No governing body is regulating whether the ingredients are safe for personal care products, and many are not safe by the way, but no one is even suggesting that the chemicals in hair dye are safe. Everyone knows they’re not.

Which Chemicals Are Harmful

The chemical that nearly all effective hair dyes contain that has been shown to be arguably the most harmful is called phenylenediamines or PPD. The type of phenylenediamine used depends on the desired end color:

  • para-phenylenediamine (black)
  • para-toluenediamine (brown)
  • ortho-phenylenediamine (brown)
  • para-aminophenol (reddish brown)
  • ortho-aminophenol (light brown)

Other hair dye ingredients that have also proven carcinogenic in at least one animal species include: 4-chloro-m-phenylenediamine, 2,4-toluenediamine, 2-nitro-p-phenylenediamine and 4-amino-2-nitrophenol. Some of these have now been banned in hair coloring in some countries (not the U.S.). Coal tar dyes have also been found to cause cancer in laboratory animals, yet no warning is required for these. Phenylenediamines are also mutagenic which means they cause DNA mutations and fetal abnormalities in animal studies.

The Link to Cancer

According to a thorough article in NYRNaturalNews, “problems with hair dyes were first noted in the late 1970s when several studies found links between the use of hair dyes and breast cancer. In 1976 one study reported that 87 of 100 breast cancer patients had been long-term hair dye users.

In 1979, another study found a significant relationship between the frequency and duration of hair dye use and breast cancer. Women who started dying their hair at age 20 had twice the risk of 40-year-olds. Those at greatest risk were the 50 to 79 year olds who had been dying their hair for years, suggesting that the cancer takes years to develop.

A year later another study found that women who dye their hair to change its colour, rather than masking greyness, were at a threefold risk of developing breast cancer. The same study found that women with a history of benign breast disease had a much greater risk of developing breast cancer if they died their hair.

(And here’s some info for my beloved hair stylist friends…) In addition, people who work as hairdressers are at increased risk. One 2001 study found that those who had worked for 10 or more years as hairdressers or barbers had a fivefold risk of bladder cancer compared to the general population.

Research continued and in the early 1990s Japanese and Scandinavian studies also linked hair dye use with leukemia and ovarian cancer.

An early Harvard study suggested that compared to women who had never dyed their hair, women who dyed their hair one to four times a year had a 70% increased risk for ovarian cancer. Women who used hair dye five times or more per year had twice the risk of developing ovarian cancer compared to women who never used hair dye.”

Blood Cancers Too

Evidence also suggests that if you use hair dye you are increasing your risk of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma and multiple myeloma anywhere from two to four times over a non-user. Some researchers even believe that hair dyes may account for as many as 20% of all cases of NHL in women.

Other data from the 1992  National Cancer Institute (NCI) found that women who used permanent hair dyes had a 50% higher risk for developing non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma and an 80% higher risk of multiple myeloma than non-users.

Oh and did I mention that the darker the shade of the dye, the higher the risk of breast cancer, meaning women who use black, dark brown or red dyes are at the greatest risk?

Hmmm, wonder if that’s how I got breast cancer and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma? I was dying my hair dark brown, as I said, every 4-5 weeks for about 15 years!

So What To Do Instead?

  • Read labels and look for PPDs as well as carcinogenic dyes like Acid Orange 87, Solvent Brown 44, Acid Blue 168 and Acid Violet 73. If you must dye your hair, use safer products that don’t contain PPDs and don’t dye your hair very often.
  • Try entirely plant based hair colors. These are not permanent and most are not very effective at coloring grey. I have heard good results from friends who have tried “non-toxic” products by Madison Reed and Hairprint. But then you are still committing to maintenance every few weeks to cover your roots. Which leads me to the option I chose…
  • Go natural. I went bald three times with my chemo treatments for NHL and breast cancer. When it grew back in, I figured this was my opportunity to get off the hair dye train and go natural.

I’m not going to lie and say that I don’t sometimes miss my brown hair. But I also find it incredibly freeing to embrace the color that my hair is and show the world that women don’t have to pretend to be something they are not in order to be accepted by society. And I can’t tell you how many women have come up to me saying they love my hair and wish they could stop dyeing theirs. To them I always reply,

“Go for it!”


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Karen Johnston - May 9, 2017

Great essay Laren! The amount of chemicals, in almost Everything, has polluted our bodies, spirit and planet. Love your hair!

    Laren - May 9, 2017

    Thanks Karen! I agree, the chemicals are out of control and we need to avoid as many as possible. Coming soon, an article on plastics! 🙂

Gigi - May 9, 2017

Hi – Can you speak to highlighting as opposed to hair dying? It’s not clear from your article whether you are talking about all-over hair dye as opposed to foil/highlights (or both). I have heard the argument about dye not touching scalp when using foil. Also, because your article seems to focus on darker colors (see your list of carcinogens by color, and no blond is listed), I’m curious about whatever ingredients are in products used to lighten. I have naturally light brown/dark blond hair and have been highlighting it for years. My hair dresser tried an organic lightener once but it didn’t work. Thanks.

    Laren - May 9, 2017

    Hi Gigi, It seems from my research that the darker you go, the more harmful the dyes are. For this reason, I think that highlighting may be a better option, especially if it’s not touching your skin. It’s still chemical exposure (in the air you are breathing while it processes for example) so not perfect. But I always recommend people do their own research to make an educated and informed decision when it comes to their health.

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