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What the Yuck: Can hair dye cause cancer?
March 25th, 2011
11:26 AM ET

What the Yuck: Can hair dye cause cancer?

Too embarrassed to ask your doctor about sex, body quirks, or the latest celeb health fad? In a regular feature and a new book, "What the Yuck?!," Health magazine medical editor Dr. Roshini Raj tackles your most personal and provocative questions. Send 'em to Dr. Raj at whattheyuck@health.com.

Q: I heard that dark hair dye causes cancer, and I'm worried. Does that mean I should go blonde?

No need to. Before the early 1970s, many hair dyes contained buckets of chemicals, some of which were shown to cause cancer in animals. The darker dyes contained more potential carcinogens (cancer-causing agents), so they were believed to be riskier. Since then, dye manufacturers have removed many - though not all - of these toxic chemicals.

The studies that have turned up a link between dye and cancer have looked at people who used the older, more toxic formulas. One reported an increased risk of bladder cancer in male hairdressers and barbers (who had been exposed to these old-school chemicals on a daily basis for many years). Another study found that women who used hair dye frequently prior to 1980 had an increased risk of non-Hodgkin lymphoma, but those who colored their hair frequently after 1980 did not have any increased risk. Since there's no good recent research showing a connection between hair color and cancer, most experts say not to worry.

Still, it makes sense to limit your exposure to these chemicals. Use gloves when applying the dye. If you're pregnant, many obstetricians will recommend you not dye your hair during the first trimester (while baby is undergoing major neurological development), but they say that it's probably safe to do so in the last two trimesters. Limit the time dye is on your head, and wash your scalp well after removing it.

Also, consider waiting until your hair is turning gray, rather than going auburn or jet black just because you're looking for a change, to cut your long-term exposure to the chemicals. You can also switch to a temporary dye, which is less toxic, or henna, which is usually all natural.

Copyright Health Magazine 2011


soundoff (22 Responses)
  1. becca

    so glad to hear this...my hair appt is next Thursday for a cut and color! yes, it makes sense to limit exposure to all chemicals especially those who work with them all day in hair and nail salons.

    March 25, 2011 at 11:50 | Report abuse | Reply
  2. Aimee

    I love my henna! look for pure henna that has been tested for chemicals and doesn' t contain additives.

    March 25, 2011 at 11:55 | Report abuse | Reply
  3. Rachel

    It's not just hair dye that can wreak havoc with your skin in later years. My aunt used to have her hair permed every 6 months-for nearly 60 years. She has been dealing with skin cancer on her scalp for the past 10 years, getting radiation treatments as new growths occur.
    Tanning beds/booths, hair coloring, perms– they seem to be far more dangerous down the road than they do at the moment we are using them. Perhaps it's time to re-evaluate what we would go through to look glamorous, or better yet– redefine what 'beauty' is.

    March 25, 2011 at 15:20 | Report abuse | Reply
  4. r

    Oh, puhleez. Do an article about how soaps, shampoos, sunscreens, makeup, body lotions, etc., can all contain cancer causing ingredients.

    March 25, 2011 at 19:55 | Report abuse | Reply
  5. KMC

    Oh yes, no need to worry. Weeeeeeeeeeeee, chemicals are harmless! Do you live in fairyland? You probably think it's okay for bread to have corn syrup in it to. Sorry, but people need to know the risks involved in using cosmetics and be able to make informed choices.

    March 25, 2011 at 20:45 | Report abuse | Reply
  6. axillarymike

    Many hair dyes contain alum dyes which can soak into the skin. The lymph nodes closet to the temple take the brunt of the hair dye in the form of alum salts which can cause some to experience headaches, especially with darker dyes. Once the nodes become damaged from long term use alums are retained in the micro vessels. Later on the salts can mutate and form skin cancer. This can be accelerated by using suppressive deodorant, Hence underarms are suppose to allow the flow of salts out of the body from the head. There exist enough cases for Cancer and the link to hair dyes. Medical Doctors have little education in the field of Lymph Nodes and Aluminum(alum salts).

    March 27, 2011 at 16:59 | Report abuse | Reply
  7. not a natural redhead

    Ibe been dying my hair red for the last 30 yrs. No problem. Been using deoderant longer than that. No problem. What on the face of the earth is there that they dont claim causes cancer? Dont you think if they proved hair dye causes cancer it wouldve been taken off the market yrs ago? Geeez...Things just get more outrageous and ridiculous every day.

    March 28, 2011 at 06:09 | Report abuse | Reply
    • El Kababa

      Don't you think that if cigarettes caused cancer they would have taken it off the market long ago?

      April 18, 2011 at 10:00 | Report abuse |
  8. siw

    Smoking causes cancer. Cigarettes are still on the market. Are you niave.

    March 28, 2011 at 09:37 | Report abuse | Reply
  9. Doc

    Hysterical – they tell you the dyes are safe and then say you shouldn't use them if you are in the first trimester of pregnancy because they can cause the baby's brain to form incorrectly. Anyone else see a complete disconnect here??

    March 29, 2011 at 00:01 | Report abuse | Reply
  10. Carla Everett

    LIMIT exposure to the dye by wearing gloves?!?!?! Yet, you're putting the dye all over your HEAD?!
    SOMEONE NEEDS AN EDITOR!!!!!

    March 29, 2011 at 23:05 | Report abuse | Reply
  11. Rod

    We talk to hundreds of people every month that end up in the hospital or had a super bad reaction after using chemical hair dye. Several men where in the hospital for up to 5 days! They also say on the package your odds double for an alergic reaction if you have any tattoos. Now concider how much chemical hair dye is being washed down the drain on a daily bases. Really makes the gulf oil spill look minor. Harvest Moon Hair dye is 100% chemcial free, but people find it after they get out of the E.R.
    It is all politics and money. Like cigarettes, hair dye will always be there, but it is nice to know you do have a choice with chemical free hair dye. Cancer patients cannot use chemical hair dye at all, but they can use Harvest Moon hair dye.
    If you talked to as many people as we do that have gone to the hospital, you would never touch chemical hair dye again.

    March 31, 2011 at 14:20 | Report abuse | Reply
  12. Viktor

    I am Hungarian and have been reading on the authoritative Hungarian language website Henna Lap that even today many permanent dyes contain PPD, which is a known carcinogen. The site goes on to say that if you decide to use a natural dye like henna, make sure it is natural, brown henna as the stuff marketed as "black henna" almost certainly will contain PPD. Can Dr, Raj clarify whether this is true?

    June 1, 2011 at 10:07 | Report abuse | Reply
  13. Viktor

    I am Hungarian and have been reading on the authoritative Hungarian language website http://www.hennalap.com that even today many permanent dyes contain PPD, which is a known carcinogen. The site goes on to say that if you decide to use a natural dye like henna, make sure it is natural, brown henna as the stuff marketed as "black henna" almost certainly will contain PPD. Can Dr, Raj clarify whether this is true?

    June 1, 2011 at 10:09 | Report abuse | Reply
  14. Organic salon

    That's really shocking to know well I would prefer to go for pure henna it is much better than all this.
    Organic salon

    August 3, 2011 at 08:23 | Report abuse | Reply
  15. florist

    Actually we shouldn't use the hair dye which has too much toxic or the chemicals.Still many such studies are taking place so we must just avoid the products with too much chemical and use herbal products.
    http://www.dpetals.com.sg

    December 24, 2011 at 04:38 | Report abuse | Reply
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    January 8, 2012 at 04:35 | Report abuse | Reply
  17. beinggothwillgiveyoucancer

    damn. I've been dying my hair midnight black since I was 16. and smoking. im a cancer time bomb.

    March 5, 2012 at 00:52 | Report abuse | Reply
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Get a behind-the-scenes look at the latest stories from CNN Chief Medical Correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, Senior Medical Correspondent Elizabeth Cohen and the CNN Medical Unit producers. They'll share news and views on health and medical trends - info that will help you take better care of yourself and the people you love.