Understanding the hair dye and cancer risk connection

Everything in life carries with it a certain amount of risk. When we wake up in the morning and head out the front door, we are exposing ourselves to countless small and large potential health risks. Sometimes, we will not even be aware of the risk we are in.

Over the past few years, there has been growing concern about the connection between hair dye and an increased risk of certain kinds of cancer. The majority of women in the United States will use hair dye at one time or another, which means there is a good deal of exposure — and potential risk — to a large amount of the population. But does hair dye actually increase cancer risk?

First, identify the hair dye treatment you want to use. First, there are temporary dyes. These dyes will usually last for one or two washes and will not take much time to leave the hair. While they may cover the surface of the hair, they do little to penetrate deeper into the hair follicle.

Semi-permanent dyes are a bit stronger. These dyes will penetrate into the hair follicle. The benefit of this is that they will last for far more washes — typically only coming out after five to 10 washes total.

The final category is permanent hair dye treatments. These dyes are responsible for causing long-term chemical changes to the hair follicles and are of primary concern to those studying the potential link between cancer and hair dye. These permanent dyes can sometimes contain amines and phenols, as well as stronger agents that help to change the hair color. Additionally, particular hair dye colors may prove to increase cancer risk in some individuals.

What do studies show?

There is a great deal of speculation regarding the connection between increased cancer risk and hair dyes. Thankfully, some scientific research has been done that helps to better explain this relationship. The connection was first made when hairdressers and barbers began reporting higher-than-average levels of certain kinds of cancer, in particular bladder cancer, breast cancer, leukemia and lymphomas. While hair dye does not directly cause cancer, it does seem to increase the risk of developing cancer, especially if you are already prone to the kinds of cancer listed above.

The International Agency for Research on Cancer as well as the National Toxicology Program both suggest that some of the chemicals used in hair dye products may be carcinogenic to people. In studies done with people, bladder cancer and breast cancer risks were often increased if the person worked in an industry where hair dye was applied regularly. It should be noted that those studies showing a connection to breast cancer are not conclusive and require far more research before their findings can be considered definitive. In addition, the studies available have shown contradictory findings in whether or not leukemia and lymphoma rates were higher among constant hair dye users and professional hairdressers. Again, more research has to be done into these populations before definitive results can be found.

Many of the effects of hair dye and increased cancer risk are those where individuals were hairdressers for decades. Since the 1980s, there have been dramatic changes in the kinds of dyes used, decreasing the exposure to harmful dyes and reducing the chance of future hairdressers from developing cancer. While that does not mean that hair dyes may or may not be cancerous, it does mean that many of the earlier findings may not be indicative of what is currently happening.

In addition, as all of the research has clearly illustrated, only those who have had constant or near-daily contact with hair dye application showed signs, symptoms and eventually an increased risk of cancer. For the average man or woman, the levels of exposure are typically not high enough to raise concern. So, if you are looking for a hair color that matches your skin tone or any other kind of hair dye and you are an infrequent customer, then you probably have nothing to worry about.

Should I limit my exposure to hair dyes?

We began this article with the truthful statement that every day we are exposed to minor risks on our health. For those who do not frequently dye their hair, then the findings from the National Toxicology Program as well as other organizations would suggest that infrequent dyes are not dangerous. That being said, it is important to be wary while we wait for future research to come out. If you are very concerned, then you can still dye your hair while taking measures to reduce the amount of exposure you have to the materials.


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