To Dye For

“People get real comfortable with their features. Nobody gets comfortable with their hair. Hair trauma. It’s the universal thing.” Jamie Lee Curtis 1991

If you’ve made the decision to “allow your hair to remain its natural color” when it would otherwise be graying by degrees, or have tried a ‘new look’ with Madonna-blond, you’re in good company. Several studies estimate that close to 40% of American women and a smaller though growing percentage of men dye their hair. What are the known health risks of this decision? That’s the focus of this week’s Insight.

One of the biggest scares concerning hair dyes occurred in the early 1990s when a study reported an estimated 50% increased risk of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma and an 80% increased risk of multiple myeloma from hair dyes. Though this study’s conclusions still circulate widely, more recent data refutes these “dyer” consequences. Specific coal-tar derivatives which were routine in many hair dyes at the time were the major focus for concern. Studies in the 1970s fed large quantities of hair dye ingredients to rodents, and these dye-fed rats were more likely to develop cancers than the controls. Apparently rats who didn’t eat the dye but only had their fur color changed were not more likely to develop cancers. So, obviously, the take-home message here is, “If you dye your hair, don’t eat the dye. . .especially if you have significant rodent-like characteristics.”

Studies more specifically geared toward evaluating relative human cancer risks are ongoing. In general, the well-constructed studies have failed to support a definitive cancer risk from hair dyes. Manufacturers of hair dyes have been diligent in efforts to remove known carcinogenic chemicals, though admittedly, similar chemicals have been the substitutes. The FDA intends to continue its surveillance with longitudinal human health risk studies. In the meantime, several general recommendations can be made for all you coloring characters. 1) Use moderation and good judgement in the frequency of hair-dyeing. . .the less hair dye used over a lifetime, the less ‘hair-rowing’ health risks a person will likely experience of any kind. 2) Consider use of plant-derived (e.g. henna) or lead acetate-based dyes rather than coal-tar based ones. 3) Wear gloves when applying dye; do not mix dyes since unpredictable chemical reactions can occur (including green hair or nuclear meltdown); follow directions specifically, and always rinse thoroughly with water. 4) Don’t eat, smoke, or drink while dyeing hair and always dispose of bottles, tubes and gloves carefully to avoid hand-to-mouth/hand-to-eye contaminations later. (Remember, lead acetate-based dyes seem fairly safe topically, but can cause lead poisoning if ingested.) 5) Never use dyes to color eyebrows/eyelashes. None of the dyes are safe around the eyes, and the FDA prohibits use of hair dyes for eyelashes/eyebrows even in salons–permanent damage, even blindness can result from dye in the eye.

So, if the question is “To dye or not to dye”, prudent and moderate use of hair colorings is not statistically likely to cause serious or lethal health consequences. But, pay attention to the directions, and dispose of the leftover chemicals carefully. Definitely, try the patch tests recommended by the manufacturers before you use a product on your entire scalp. Such advice could keep you from making a rash decision.

“There is certainly no absolute standard of beauty. That precisely is what makes its pursuit so interesting.” John Kenneth Galbraith 1960

Stephen L. Hines, M.D.
August 2000