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Does Dying Your Hair After a Certain Age Increase Your Cancer Risk?

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August 1, 2016

By ARIADNE WEINBERG, Featured Columnist



Everybody likes a change of look, once in awhile. Your hair gets too long and hard to maintain; maybe you just want to dye away those grays or perhaps walk on the wilder side with a change to a totally different color and cut it short. There's nothing wrong with that. An updated you always feels good.

But before you dip into the dye, inform yourself first.

If you are dedicated to never going gray or you're an addict to a totally new vibe every 3-4 months (black to blonde to brown and back again), you might want to calm down a little bit.

There are some things worse than going gray. Not all hair dyes are created equally, and some may have negative side effects, including cancer.

Yes, cancer.

There generally are three categories of dyes: Temporary dyes, semipermanent dyes, and permanent (oxidative) dyes.

All of these dyes have the potential to contain aromatic amines and phenols.  Amines and phenols have carcinogenic components, but permanent dyes are the riskiest.

There are a few more factors that could make your new hair color more dangerous --- when you dyed it and its color.

In the 1970s, through testing products on animals, researchers discovered that some of the aromatic amines in dyes caused cancer.  As a result, manufacturers made an effort to change the chemical composition.

So, if you're a little bit older, and you changed your hair hue various times, you may be more at risk. If you were or are dying your hair a darker color, you might also want to watch out. Darker hues tend to have more toxic coloring agents.

The final reason that dying your hair is more risky for you as you get older is that, over time, the body accumulates levels of toxins. At some point, the toxins reach a critical threshold and you may get a nasty allergic reaction.  Or worse, you may develop cancer.   This accumulative effect is called the "body burden of chemicals".  This cumulative burden is also the reason why you may get away with dying those grays in your 30's and 40's but your body rebels against you and your day of reckoning comes in your 50's and 60's.

Don't freak out too much, but do read on to find some possible side effects of dying your hair, and make sure you know exactly what product you're putting on your head.

Color Matters  -- Darker Dyes have Higher Cancer Risk











Goths beware. But those of us who like a darker, natural look need to be careful, too.

The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) confirms that certain kinds of hair dyes are considered mutagenic and carcinogenic, based on in-vitro assays of exposed human populations.


In many cultures, it's common to dye your hair at least a few times. In Brazil, for example, 26% of adults regularly color their strands.

In 2015, Y. Tafurt-Cardona and researchers at the Sao Paolo State University in Brazil wanted to know the effects of two specific hair dyes, Basic Red 51 and Basic Brown 17.  These two dyes were used in the composition of black hair dyes.

It turned out that both Basic Red 51 and Basic Brown 17 induced cytotoxic and genotoxic effects in cells, in concentrations lower than regular commercial use.  In other words, they trigger the development of cancer even in concentrations that were weaker than were being sold to the public.

Why were these two dyes so dangerous? Possibly, the scientists hypothesized, from the azo chemical structure, which is both mutagenic and carcinogenic. So, is the answer to just go gray or never go blonde (and have more fun)? Regardless of the new tint, the key is to check the ingredients carefully, and perhaps consider a more natural dye.

Take Care of Your Skin

When you dye your hair, some of it usually seeps into your scalp.

When S. Vedel-Krogh and researchers from Copenhagen University conducted research in 2016, they took this into account, keeping in mind that hair dye's aromatic amines contain carcinogenic chemicals, and can cause allergic skin reactions.

They wanted to see how dyeing hair can affect morbidity and mortality in the long term.

Examining 7,684 women from the Copenhagen heart study, they collected information on personal hair dye use and assessed the risk of cancer and skin diseases, amongst other morbidities and mortality, following up on their status after about 27 years.

Adjusting for multivariable hazards, they discovered that there was a 200% higher (two-fold) risk of malignant melanoma in women using hair dye.

In the other factors studied, no other significant risks showed up. Still, remember that what you put on your head can alter your skin cells. Be sure to rinse and use safe products.

Check for Breast Cancer

Ladies, we should be especially careful when choosing our beauty products.

In a recent 2016 study a retrospective population-based case control experiment revealed some shocking findings.

Dr. S. Heikkinen and colleagues from the Institute for Statistical and Epidemiological Cancer Research from Helsinki, Finland, wanted to see whether the use of hair dyes was associated with breast cancer risk.

They discovered the answer was "yes", using dyes does in fact increase your risk fro breast cancer.

The researchers gave out a self-administered questionnaire from 6,567 breast cancer patients between 22 and 60 years old, who were diagnosed between 2000 and 2007, and used 2,598 matched controls.

After adjusting for potential confounders, the odds of breast cancer was found to increase by 23%; 28% in women born before 1950.

That's not a superficial number. While tests are at risk of bias in these cases, we can certainly conclude that this beauty process is not 100% safe.

Protect Your Prostate- Dying Your Hair Raises This Cancer risk by Over 200%

Men, too, are at greater risk for cancer if they die their hair. 

Unfortunately, there are myriad cancers that emerge from a such pleasant makeover pastime. Dr. S.Y. Tai and investigators from the Kaohsiung Medical University in Taiwan studied the effects of hair dye use and regular exercise on the risk and prognosis of prostate cancer.

In 2016, they looked at 296 cases of histologically confirmed prostate cancer, between August 2000 and December 2008. They also determined the rate of prostate cancer survival, studying another 608 cases between August 2000 and December 2007. The information on hair dye use and regular exercise was obtained using a standardized questionnaire.

Unfortunately, the use of dye was associated with a significant 2.15 fold odds of developing prostate cancer.

They also found that those who were less than 60 who had used hair dye for more than ten years, more than six times per year, and started dyeing their hair before 1980, were more at risk.

Whew. Lots of data.

But the information points again to perhaps safer hair dye in the present, which is positive. The other good news discovered was that exercising daily (seven times a week or more), didn't protect against prostate cancer, but it did reduce the risk of mortality from it. In other words, don't dye your hair too much, and if you do find yourself with prostate cancer, go for a jog regularly.

Is There a Better Alternative?

Those of you who absolutely love switching it up with colors might be feeling a little depressed right now.

But all is not lost.  If you know your product ingredients and use hair dyes in moderation, you'll probably be just fine.

There's also another ingredient that might be softer on your hair, one that has very few reports of toxicity.

It's called henna, and it's made from the dried and powdered leaf of lawsonia inermis.

Henna is used for skin, hair, nails and body art, and is prevalent in Hindu and Islamic cultures. There is red henna, which stains the skin reddish brown and black henna, which is a mix of red henna and p-phenylenediamine (PPD). According to a 2013 article from Anton de Groot from ac degroot publishing in the Netherlands, red henna is generally completely safe, with a few rare cases of contact allergy or a hypersensitivity reaction.

Black henna has had a few more reports of being dangerous, but it's usually the one you would use for tattoos, not in your hair.

So, if you're like me, and generally dye your hair natural colors, consider just using henna, or splicing it into your dyeing routine.

It comes in various shades, not only one red. To test for allergies first, just put a little bit on your wrist and see how your body reacts.

Happy playing with your hair! 




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