The People's Perspective on Medicine

Hair Dye & Breast Cancer?

Tens of millions rely upon hair dye to provide a more youthful appearance. But is there a connection between hair dye & breast cancer? New research say yes.

A new study published in the journal Carcinogenesis suggests that dark-colored hair dyes may be linked to breast cancer. That means that millions of baby boomers are caught on the horns of a dilemma. This is the generation that wanted to stay young forever. Their anthem in the good old days: “you can’t trust anyone over 30.” Now that they are in their sixties, and shortly their seventies, many prefer to hide the gray. But is their a link between hair dye & breast cancer?

Does Your Hairdresser Know for Sure?

Scientists have been debating the risks of hair dye for decades. In the 1970s, biochemist Bruce Ames, PhD, created a simple and affordable test for chemical mutagenicity. This allowed scientists to test chemicals for their ability to alter DNA or other genetic material. Not surprisingly, it was called the Ames test. This bacterial test became popular as a screening tool to detect potential carcinogens.

Dr. Ames and his students reported on chemicals in hair dye in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (June, 1975).  Here are some of their observations:

“Despite the possibility that particular classes of bacterial mutagens may be found that are not carcinogenic, it appears that each of the hair dye compounds we have found to be mutagenic has a high probability of proving to be a carcinogen…”

Dr. Ames pointed out that:

“Surprisingly little has been published about the absorption of various components of hair dyes through the skin of the human scalp.”

That said, he described a study that did show compounds in urine suggestive of skin absorption:

“Thus, we believe it is reasonable to estimate that a woman undergoing one hair dyeing (with about 4 g of amines) could absorb as much as 40 mg (1%) of hair dye chemicals (precursors, products, and side products) through the scalp.”

Dr. Ames’ Summation:

“In conclusion, we do not find that the reported cancer studies provide convincing evidence of hair dye safety in view of the variety of mutagenic compounds present in hair dyes, the carcinogenicity of many aromatic amines, and the close structural relationship of the mutagen, 2,4-diaminoanisole to the carcinogen 2,3-diaminotoluene.”

Phenylenediamine hair dye

p-Phenylenediamine PPD is an organic compound. It is mainly used as a component of engineering polymers and composites. It is also an ingredient in hair dyes and is used as a substitute for henna.

40 Years Later:

Not surprisingly, Dr. Ames’ research stirred up a hornet’s nest of controversy. Some hair dye manufacturers modified their formulas because of the furor.

If you search the National Library of Medicine for hair dye and cancer, you will discover hundreds of citations. Some researchers have reported a link between hair dye & breast cancer and others have found none. A Finnish epidemiological trial published in PLoS One (online, Aug11, 2015) was titled:

“Does Hair Dye Use Increase the Risk of Breast Cancer?

A Population-Based Case-Control Study of Finnish Women”

The authors write:

“Role of hair dyes in the etiology of breast cancer has occasionally raised concern but previous research has concluded with mixed results. Remnants of prohibited aromatic amines have been found in many hair dye products, and elevated levels of DNA-adducts of these amines have been detected from breast epithelial cells of hair dye users. However, the IARC [International Agency for Research on Cancer] working group has concluded that there is inadequate evidence for carcinogenicity of personal hair dye use and limited evidence in experimental animals for carcinogenicity of hair colorants.”

The results and conclusions of the Finnish Study:

“After adjusting for potential confounders, the odds of breast cancer increased by 23% among women who used hair dyes compared to those who did not…Our results suggest that use of hair dyes is associated with breast cancer incidence. The impact on public health may be substantial due to vast popularity of hair coloring in modern societies.”

Hair Dye & Breast Cancer? 2017 Update:

The latest research published in the journal Carcinogenesis (June 9, 2017) suggests that the Finnish results may not be a fluke. The investigators report that there may be a relationship between dark brown or black hair dye and breast cancer among both African American and white women.

Over 4000 women participated in the study. They ranged in age from 20 to 75 and were part of the Women’s Circle of Health Study. Investigators collected a wide range of data including physical activity, smoking history, exposure to hormones, alcohol use and reproductive history.

Use of hair products such as permanent hair dyes, relaxers or straighteners and deep conditioning creams was also included in the analysis. Dual use of relaxers and dark hair dyes was associated with more than a two-fold increased risk of breast cancer in white women. The risk was most apparent among women who used hair dye frequently and relied upon darker colors.

In Their Own Words:

The authors point out:

“Although no other studies have found the use of dark hair dye shades to be associated with breast cancer, long-term use of dark hair dyes have been associated with 4-fold increased risks of fatal non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma and multiple myeloma among women enrolled in the Cancer Prevention Study II and marginally associated with a 29% increased risk of bladder cancer in a recent meta-analysis…Furthermore, direct scalp contact of these dyes can lead to cutaneous absorption of these harmful compounds, particularly with long-term exposure…”

Epi Studies of Hair Dye & Breast Cancer:

Epidemiological studies can never prove cause and effect, but the authors conclude that their data support a relationship between the use of hair dye and some types of relaxers and breast cancer. Not surprisingly, the authors call for bigger and better studies. They also conclude:

“As use of various hair products and other cosmetics continue among women in the US as well as other countries, improved awareness of the potential effects of exposures to their chemical ingredients are needed.”

Where’s the FDA?

Prepare to be shocked. Drug companies, device manufacturers and makers of vitamins, minerals and dietary supplements have to report adverse reactions to the FDA. That’s the law. The companies that make hair dye are under no such obligation. That’s because cosmetics are treated differently by the FDA. Reports of problems are purely voluntary and represent only the tip of an iceberg of unknown dimensions. As a result, it is hard to know for sure how many people are adversely affected by hair dye.

Prudent Hair Coloring Precautions:

The final word is not in on hair dye & breast cancer…or any other cancer for that matter. Do not count on the FDA for guidance. At this time nobody knows for sure how much of a risk hair coloring may pose. The diseases associated with permanent dyes are rare. If, however, you would like to hedge your bets, here are a few tips:

  • Nonpermanent or semipermanent products may be less dangerous than permanent dyes.
  • Dark colors seem to have more potentially problematic chemicals than lighter colors. If you can lighten up, you may be safer.
  • If you have a family history of connective tissue disorders, such as systemic sclerosis, lupus, scleroderma or polymyositis, be more cautious.
  • Wait as long as you can stand it before beginning to color your hair and in between applications. More frequent use of such products appears to be riskier.

Share your own hair dye story or concern below in the comment section.

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About the Author
Joe Graedon is a pharmacologist who has dedicated his career to making drug information understandable to consumers. His best-selling book, The People’s Pharmacy, was published in 1976 and led to a syndicated newspaper column, syndicated public radio show and web site. In 2006, Long Island University awarded him an honorary doctorate as “one of the country's leading drug experts for the consumer.” .
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Hi ladies,
Breast Cancer has an insulin component to it, and that’s why I eat one meal a day, and occasional snack. Regardless of protein, fat, or carb, eating pumps up insulin, and BC has a IGF-1 trigger (one of many). That being stated, hair dye is a necessity for us older gals, and it is a chemically based liquid that sits on our heads, usually under a plastic cap. (plastics are xenoestrogenic), so I know spreading a dye job out 2 months is important. I use a hair crayon coloring stick to stretch my dye jobs out. I am in 3 Breast Cancer (Prevention/Awareness) Grps. I understand the trade off. If I didn’t live in So Ca, I switch to wigs. Getting older isn’t for wimps.

I have been using henna for 10 years as my hair was starting to get thin and very dry from the standard hair dyes. It’s much cheaper ($5), somewhat tough to find in beauty supply stores, not very easy to control the color, a bit messy to use, have not found a salon that can do it but..give it a try for a few months and you’d be amazed at the difference in your hair.

I see so many women with thinning hair no doubt from the harsh chemicals in standard hair dye..just the smell of this stuff when you put it on your hair should give you an idea it’s not the best thing to let seep into your scalp.

Hair dyes add various measures of thickness (volume) to hair which is considered a healthy looking asset at every age. Given more cautionary evidence, I plan to go three shades lighter on the hair dye, perhaps do a reverse ombre avoiding placing dark dyes near roots and scalp. Maybe moving into a new trend.

Please write an article as to why a hip fracture is known as (Death) within 1 year. My doctor even told the family that prior to surgery. I have researched/read numerous articles. I worked until age 73 and all of my medical issues relate to thin bones. If a person takes exercise, no drinking or smoking, could one beat the odds? I am an RN and enjoy/understand them. I know this is about hair dye. I use blond. Have been concerned about my Asian friend that uses harsh black. Thank you an please write an article Hip Fractures.
Brenda C.

I hadn’t planned to use hair color until I saw myself in a photo when my hair was in the early stages of graying. Consequently, I used henna for several years, but the directions say not to use it if your hair has a large percentage of gray. When that began to happen, I started using a plant-based “permanent” hair color in a light brown shade. I buy it at the health food store. I put the term “permanent” in quotes because, after six weeks, my hair has turned a lighter shade that is between golden blonde and dark blonde. Around my temples where my roots show that my hair has obviously turned white, my hair appears streaked although not frosted. When I repeat my hair color, it is back to light brown again. Although the color doesn’t wash out completely, it is clear that plant-based hair color isn’t as stable as commercial chemical-based hair color. I will take instability over carcinogenic tendencies.

I started using a natural hair dye from my natural/organic store. The brand is Nutritint, and there are many others. I started losing my hair all over but especially on top of my head. I have always been concerned about the ammonia, hydrogen, and other dangerous chemicals in hair dye. I did something about it when hair loss was apparent. I am happy with results from natural hair dye and my hair is slowly coming back.

I often wonder if it has anything to do with the amount of women in my generation, in their 60s, with extremely thinning hair?

I absolutely dye my hair, for the simple reason that it LOOKS SO MUCH BETTER than that horrible gray. I feel sorry for ladies who have gone gray, not wanting to look shallow or desperate, electing to take the high road. Good for you, ma’am, but unfortunately, IT ISN’T ATTRACTIVE! It makes you look old! I, for one, have enough personal power that I will happily risk looking pathetic for dyeing my hair and screw ’em if they can’t take a joke…
All that said, I used to use dark hair dye, and I did get breast cancer, and I did lose a breast. I drank a little too much, and I also did shiftwork (mainly nights), so can’t tell for sure if it was the hair dye; still, I’ve lightened up and am now a quasi-blonde. I’ve also made other positive lifestyle changes, so all’s good now. Cheers!

Cindy, I love what you shared! You have a great sense of humor. Keep it up!

I use henna and coffee, is there any information about henna safety? Thanks!

I’m 60 yrs & have been dying my hair for 30 yrs. My mom had been dying her up until she was 90, when I cinvinc-ed her to stop. She just died at 93+. She was fine. I hope to have her luck! : )

This is a tough article to read and rather scary.

I have been using semi permanent for years, a medium brown and dark blonde combination. It washes out. My dermatologist told me the wash-out dyes are safer than permanent. Who knows? I really don’t want to go completely gray at 62.

Going lighter? That would require a permanent dye which is harmful…so, what can we do? Anyone, have suggestions?

I have used henna on my hair for over 30 years. As far as I know, it is an herb and there are no short or long-term effects on the body. It not only colors my grey, it is actually like a conditioner, making it shine more and appear thicker. (I have very thin hair.) Why more women are not using henna, I will never understand. I suppose it’s because the color cannot be controlled as well as synthetic hair dye. For myself at least, I feel that the risk is not worth it, and the color is fine (reddish brown and a little lighter where the roots are coming in). It should at least be tried by women who insist on not having grey or white hair (myself among them!).

I have been coloring my dark brown hair once a month for 37 years and so far so good—-but I DO believe hair dyes to be carcinogenic. Why even question that, as they are nothing but chemicals! I have been thinking of switching to some of the more “natural ones” sold in health food stores and this article has now prompted me to do so…..hoping the damage has not already been done to my system. However, what about all the OTHER body products we use each day like deodorants, personal hygiene issues, hemorrhoid creams (which I would think would be the WORST—read the label ingredients on THOSE)—also toothpastes, nose spray, and eye drops are FULL of chemicals. This IS a horribly toxic world and no one is getting out alive, but none of us want to suffer with cancer and slow death either! All this is not to mention that natural personal care products cost a LOT more and many folks just cannot afford them.

You make some very good points.

I think we are bombarded with chemicals at every turn. Hair dye, body lotions, makeup toothpaste and pesticides in our food chain. We can’t get away from all of them since they are everywhere and in everything. We have become a population of “acceptors”. Most folks believe that the FDA or government will protect us from harm, but it all comes down to the bottom line of the economy.
Every one of us has to be our own advocate and the same for our children and grandchildren. Be aware.

SJ, you are right that we are bombarded with chemicals! Even the foods we eat. That said, at age 77, I will continue to color my hair as I’ve been doing for the past 30 years. I do not trust some studies, and the article was no conclusive, to me.

I’ve used dark hair dye for about 30 years. I was diagnosed with breast cancer 2 years ago. Now I’m wondering if the hair dye caused it. I have no other risk factors

What about hairdressers who deal with theses materials daily ?

I also have been coloring my hair with dark brown permanent color every three to four weeks for the last thirty years. I was diagnosed with breast cancer last November. I had no risk factors.

One only has to look around to see that there are many more men dying their hair these days than used to be the case. If there is a possible problem here for women, then there is likely a possible problem for men as well.

My mother was a hairdresser for 27 years, at the age of 55 she was diagnosed with breast cancer. She had her breast removed and the lymph nodes. 15 years later she again was diagnosed with cancer which Consumed most of her body, the esophagus, the bones the blood etc. She could not even eat. And she died at the age of 72.

Another person who she worked with as a hairdresser also had breast cancer and died as a result. I have heard of others as well.

My belief is at the time she was in practice there were many chemicals in the hair dyes as well as the permanents and hairsprays. At that time women smoked as well in the shop so she also breathed in secondhand smoke for all those years. I have no proof this is just my belief.

Sounds as though the die is cast (pun intended) already for those of us who have used these products long-term. Seems questionable that stopping now would make any difference in such cases … ?

You are right, Allison. I do not intend to stop at age 77. I do not think the article had enough evidence to believe it will cause breast cancer. Look at all the chemicals in the foods we eat. And, I do not believe we can wash nor scrub away all the chemicals used in growing “fresh” foods either!

I have heard commercials for all natural hair color products that espouse that they are safer with no harmful chemicals. Is there any research on products whose ingredients are natural, whatever that really means? Can one go to any place and read about the brands that are safer or less toxic? Thank you so much for all you do!

Well I do lighten up. BUT if I have to cover that gray, and use darker colors, yes I will have to take the risk. Going natural is just not an option for me.

I absolutely agree! As far back as I can remember, my mother had gray hair and always seemed old to me growing up! I said as a teenager that I’d never let my hair go gray, so I’ll use the dark dyes, sprays, whatever is necessary to cover my gray and scalp with thinning hair.

Thankfully, breast cancer doesn’t run in my family. But, then, as my g.p. doctor said, jokingly when we were discussing having a mammogram! , “there’s always a first time”. Keep covering that gray! I am now 77 yrs. Old and going strong! I am, however, a colon cancer survivor, but, then, I’ve never used hair coloring “down there”!

I, too, have used hair coloring/dyes for several decades. Never had breast cancer. I believe the relationships mentioned between hair dyes and breast cancer are just coincidence. Not enough positive studies, and don’t believe I’d rely on the foreign studies, either.

Also, I read, from a very reliable source, where a retired pharmacist wrote that “the FDA is bought and paid for”. I expect this is true, as there are just too many new drug products that have just too many serious side effects!

So, Shakespeare’s famous quote, “Frailty, thy name is woman” has often been cited as “Vanity, thy name is woman,” and in this case, I think it applies. Why in the world would anyone risk dyeing their hair with known carcinogens simply to try to look younger? With so many other visual cues — for example, skin tone, posture, and muscle elasticity — we’re not fooling anyone. This is sad.

I’m just so sorry so many people believe every negative thing they read about products, without any real proof! Please read the article again. There are too many doubts and misleading articles written about the studies; so, again, please re-read the article.

They have known this for at least 30 years, possibly longer. I stopped dying my hair because of this.

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