The Dangers of Hair Dyes

These days, there are as many reasons why people dye their hair as there are shades of color. Whether it’s Sunkissed Blonde, Marshmallow Brown, Mahogany with Honeysuckle Highlights, or Ash Brown with Purple Face-framing Highlights, customers everywhere are lining up to lighten or brighten their locks.

How many? According to, an astonishing 75% of women color their hair, compared to just 7% in 1950. Some do it for fun or to make a fashion statement. Others do it to bolster courage as they face getting older in our youth-centered society.

Women may feel more insecure with graying hair while men are often viewed as “competent”, “more experienced”, and “protective” with a salt-and-pepper look made famous by actors like Cary Grant, George Clooney, and John Slattery. A man’s gray hair is labeled “irresistible” by 72% of women, according to a study cited in Men’s Health.

Vanity Has Its Price

Remember those bleach blonde Hollywood celebrities of days gone by? They helped drive the popularity of their iconic hair color. Jean Harlow, for example, was a natural brunette. Her hairdresser reported using peroxide, ammonia, Clorox, and Lux (soap) flakes to achieve her platinum blonde color. These chemicals, when mixed, created a noxious gas. Sadly, her hair ended up so damaged, she was forced to wear wigs from her early twenties. (The Atlantic; Hairdressers Journal).

But long before those aforementioned Hollywood days, determined women sought ways to color their hair, regardless of the cost. In Egypt, Greece, and Rome, for example, women dyed their hair with pigeon poop, sulphur, and quicklime. Historians report discoveries of more than 100 recipes for hair dyes in Roman ruins. (Hairdressers Journal).

While we may consider these archaic hair dyes ridiculous, even dangerous — are our modern-day hair dye chemicals any better?

The Pesky Problem of Chemical Hair Dyes

According to a study published in the International Journal of Cancer, women who dye their hair on a monthly basis DOUBLE their risk of bladder cancer. The risk increases with prolonged use of hair dyes. And, no surprise here, hairdressers who work with hair dyes professionally face an even higher risk – up to 5X the risk when working with these chemicals for a period of ten years.

In a separate study, researcher Sanna Heikkinen of the University of Helsinki and the Finnish Cancer Registry, reported a 23% increase in breast cancer for those who dye their hair on a regular basis.

Studies such as this one published in the Journal of Clinical and Aesthetic Dermatology, document that darker dye colors and increased number of exposures to hair dyes increases the risk of cancer. In addition, a link between the use of hair dyes in pregnancy and childhood malignancies in the offspring have been noted, and it is recommended that pregnant women avoid all hair coloring.

What Chemicals Are Found in Typical Hair Dyes?

There are seven chemicals found in most hair dyes that should be avoided (source: MSP Fitness) These include:

  1. Ammonia – used to open the hair’s cuticle to allow dyes to enter the hair shaft, ammonia may irritate the lungs and cause caustic burns.
  2. DMDM Hydantoin – this dangerous preservative releases formaldehyde, the longer it sits on the shelf. It may cause tissue irritation and immune system damage. Sometimes used in herbicides, floor waxes, polymers, latex paints, inks, adhesives, this chemical is dangerous when used in hair dyes.
  3. Hydrogen Peroxide – commonly used to strip away natural hair color before applying desired dye, hydrogen peroxide changes the hair structure, leaving it brittle and lacking its natural luster.
  4. Lead Acetate – a color additive for darker shade hair dyes, lead acetate has been linked to neurological problems.
  5. Para-phenylenediamine (PPD) – made from coal tar and used a dark color hair dye, its chemical makeup includes benzene, naphthalene, phenols, and aniline. PPD in combination with hydrogen peroxide is highly toxic.
  6. Parabens – widely used in hair care products, these preservatives are known to produce skin irritation and severe allergies.
  7. Resorcinol – a toxic dye known to cause scalp irritation, resorcinol is also an allergen that can negatively affect the endocrine system.

Check The Label

 These 22 hair dye chemicals are banned by the European Commission. If you see any of them on the label of your favorite hair coloring product, consider finding an alternative product. (source: European Commission Press Release)

  • 6-Methoxy-2,3-Pyridinediamine and its HCl salt
  • 2,3-Naphthalenediol
  • 2,4-Diaminodiphenylamine
  • 2,6-Bis(2-Hydroxyethoxy)-3,5-Pyridinediamine
  • 2-Methoxymethyl-p-Aminophenol
  • 4,5-Diamino-1-Methylpyrazole and its HCl salt
  • 4,5-Diamino-1-((4-Chlorophenyl)Methyl)-1H-Pyrazole Sulfate
  • 4-Chloro-2-Aminophenol
  • 4-Hydroxyindole
  • 4-Methoxytoluene-2,5-Diamine and its HCl salt
  • 5-Amino-4-Fluoro-2-Methylphenol Sulfate
  • N,N-Diethyl-m-Aminophenol
  • N,N-Dimethyl-2,6-Pyridinediamine and its HCl salt
  • N-Cyclopentyl-m-Aminophenol
  • N-(2-Methoxyethyl)-p-phenylenediamine and its HCl salt
  • 2,4-Diamino-5-methylphenetol and its HCl salt
  • 1,7-Naphthalenediol
  • 3,4-Diaminobenzoic acid
  • 2-Aminomethyl-p-aminophenol and its HCl salt
  • Solvent Red 1 (CI 12150)
  • Acid Orange 24 (CI 20170)
  • Acid Red 73 (CI 27290)


Safer Methods of Coloring One’s Hair

 If you feel you must use commercial hair dyes, authors of a study cited above recommend applying a petroleum-based ointment to the scalp before chemical hair dyes are applied. In addition, they advised reducing the duration of exposure to chemical dyes by 25% for each session.

You may not be ready to ditch the dye, but be aware that there are alternative methods of coloring your hair safely. Look for commercial non-toxic hair coloring alternatives such as Tints of Nature, Khadi’s Natural Hair Dyes, Herbatint, Madison Reed, Iroiro, and Arctic Fox.

In addition, there are several natural alternatives to harmful chemical hair dyes that you might try at home. We found these suggestions at Hairdressers Journal:

  • Blondes: Place eight chamomile teabags in a pot of boiling water that has been removed from the heat, and allow to steep for 30 minutes. Add a cup of plain yogurt and a few drops of lavender oil to the brew. Massage mixture onto clean hair, leave it in for 30 minutes, then wash it out and allow hair to dry naturally.
  • Brunettes: Brew a pot of coffee, preferably a dark, unflavored roast. After the coffee has thoroughly cooled, work the mixture through your hair. Leave it on your hair for 15 minutes before rinsing.
  • Redheads: Steep five red hibiscus teabags in boiled water for 30 minutes. After the tea has cooled, saturate your hair with it. Leave it on for about an hour before rinsing.

If you’re concerned about premature graying and want to get to the “root cause,” see Ann Louise Gittleman’s recommendations for supporting your body’s natural ability to retain your youthfulness in her article, “Beauty By Nature.”

Related: Women Who Use Hair Straightening Chemicals At Higher Risk of Uterine Cancer

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