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Health Risks of Chemical Hair Dyes

By LucyVet

What Should Hair Dye Users Know About the Possible Health Risks Associated With Coloring Hair Chemically?

Over 50 million women in the US dye their hair regularly. Many more say they will once they start to turn gray, and many girls use hair dyes from an early age. However, there are risks associated with using these products. One of the main chemicals in most hair dyes was once banned in several European countries, and hair dye chemicals have been shown to have a variety of harmful effects in scientific experiments. Use of hair dye has been linked to allergic reactions, respiratory disorders and even cancer.

Read on to learn more about the real risks associated with dyeing your hair, and the alternatives to chemical hair coloring.

Hair Dyes Can Cause Allergic Reactions

Skin and other allergic reactions pose the biggest risk to hair dye users. It's difficult to say how many hair dye users suffer from allergic reactions, as most do not seek medical attention. However, there are many cases where allergic reactions to hair dyes have been severe or even fatal.

Signs of a mild reaction may only be irritation of the upper eyelids or rims of the ears, but in more severe reactions, the whole head or body may be involved.

A severe form of allergic reaction is anaphylactic shock. When this occurs, the mouth and tongue swell and the airways constrict. Anaphylaxis can be rapidly fatal, and there have been isolated cases of hair dyes causing anaphylactic shock.

Skin reactions can occur on a person's first exposure to hair dye, or can suddenly occur in a person who has been using them long-term. A patch test before every dyeing is important to help detect skin allergies, but very time dye is applied to the skin, the immune system may become sensitized, increasing the risk of future allergic reaction.

Working as a hairstylist is associated with an increased risk of skin allergies. One review found that 17-80% of stylists suffered from allergic reactions on contact with hair dye (Khumalo et al, 2006).

Hair Dyes Can Cause Asthma

Hair stylists are at risk of developing occupational asthma, both from the persulfates used in bleaches and PPD from hair dyes. Long term exposure sensitizes the airways, leading to asthma attacks on exposure to the chemicals.

A number of studies have confirmed that hair stylists have higher levels of asthma than the general population.
Are Hair Dyes Related to Development of Cancer?

Cancers develop due to a combination of many factors damaging the DNA of a cell in the body. While there is proof that hair dye chemicals do cause cancer in laboratory animals at high doses, it is still debated whether the low doses from hair dyes are sufficient to cause cancer in humans.

Many studies have been conducted to try to determine whether long-term hair dye use causes cancer, and it is still a controversial subject. Most studies have focused on a possible increased risk of bladder cancer. Some studies have found that women who had consistently used hair dye long term had higher levels, and other studies did not. Many official bodies have determined that the evidence so far is inconclusive.

However, new studies have linked hair dye use to development of a specific type of cancer, non-Hodgkin's lymphoma (Zhang et al, 2008). This study looked at groups of women suffering from this disease, and a control group. It was found that women who started using hair dye, particularly darker colors, before 1980 had an increased risk of developing the disease.

The strongest evidence that hair dyes can cause cancer in humans comes from studies of cancer rates in hairstylists. One study found that if a hairstylist had used hair dyes at work for 5 years or more, she had a three times higher risk of developing breast cancer. Other studies have consistently found that hair colorists have an increased risk of non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, multiple myeloma and leukemia.

Excessive Dyeing Damages Hair

If hair has been dyed many times, it becomes 'over-processed', which leads to brittle, dry hair that lack shine. Since hair only grows slowly (about 1.5cm/half an inch a month) longer hair can end up receiving multiple dye treatments. If other chemicals such as hair relaxers are used, the damage can be even worse, and over-processed hair easily breaks and splits.

Unfortunately, there is really no solution to hair damage from dyeing, other than to stop dyeing. If you do not want to stop, using a deep conditioner and products specifically for dyed hair can help reduce the damage and also maintain your color. Try to dye only your roots, to reduce the number of times the length of your hair is dyed. Since your hair grows from the roots, the ends are obviously the oldest part of your hair and will accumulate damage.
P-Phenylenediamine, PPD: the Chemical that causes Allergic Reactions

P-Phenylenediamine (PPD) is present in over 2/3 of chemical hair dyes, and is known to be toxic to the immune system, skin, nervous system, respiratory system, liver and kidneys. It is the most toxic chemical in hair dyes. The European Union classifies it as a toxin and irritant that is dangerous in the environment. In Canada, its use in cosmetics is restricted and it was a one time banned in France, Germany and Sweden. However, it is now legally used throughout the EU.

Allergic and Skin Reactions

PPD is a skin sensitizer, meaning that it can stimulate the immune system to cause a variety of allergic reactions. The skin may become red, blister, itch and burn on exposure of PPD. Allergic reactions may also cause breathing difficulties and can even be fatal. This is what is thought to have happened to the young women in the articles linked to above.


Laboratory experiments have shown that PPD damages the DNA of human cells. Accumulated DNA damage leads to cancer. However, it is not conclusive whether the exposure to PPD from hair dyes is enough to cause cancer in women who dye their hair, although hair stylists who color hair at work do have higher cancer levels (see below).


Breathing in PPD fumes can cause the airways to narrow, making breathing difficult. This can be a transient reaction, or can cause long-term asthma.

Severe effects from drinking PPD

Severe lung problems and deaths have been reported after accidental ingestion of PPD. Hair dyes should always be kept out children's reach to prevent accidents.

UK Effort to Ban PPD from Hair Dye

A UK lawyer, who has represented many victims of allergic reactions to hair dyes, is pushing to have PPD-containing dyes banned from sale in the United Kingdom. After the tragic death of 17-year-old Tabatha McCourt in a fit minutes after applying hair dye, Greg Almond is calling on the UK government to review the use of PPD. Almond has previously obtained out-of-court settlements for clients who suffered allergic reactions to hair dye, even after following the manufacturer's instructions for patch testing the dye on their skin first.

The Other Chemicals in Hair Dyes and Associated Risks


Resorcinol receives a rating of 8 (out of 10) for hazard at the Cosmetics Safety Database. It is classified by the European Union as harmful, irritant to eyes and skin and dangerous for the environment.

It has been shown to disrupt hormonal function in rats, causing hypothyroidism (thyroid hormone deficiency), but the levels necessary were far higher than those in hair dyes (Welsch, 2008). However, autism may be caused by babies experiencing hypothyroidism while still in the womb (Roman, 2007), and there have been cases of pregnant women losing their babies after taking resorcinol by mouth (Duran et al, 2004). Resorcinol is also a skin sensitiser (Basketter et al, 2007), although it is much less potent than PPD.


Ammonia is irritant to the skin, eyes and respiratory system, and can cause asthma and breathing difficulties. However, it is much less toxic than PPD, and only receives a rating of 3 out of 10 for toxicity at the Cosmetics Safety Database.


Sodium, potassium and ammonium sulfates are present in hair dyes and bleaches, and are used in concentrations of up to 60%. However, concentrations of only 17.5% have been shown to irritate skin, and persulfates are also toxic when the fumes are inhaled, causing asthma and lung damage (Pang and Fiume, 2001). However, the Cosmetic Ingredient Review Expert Panel has concluded that they are safe for occasional use, provided that the skin is rinsed well after.

Hydrogen Peroxide

Hydrogen peroxide is used in hair bleaches. It is corrosive, and has been banned from cosmetic use in Japan and restricted in Canada. Animal studies have shown it has toxic effects on the nervous system, respiratory and digestive systems at low doses (1974). Other studies on animals have also shown that hydrogen peroxide can damage DNA, possibly leading to cancer.

Lead acetate

This is present in some hair coloring products used for gradual darkening, and is another potentially toxic chemical.Lead has well-known damaging effects on the brain and nervous system.


This has been linked to development of cancer.

Hair Dyes Marketed as 'Natural'

Boxed, chemical hair dyes marketed as 'natural' typically do not contain resorcinol, ammonia or peroxide. However, they still contain at least some PPD, just a lower level. Lower levels are obviously better, but using these dyes does not completely remove the risk of suffering an allergic reaction or other side effect. 'Natural' hair dye manufacturers include Naturtint and Herbatint. Always look at the ingredients of any 'natural' hair dye to check out just how 'natural' it is, and check for the presence of the chemicals listed above.

If you are unsure how safe a dye is, the Cosmetics Database is a great place to check it out - there are listings for thousands of products, and every product and ingredient is given a hazard rating, from 0-10.

So, Is It Worth Using Hair Dyes?

How likely is it that you will suffer an adverse effect from your hair dye?

Hair dye chemicals have been shown to cause harmful effects in laboratory experiments, but what are the real risks to women from using hair dyes? Many of these experiments used high levels of the chemicals - only about 0.5% of the hair dye applied to the head penetrates the skin, and many other studies have shown that for this level of exposure, the data is inconclusive about how much women will be harmed.

Real risks

Skin reactions are a real risk. They commonly occur after exposure to hair dyes in real-life situations, and can be life-threatening. They are something that could happen to any woman using hair dyes.

Damage to your hair is another genuine risk. If you dye your hair long-term you should always take steps to minimize damage, such as using deep conditioners, as your hair is likely to become brittle and damaged without good care.

Severe allergic reactions, causing swelling, breathing problems and skin reactions, are another real risk. This can happen even at your first exposure to hair dyes, or if you have been dyeing your hair for a while already.

Unlikely effects

While there is a chance that you may get cancer if you use hair dyes long term, it's unlikely. For cancer to occur, there need to be multiple changes in a cell's DNA, and it's unlikely that hair dyes alone would cause cancer in a real-life (not experimental) situation. However, it is possible, and although the risk is low, some studies have found that there is a higher risk of non-Hogkin's lymphoma if you use hair dyes long-term, particularly if you started before 1980.

Real risks for hair stylists

If you are a hair stylist, you will have a much higher exposure to hair dyes than someone who just dyes their hair at home. Studies have shown that hair stylists have higher rates of skin allergies, asthma and breast cancer, so the risks for stylists are real.

So, on balance, it is every woman's choice whether or not to accept these risks and dye their hair - the chemicals are known to be toxic, but the majority of women will not suffer serious side effects. However, if you are a hair stylist, there is a real risk that you will suffer some kind of health problem due to hair dye exposure.
Minimizing the Health Risks if you Do Dye your Hair

If you are really unhappy with your hair color and want to continue or start dyeing your hair, there are some ways of minimizing the potential health risks.

Use the lightest shade possible

First, darkest color hair dyes carry the most risk, due to the types of chemicals they contain. Do you really want a very dark shade? If you are covering gray, remember that as we age, our skin tone changes, and so even if your hair was naturally very dark when you were young, that very dark shade may no longer suit you. Often, a very dark shade on an older person can make their skin look washed out, and a lighter, warmer shade would suit them better and actually make them look younger than their original dark shade. Hair colorists will be able to advise you on the best shade for your skin tone.

Dye as infrequently as possible

Second, minimize your exposure and damage to your hair by dyeing it as infrequently as possible. When you do dye, make sure you always wear the gloves provided in a home kit, and while dyeing your roots, try not to rub the dye into your scalp. Make sure your bathroom is well ventilated to reduce the dye fumes you breathe in. Maybe you could just have highlights/lowlights? These may be able to be done less frequently.

Investigate to see if there are any more natural alternatives

Finally, investigate some of the more natural, less chemical hair dyes available on the market today! Look in stores such as health foods stores (or on Amazon) for dyes with less PPD and fewer of the other ingredients listed above.

Natural Alternatives to Chemically Dyeing your Hair

There are several ways to color hair without using chemical dyes. None of these natural alternative have been shown to cause cancer or other harmful effects.

Henna for Red Hair

Henna is the powdered leaves of the plant Lawsonia inermis, and produces a red-orange dye. Henna is permanent, so only use it if you are sure you want red hair! The color that you will obtain will depend on the exact color of your hair to start off with, so it's important to always strand test. The henna color will oxidise, becoming less orange and brassy, over the first few days after coloring. Make sure that the henna you obtain is 100% (body art quality), as some henna blends can contain metals. These may cause your hair to turn green if it already has chemical dye on it! Henna powder if mixed with water or lemon juice and applied to the hair for several hours, then rinsed out.

Henna and Indigo for Black Hair

Dyeing your hair with henna, and then with indigo can be used to dye even blonde hair black, without using chemical dyes. Indigo produces a blue dye (it was used to dye jeans), but it colors hair black. It is a green powder like henna, and has been called black henna. However, it is not henna, and there is no such thing as black henna - henna will only dye your hair red. Indigo is used in the same way as henna, and using henna first helps darken the hair.

Honey to Lighten Blonde Hair

Honey can be used to lighten blonde hair, as it produces a weak peroxide when mixed with water. However, it does not damage hair, as its other constituents moisturize and protect the hair. Mix honey with water in a 1:4 ratio and apply to hair for an hour. Honey produces a very gradual effect and not dramatic lightening (it won't dye black hair blonde, just lighten hair that is already blonde or light brown), but on the positive side it won't harm either you or your hair or produce noxious fumes, and can be repeated to achieve the desired effect.

Ariticle taken from : http://lucyvet.hubpages.com/hub/hairdyedangers

Dye Techniques

  1. Rinse hair and leave it moist.
  2. Prepare the herbal hair dye by mixing the dye powder with 4 parts of warm water, i.e 50 gm sachet to mix with about 200 cc of warm water.
  3. Stir the mixture until it forms a easily applicable paste (not too thick as to make it difficult to apply or too watery that it starts streaming down the face!!)
  4. Massage the paste into the root of the hair and also apply it to the whole length of the hair (by massaging it into the root we are also nourishing the hair as the herbs are beneficial to the hair follicles.)
  5. When the hair is fully covered with the paste, put on the shower cap. This is to ensure that the moisture due to evaporation from the scalp are trapped, thus enhancing the dye efficiency.
  6. After a minimum of 1 hour preferably 2 or 3 hours, rinse the dyed hair
  7. If you do not mind the "green" smell of the herbs, rinse without shampooing but if you must use only mild shampoo.
  8. The hair will look great and peaks after 24 to 48 hours.

The Ingredients

Soft Black Colour
3. Shikakai (ACACIA CONCINNA) 10%
10. Bhring Raj (ECLIPTA ALBA) 10%

Dark Brown Colour
3. Shikakai (ACACIA CONCINNA) 10%
5. Manjishta (RUBIA CORDIFOLIA 15%
10. Bhring Raj (ECLIPTA ALBA) N/A

*Please do an allergy patch test before using. Even though this is a 100% herbal product, in rare instances, some individual may be allergic to the herbs.

How does each herbs help to protect and nourish our hair.

1. Henna -  gives an orange shade.
2. Amla - provides vitamin C to strengthen hair
3. Shikakai -  gives a luster to hair
4. Brahmi -  promotes scalp health
5. Manjishta - givea a reddish tone
6. Indigo -  gives a blue tone
7. Baheda -  gives a red brownish colour
8. Harad -  gives a blackish tone
9. Reetha - hair conditioner
10. Bhring Raj -  gives a deep blue tone


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