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Whoops! If You Color Your Hair, You Need to Read This

We’re almost afraid to ask, but what’s hair color doing to our health? Diane MacEachern talks to the author of an important new book on the subject.

For 25 years Ronnie Citron-Fink covered the “skunk stripe” along her part. Then one day, she had an epiphany of sorts. She started wondering about the dangers of hair dye and began an investigation, even though part of her didn’t want to know if the chemicals she’d used so often were toxic. “Hair dye was the magic elixir that made me feel youthful,” she confesses in her book, True Roots: What Quitting Hair Dye Taught Me About Health and Beauty.

“Ditching the dye would mean confronting strongly held cultural beliefs … some so ingrained, I was barely aware of them: about beauty, choice, aging, and femininity. It would also mean flouting fashion and beauty gurus, the media, decades of powerful and seductive advertising, my girlfriends, even the expectations of the men in my life.”

Yet once she decided to challenge those expectations, there was no turning back. In a book that ranges from the myths the 70 billion dollar hair and beauty business perpetuates to how the Food and Drug Administration doesn’t regulate one of the most personal care products women use to her newfound freedom as a true natural beauty, Citron-Fink will help you answer the question, “Should I continue to dye my hair or not?”

Here we talk with Citron-Fink.

The Revelation

Why did you decide to go gray?

Three reasons: the upkeep, the cost, and the chemicals. I started coloring my hair in my early 30s to cover gray strands that seemed to multiply daily. I dyed my hair dark, dark brown, almost black, the color closest to my original hair color. But over the years, the gray hairs overtook the dark. I needed to color more and more often. Coloring had become both labor intensive and expensive. Nevertheless, I kept up this whack-a-mole hair routine because I worried my vanity would take a hit, that I would look old with gray hair. The tipping point came when I began to work deeply in the environmental health field and started to question the health of personal care products, like hair dye. It was particularly unnerving to learn that most of the products I was using were untested and unregulated.

Read More: Switch to Clean Beauty Products and Ditch the Lead and Mercury

I’ve wondered about the danger of hair dye, since I color my own hair. What did you find out while you were researching your book? What would surprise people to know about hair dye and human health?

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ National Toxicology Program (NTP) classifies some chemicals in hair dye as “reasonably anticipated to be human carcinogens.” The U.S. National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI), part of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), cites hair dye as a major risk factor for certain types of cancer.  What alarmed me was that women who used permanent hair dyes at least once a month had twice the risk of certain types of cancers compared to non-dyers.

You mentioned in your book that you developed allergies a few years after starting to use hair dye. Have the allergies abated at all since you stopped dying?

Yes, but it’s difficult to determine whether or not it was from my intensive hair dyeing routine or multiple daily exposures from the cocktail of known and mystery ingredients in my other personal care products. Since we don’t have systems to test what happens when individual chemicals interact with other chemicals as they are absorbed into our bloodstreams, it’s often hard to pinpoint what ingredient triggers an allergy.

The Dangers of Hair Dye

Is there any other evidence that there could be a link between hair dyes and allergies?

The most common allergic reaction to hair dye generally comes from a chemical called PPD (para-phenylenediamine). PPD and its cousin PTD are found in most commercially produced hair dyes. According to the National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI), part of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), PPD allergy can cause severe reactions. Darker hair dye shades contain higher concentrations of PPD. NCBI recommends doing a patch test and avoiding contact with permanent and semi-permanent hair dyes if there’s any indication that you may be allergic to PPD.

When someone buys nail polish, they can choose brands that skip the five most toxic chemical ingredients, like toluene and formaldehyde. Can someone choose hair dye similarly? I like the point you make in your book about “natural” or “organic” being used to greenwash hair dye!

If you’re not ready to break up with hair color, it’s important to read ingredient labels carefully—just because it says organic or claims to be natural, doesn’t mean it is. Some coloring products may mix natural ingredients with chemical preservatives and other chemical dyes. MADE SAFE has a nifty graphic (below) that includes these chemicals to avoid: PPD, resorcinol, lead acetate, and toluene.

Do the potential dangers of hair dye come mostly from applying them directly to the skin? As opposed to inhaling toxic fragrances (which is a problem with cleaning products)?

A toxic brew of chemicals has been found in the air of hair salons. The majority of the studies have been done on hairdressers’ health. Studies have measured decreased lung function in hairdressers, and they were found to have higher risks of developing asthma. Also, cancer-causing formaldehyde can be released from straightening products when hair straighteners and flat iron sprays are used with high heat.

The International Agency for Research on Cancer has found that “occupational exposures as a hairdresser or barber are probably carcinogenic to humans.”

The Pregnancy Issue

If a woman is pregnant, should she not dye her hair?

There’s conflicting advice:

The American Cancer Society (ACA) classifies some chemicals that are, or were, used in hair dyes as “reasonably anticipated to be human carcinogens.”   The American Pregnancy Association says the research is limited, but the existing research indicates the “chemicals found in both semi-permanent and permanent dyes are not highly toxic and are safe.”

I find this last statement problematic because it doesn’t really give hair dyeing during pregnancy a green light. It leaves it up to interpretation: the “research is limited.” Then it states hair dye is “not highly toxic,” leaving the door open for the pregnant woman to beware.

When Jackie Kennedy died of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, many pointed to several studies that found dark hair dye increased the risk of the disease.

Also, there’s a huge issue with regulating hair dye (and cosmetics, in general), as the FDA does not pre-approve products before they land on store shelves. So it is the responsibility of product manufacturers to decide whether or not their products are safe.

Here’s what a pregnant woman should ask: Is it worth the risk to dye my hair if there hasn’t been enough research into its safety, if it’s toxic, but maybe not highly toxic, and if it is regulated by the industry that aims to make a buck from selling the products?

I’ve wondered if there’s any potential link between brain cancer and hair dyes, since we’re applying dye directly above our brains! Any idea about this?

Studies have looked most closely at the risks of blood cancers (leukemias and lymphomas) and bladder cancer. When Jackie Kennedy died of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, many pointed to several studies that found dark hair dye increased the risk of the disease. In fact, for months after her death, in May 1994, Manhattan salons saw a dip in clients coloring their hair in dark shades. It was also rumored that Elizabeth Taylor’s brain tumor was caused by her continuous use of dark hair dye.

Read More: The Ugly Plastic Story Behind Your Beauty Products

Salon Workers At Risk

You make a strong case that dyeing hair in a salon is really toxic to salon workers. We can’t wait for legislation to pass to clean up the chemicals in products like hair dye. But if we don’t get salon owners clamoring for cleaner, safer products, this will be a pretty hard row to hoe. I know salon workers themselves are organizing to protect themselves, and of course, people can skip salons and color at home. What are your other top two or three suggestions for pressuring manufacturers to get the worst chemicals out of hair dye?

Consumers are powerful. The hair industry depends on consumers to buy their stuff. When we boycott toxic products, manufacturers tend to respond by reformulating, often with safer alternative ingredients, sometimes not.

The FDA needs to hear from consumers about adverse reactions to hair dyeing products. The agency wants to know because they need official reports in order to take action or to do further investigations.

We must raise our voices and demand our lawmakers not to continue to allow women to be guinea pigs for the chemical industry. They must legislate to make our products safer by testing our personal care products before they land on the shelves. Join an organization like Women’s Voices for the Earth, which works to ensure products are safe, toxic-free, accessible, and affordable to everyone.

Women’s Voices for the Earth works for the rights of salon workers and the public. Image: Women’s Voices for the Earth/Facebook

Do you know how many women are choosing to go gray instead of dealing with the dye beast, and how the “natural dye” market compares to the regular dye market? I’m sure the natural dye market is a lot smaller, but perhaps it’s growing.

When we boycott toxic products, manufacturers tend to respond by reformulating.

I don’t have a statistic, but more and more women are choosing to transition to gray and go gray from the get-go. Gray hair is still equated with aging. While men with gray hair are lauded as silver foxes and distinguished gentlemen, women continue to get messages—overt and subliminal—to cover up with hair dye. Ageism and sexism intersect powerfully when it comes to ingrained beauty ideals. Fortunately, women—from celebrities like Salma Hayek to online communities of “silver sisters”—are subverting these beauty standards and discovering the power in going gray.

Can you say more about the power of going gray?

I think it’s powerful to feel comfortable in your own skin. If that means letting your hair go gray, then do it. If not, it won’t seem like much of a power move to feel self-conscious. For me, it’s been immensely freeing, and it’s made me feel stronger to know that I’m also protecting my health by lessening the body burden, or body pollution, from known and unknown harmful ingredients in hair dye.


Diane MacEachern is an award-winning entrepreneur and prominent green expert who founded Big Green Purse to inspire women to use their consumer clout to protect the planet and themselves.

A version of this article was originally published in April 2019.

By Diane MacEachern


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