Recently an article went blazing across the internet from Fast Company with a catchy clickbait heading “A harrowing study of 46,000 women shows hair dyes are heavily associated with cancer”, nothing will scare the dye right off your head faster than that. Trouble is it isn’t that simple, nor that harrowing. Depending on the source, it is estimated around 30% of all women over the age of 18, use hair dye regularly and an estimated 12% of all women will be diagnosed with breast cancer. So should we all be ditching the dye?
Let’s Take a Look at the Actual Numbers in the Study Published in the International Journal of Cancer:
- The dye study was based on participants who were cancer-free, but were a sister to someone who has or had breast cancer.
- The dye study involved 46,709 women between age 35 and 74.
- The participants were asked a series of questions to include their hair dye use over the last 12 months.
- This did not include what ingredients were used in their dyes, only the type (permanent, semi, or temporary dyes or straighteners) and frequency of use in the last twelve months (at time of questionnaires).
- 55% of all the participants used dye or straighteners at the enrollment point; either on themselves or applied to others.
- The follow-up was about 8 years later. At that time, 2,794 breast cancers were reported, that number is 5.9817% of the 46,709 women. So roughly, 6% of women who have a sister with breast cancer and used hair permanent dye in the last 12 months had developed breast cancer during an 8-year period.
- The greatest association was in African-American women at a 45% higher risk, in white women the risk was substantially lower at 7%.
A Few More Stats to Put Things In Perspective:
- Those cancer-free sisters already have anywhere from double the chance to 6.5 times the risk of developing breast cancer in their lifetime.
- All women have a 12% chance (or 1 in 8) of developing cancer.
- Full stats state the 85% of women who are diagnosed do NOT have a first-degree relative with breast cancer.
- African-American women under the age of 45 are more likely to have breast cancer than white women.
The Bottom Line of The Data Collected in These Questionnaires:
There is a potential relationship between women who have a family history of breast cancer, especially African-American women, and the use of permanent hair dye or straighteners developing breast cancer. This number may be higher simply because an estimated 75% of African-American women dye or chemically straighten their hair. [1 & 4]
However, because this was an observational study, there is no data to prove causation. There are so many variables like social status, cultural norms, duration of usage, type of products and their ingredients, home or professional application, and this study was women who had a sister with breast cancer, that leaves a multitude of other women and men who use dye and have no family history of cancers. 
The study also asked other questions (which are not mentioned in the viral posts) related to education level, smoking, obesity, age at onset of periods and menopause, birth control use, number of pregnancies, and some of these were overlapping with using permanent dye. 
Other Studies on Hair Dye and Cancer:
Previous studies in the 1970’s found aromatic amines (which were in hair dye) to cause cancer in lab animals, those chemicals were removed from hair dye. One study found a consistent increase of bladder cancer in those who work with dyes. The results of studies involving cancers like leukemias, lymphomas, breast cancers and other types of cancers have seen inconsistent outcomes and inconclusive results. 
My Informal Poll on Dye and Cancer:
I ran my own informal poll in a Facebook group for silver hair with 10,000 members. While 10,000 members did not participate in the poll, of those that did these are the numbers.
- 452 women have never been diagnosed with any type of cancer.
- 93 women stopped dying because of cancer fears or diagnosis, or other health issues and risks.
- 52 women have been diagnosed with a cancer of some kind.
- 23 women who dyed their hair have been diagnosed with breast cancer.
- 10 women who dyed their hair have been diagnosed with skin cancer.
- 2 women who dyed their hair have been diagnosed with kidney or bladder cancer.
- 7 women have a history of breast cancer in in their family.
- 3 women were diagnosed with cancer but never dyed hair before the diagnosis.
In the comments section, it was discussed by several women that they knew hair stylists that had died of bladder, stomach, and breast cancers, and several stylists who had chemical sensitivities pop up during their careers. The women who discussed having been diagnosed with cancers of any kind and who dyed their hair had uterine, skin, breast, thyroid, colon, and kidney or bladder cancers.
The Elephant in the Room:
Saying “dye” causes cancer is like saying “cars” cause cancer…which component is it exactly that causes cancer?
There are thousands of chemicals used to make hair dye and thousands of brands of dye. Yet another variable is that straighteners were also in this study and some of the newer straighteners contain formaldehyde which does pose a cancer risk all on its own.
The fact is if you are a woman who is aging, you are at risk for breast cancer. After that and genetics, the more concerning things that put you at the highest risk for breast cancer are smoking, obesity, diet, exercise, where you live and what pollutants you are exposed to on the daily. All of the latter you have control over.
So Should You Ditch the Dye Because of Cancer Risk?
For me this proved one thing: chemicals are associated with cancer, which we already knew. This Sister Study should be a precursor to more studies that actually find correlations between the 5,000+ chemicals used in permanent dye and cancer cells. This study should be an alarming warning to manufactures, the FDA, and hair professionals that we need real information about what is being made, sold, handled and applied to our scalps for an hour or more at a time.
The Good News:
- You don’t need to be scared you are going to develop cancer just because you have used permanent dye. We need more real evidence.
- You don’t have to ditch the dye, but consider switching to semi-permanent or temporary dyes, as they did not show an increased relationship to cancer.
- Find straighteners, which contain no formaldehyde if you can’t just give it up all together. Curly hair is pretty awesome.
- Moreover, if you already ditched the dye that’s thousands of chemicals you can be glad you are no longer being exposed to once a month or more.
- At the end of the day, controlling your exposure to chemicals is always a smart move. For instance, dryer sheets emit several Volatile Organic Compounds, switch to natural alternatives and you reduce your daily exposure with just one change.
Although I’m not a scientist or a doctor, I do hope this eased the fears that a viral post without all the facts sent spiraling through the Universe. It is easy to be afraid, but education and knowledge will always ease the fears and anxiety.
Thank you for reading. Please feel free to share.
As always it is about so much more than the hair.
- “Hair dye and chemical straightener use and breast cancer risk in a large US population of black and white women”, by Eberle et al, 4 Dec 2019. https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/epdf/10.1002/ijc.32738?referrer_access_token=Hths60EJopf5rVGSgkls1E4keas67K9QMdWULTWMo8N4v3ZOmabsczOLk9UPFn8NYxbj0kxwBqSFQYWJxbtah9oioMvjgU-iBiUuRNVJCjWVTtDbFmTuvyBFS_ieBUN-u8F68Bk6q6LkOgh0PtlSFA%3D%3D.
- “Sisters of Diagnosed Women Have Higher Risk Forever”, BreastCancer.org. https://www.breastcancer.org/research-news/20080513
- “U.S. Breast Cancer Statistics”, BreastCancer.org. https://www.breastcancer.org/symptoms/understand_bc/statisticsBreastCancer.org.
- Permanent Hair Dyes, Straighteners Linked to Higher Breast Cancer Risk, BreastCancer.org. https://www.breastcancer.org/research-news/hair-dye-and-straighteners-linked-to-higher-risk
- “expert reaction to study looking at permanent hair dyes, chemical hair straighteners and risk of breast cancer”, ScienceMediaCentre.org, 4 Dec 2019, https://www.sciencemediacentre.org/expert-reaction-to-study-looking-at-permanent-hair-dyes-chemical-hair-straighteners-and-risk-of-breast-cancer/
- What Causes Cancer: Hair Dyes, Cancer.org, 5 Dec 2019,https://www.cancer.org/cancer/cancer-causes/hair-dyes.html
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