Many graying baby boomers find themselves lingering in the hair dye
aisles of drugstores, wistfully eyeing boxes displaying the colors
their hair once was.
Members of the 40-plus generation are not the only ones who change
their hair color. The Cosmetic, Toiletry, and Fragrance
Association estimates that close to two out of every five American
women and a smaller number of men dye their hair.
The decision to change hair color has recently become more
complicated because some recent studies have linked hair coloring
with an increased risk of contracting certain cancers. To make
matters more confusing other studies do not support those findings.
Most hair dyes also don't have to go through pre-market testing
for safety that other cosmetic color additives do before hitting
store shelves. Consumers are often on their own consequently, when
deciding whether hair dyes are safe.
FDA is responsible for overseeing the safety of cosmetics sold in
this country and can prohibit the sale of any cosmetics found
harmful--except most hair dyes. Although the adulteration provision
of the Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act enables FDA to seek removal of
a cosmetic from the market if it is shown to be harmful under
conditions of use, hair coloring made from coal-tar were given special
exemption from bans when the act was passed in 1938.
The main ingredient in the coal-tar hair dyes manufactured at the
time prompted an allergic reaction in some susceptible individuals.
Fearing FDA would ban the sale of hair dyes because some users
might develop a rash or have other allergic reactions, the industry
successfully lobbied before the act passed to get coal-tar hair
dyes exempted from the adulteration provision. Manufacturers were
required, however, to include a warning in the labels that the
products can cause skin irritation in certain allergic individuals.
Most hair dyes in use today derive their ingredients from petroleum
sources, but have been considered coal-tar dyes by FDA because they
contain some of the same compounds found in these older dyes.
CANCER IN ANIMALS
In 1978, FDA proposed to require a warning on the labels of hair
dyes containing the compounds 4-methoxy-m-phenylenediamine (4MMPD)
or 4-methoxy-m-phenylenediamine sulfate (4MMPD sulfate), two coal-
tar ingredients. This followed findings by researchers at the
National Cancer Institute in Bethesda, MD., that rodents fed either
of the chemicals were more likely to develop cancer than animals
not fed the substances.
The researchers put the compounds in the animals' feed rather than
on the animals' skin because they were trying to assess the effects of
hair dye ingredients inside the body. (Other studies have shown
that a small percentage of hair dye is absorbed from the scalp and
passed into the bloodstream where it can travel to other organs and
tissues.) To detect a cancer-causing effect of the compounds in a
short period in a limited number of animals researchers fed the
animals large doses of the hair dye ingredients.
Some researchers say that extrapolating results from ingested hair
dye studies to absorbed hair dye use cannot accurately assess
cancer risk because the compounds being tested are altered or are
absorbed differently in the gut than they are when applied to the
scalp. Moreover, tests of individual hair dye ingredients don't
measure the health hazards of the highly reactive compounds that
are formed when the various ingredients in a specific hair dye are
mixed together and applied to hair.
In other studies, when investigators painted 4MMPD on the skin of
rodents, there was no evidence that the compounds caused cancer in
the animals. But critics claim that not enough of the chemical
penetrates the skin from the small areas on which it's applied to
accurately assess the compound's ability to prompt cancers in a
limited number of animals.
After FDA adopted the requirement of a warning about 4MMPD and
4MMPD sulfate, manufacturers stopped using the chemicals in their
hair dyes. In addition, the hair dye industry has stopped using
several other ingredients found to cause cancer in animals. But
some of the cancer-causing compounds have been replaced by
similarly structured chemicals. However, some scientists feel that
the similar structure of these ingredients makes it likely that
their cancer-causing potential won't differ much from the chemicals
they're replacing. The agency continues to monitor the situation
and review studies as they are completed.
CANCER IN PEOPLE
Several studies have tried to pinpoint the risk of various cancers
to hair dye users by calculating the difference in frequency of
cancer in people who color their hair and those who don't.
Some of these studies found an increased risk of cancer associated
with hair dye use, but failed to consider the effects of other
cancer-causing agents, such as cigarette smoke when comparing the
two groups. In other studies the numbers of people included were
too small to lend much statistical credence to the findings.
To minimize the chance of allergic reactions, before dyeing your
hair, test the product by dabbing a bit behind your ear. Don't
wash it off for two days. If itching, burning, redness, or rash
occur, don't use the product.
Several studies found no risk of cancer. Few studies looked at
long-term use of hair dyes (greater than 20 years).
The findings so far are inconclusive, to chemist John Bailey,
Ph.D., Director of FDA's colors and cosmetics program. "The studies
raise some questions about the safety of hair dyes," he says, "but
at this point there's no basis for us to say that hair dyes pose a
definitive risk of cancer. In the final analysis, consumers will
need to consider the lack of demonstrated safety when they choose
to use hair dyes."
HAIR DYE PRECAUTIONS
The less hair dye used over a lifetime, the less likely a person
will be exposed to enough dye to cause cancer, according to Bailey.
"My personal recommendation is that consumers use good judgment and
exercise moderation," he says. "You may reduce the risk of cancer
by exposing yourself to less hair dye--you probably shouldn't change
your hair color every week, for example." People can also reduce
their risk by delaying dyeing their hair until later in life when
it starts to turn gray, he adds.
Consumers might also want to consider using henna, which is largely
plant-derived, or hair dyes that are lead acetate-based. These
colorings don't fall into the coal-tar dye category and therefore
any additive ingredients they contain have been tested for safety
before marketing, in accordance with FDA requirements. Henna
products on the market can give a range of colors, from dark brown
through various reddish-brown and lighter red to reddish-blond
shades. They cannot, however, lighten hair. Lead acetate dyes
gradually darken hair and are commonly used in progressive type
hair colorings, such as those advertised as being for men. None of
these colors may be used on eye-lashes or eyebrows.
People who dye their hair should follow these safety precautions:
- Don't leave the dye on your head any longer than necessary.
- Rinse your scalp thoroughly with water after use.
- Wear gloves when applying hair dye.
- Carefully follow the directions in the hair dye package.
- Never mix different hair dye products, because you can induce
potentially harmful reactions (if not an unappealing hair color).
Be sure to do a patch test for allergic reactions before applying
the dye to your hair. Almost all hair dye products include
instructions for conducting a patch test, and it's important to
perform the test each time you dye your hair. (Salons should also
perform the patch test before dyeing the hair of their patrons.)
To test, put a dab of hair dye behind your ear, and don't wash it
off for two days. If no itching, burning, redness, or other signs
of allergic reaction develop at the test spot during this time, you
can be relatively sure that you won't develop a reaction to the dye
applied to your hair. If you do react to the patch test do the
same test with different brands or colors until you find one to
which you're not allergic.
(Updated information on Lead Acetate
in Hair Dye Products.)
Never dye your eyebrows or eyelashes. An allergic reaction to dye
could prompt swelling, inflammation and susceptibility to infection
in the eye area. These reactions can severely harm the eye and
even cause blindness. (Inadvertently spilling dye into eye could
also cause permanent damage.) FDA prohibits the use of hair dyes
for eyelash and eyebrow tinting or dyeing even in beauty salons or
Researchers continue to study the cancer-causing potential of hair
dye ingredients, and FDA continues to keep abreast of such
findings. Until definitive evidence come in consumers may want to
proceed with caution when selecting a hair dye.
Consumers considering changing their hair color have a choice of
four main types of coloring agents to use. What distinguishes them
is how long they last and how they color hair. Coal-tar
ingredients are found in some products in all categories except
Temporary hair colors are applied in the form of rinses, gels,
mousses, and sprays. These products merely sit on the surface of
the hair and are usually washed out with the next shampoo although
some may last two to three washings. If the hair gets wet, during
a rainstorm for example, the color can run from the hair onto
clothing or the face.
Semi-permanent dyes penetrate into the hair shaft and do not rinse
off with water like temporary colorings. They do wash out of the
hair, however, after about five to ten shampoos. Semi-permanent
dyes come in liquid, gel or aerosol foam forms. After applying the
product to the hair the user waits 20 to 40 minutes before working
it in like a shampoo and then thoroughly rinsing with water.
Permanent dyes require a bit more work, pay-off is hair color that
lasts until the new hair--"roots"--grows in. Because permanent dyes
contain hydrogen peroxide, they cover gray hair more effectively
and can be used to lighten hair color, unlike other dyes.
To apply permanent dyes the user mixes together a hydrogen peroxide
liquid with another liquid, works the mixture into the hair, and
after about a half an hour rinses the dye out with water. Permanent
dyes not only penetrate deeply into the hair shaft, but get locked
within it due to a series of chemical reactions that occur while
the dye is applied. Consequently, permanent dyes can't be washed
out with shampoo.
A fourth type of hair dye is known as a gradual or progressive dye.
This dye, in the form of a rinse, slightly darkens hair by binding
to compounds on the hair's surface. Gradual dyes are usually
applied daily until a dark enough shade is achieved, after which it
may be used less often to maintain the color. Unlike temporary
dyes, gradual dyes don't wash off readily or run when the hair gets wet.
Compounds suspected of causing cancer are found in temporary,
semi-permanent and permanent dyes.
The attempt to achieve a socially determined level of cosmetic
perfection is not limited to changing hair color. Women who want
their eyes to be enhanced by eyeliner, but don't have the time to
put it on everyday or are allergic to make-up are having permanent
eyeliner tattooed onto their eyelids.
Introduced to this country from the Orient more than 10 years ago,
permanent eyelining is now offered in many beauty salons. Using
disposable needles, pigment is implanted into the skin at the base
of the upper or lower eyelashes. The pigments used are derived
from vegetable products. A local anesthetic is often given to
relieve pain during the tattooing, which takes from 20 minutes to
an hour. Some swelling may follow the procedure. Scabs that form
in the treated area fall off within a week.
But "we can't vouch for the safety of permanent eyelining," points
out chemist John Bailey, Ph.D., Director of FDA's colors and
cosmetics program, because the procedure hasn't undergone any
formal safety testing. FDA is currently considering requiring
safety testing for tattooed eyeliner. If such testing finds
permanent eyelining unsafe, FDA could ban the procedure because it
uses colors that are under the agency's jurisdiction.
Although FDA has received no reports that this permanent make-up
causes harm there's concern that tattooed eyelining could induce an
allergic reaction that might permanently damage the eyes and
eyelids. If such a reaction did occur, it would be difficult to
treat, and surgery might be required to remove the pigment in the
tattoo. Such surgery might harm the eye or cause unsightly scarring.
"There's a misperception on the part of the public that tattooed
eyelining is a risk-free procedure," says Bailey.