Beauty Products & Cancer: Is There a Link?

Cancer risks associated with hair products

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Robert Carlson, M.D

Most women use all sorts of products to boost their external beauty. Every square inch of her body may be painted, powdered, dyed, shaved, moisturized and/or polished.

Are some of these chemical menageries - like hair treatments - putting her long-term health at risk?

Some of the ingredients found in these products have been linked to cancer.

Hair dye and cancer risks

The products that make your hair turn blond or brunette, bronze or red, streaked or mottled contain thousands of chemicals - about 5,000, in fact.

Some of these chemicals do cause cancer, although the links between hair dye and cancer are currently unclear.

Of the three types of hair dyes - temporary, semi-permanent and permanent -  the latter are of the greatest concern. Semi- and permanent dyes contain chemicals called aromatic amines and phenols. When mixed with hydrogen peroxide, the resulting chemical reaction changes the color of the entire hair shaft.

Darker dyes have higher levels of these chemicals and are therefore possibly more risky to use.

Chemicals that caused cancer in animals were found in some hair dyes in the 1970s, but most of those have been removed from these products.

Unknown risks

However, scientists can't say with certainty what, if any, relationship hair dyes have with cancer today. That's because years of research on the topic have been mixed.

Some studies have found that people who use hair dyes have an increased risk of bladder and breast cancers, along with cancers of the blood and bone marrow (such as non-Hodgkin's lymphoma and leukemia). Other studies have found no such relationship.

A 2008 report of the Working Group of the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) did conclude that hair stylists and barbers face different odds, and that some of the chemicals they're exposed to in the workplace are “probably carcinogenic to humans”

In terms of the products themselves, though, the IARC has ruled that hair dyes are not classified as cancer-causing.

This is not to say that these chemicals aren't capable of causing skin changes and irritations.

To learn more about what's contained in hair dye and what you can do to protect yourself, see the Take Action section below.

Hair straightening and cancer risks

Now hair straighteners are a different story. Formaldehyde, which is a known carcinogen (cancer-causing agent) is used in products to soothe the frizz or make hair straight as a board.

Of particular concern is the Brazilian Blowout. This product has high levels of formaldehyde and actually increases the cancer risks of people who work with it regularly - such as stylists.

That's why last year the US Food and Drug Administration issued a Hazard Alert to salon owners and workers regarding the health risks associate with these products.

If you use hair straighteners containing formaldehyde, you don't need to worry so much - your cancer risks are considered low.

Take Action

So what can you do to learn more about the chemicals used in hair dyes and straighteners? Here are some strategies you may want to consider.

  • You can check out individual ingredients used in hair dyes - or anything - by referencing the National Toxicology Program, 12 Report on Carcinogens. See the link below and search this online database to learn if the ingredients are classified as carcinogens. Often you'll see the term "reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen."
  • You may want to avoid using hair dyes and straightening products that contain formaldehyde.
  • Work with your stylist to learn what's used in the products that are being applied to your hair.
  • Beware - and be aware - formaldehyde has different names, you will want to look for, including: methylene glycol and methylene oxide; formalin; paraform; formic aldehyde; methanol; oxomethane; oxymethane; and CAS Number 50-00-0.

If you're concerned about the safety of hair dyes, the FDA offers these suggestions:

  • Hold off coloring your hair until it turns gray.
  • You may want to consider using henna, or other plant-based dyes.
  • Be sure to do a patch test every time you use a hair dye.
  • Follow the directions for applying hair dye - precisely.
  • Wear gloves when you're working with hair dye.
  • Don't leave dye in your hair longer than instructed.
  • Mixing different types of dye is dangerous and could lead to harmful reactions.
  • Never dye your eyebrows and eyelashes as the practice could damage your eyes.

Take care of yourself as you take care of your hair

The bottom line from all this is that hair dyes are probably not going to impact your cancer risks. Some hair straighteners do contain a cancer-causing agent in formaldehyde.

So as with everything else in life, educate yourself and do for your hairdo what you feel is best for you.

Review Date: 
July 11, 2012