Can Hair Color Cause Cancer?


Some beauty products could contain harmful ingredients. For the person with cancer, it’s important to know which options are the safest.

This week, a study in the International Journal of Cancer caught my eye. It found that women who used permanent hair dye or used chemical straighteners on their hair had a higher risk of developing breast cancer. According to the data, white women who used permanent hair dye had a 7% higher risk of developing breast cancer while black women who used either permanent hair color or straighteners had a 45% higher risk.

As I read the report, I cringed. I'd colored my hair for over 40 years. Could that have been what caused my cancer? I’d probably never know for sure but the information I was reading made me wonder.

At the age of 15, disappointed with mousy brown hair, I’d purchased a box of hair color. Unfamiliar with hair coloring, I was unsure which product to buy. There were many choices including temporary, demi permanent, semi-permanent, and permanent. Wanting the change to take effect immediately and be lasting, I chose the latter.

The photo on the box promised a beautiful auburn shade. I was excited. Mother and grandmother chided me when they found out my plan. "You shouldn’t try to change what God gave you," they said, "And, you’ll probably end up with cancer." I laughed at their remarks.

The hair coloring process wasn’t rocket science. The directions said all I had to do was mix the tube of hair color with a bottle of developer, pour it into a squeeze bottle, and squirt it all over my head making sure to saturate every hair. Then, I waited the required amount of time, washed the product away, dried my hair, and voilà! I was a new person, at least on the outside.

That first experience with hair color went so well, I began changing my hair color every few months. I was a beautiful red head one month, a daring blonde the next, and every shade in between throughout the year. It was a fun, inexpensive way of expressing myself.

But as the years rolled on, I began noticing changes that weren’t good. My once luscious locks were now beginning to split and break. A hair dresser explained I’d over processed my hair and I needed to slow down on the coloring. After her advice, I went from every other month to only once or twice a year. But still I opted for permanent hair color, wanting the color to last.

In 2014, when I was diagnosed with stage 2B invasive ductal carcinoma breast cancer, I did my best to figure out what I’d done to cause the disease. Wracking my brain, I tried to remember every unhealthy thing I’d ever done. There were too many to count, but as I thought back over my lifetime, I remembered my grandmother’s warning: "Coloring your hair can cause cancer."

But did it?

According to an article in The Atlantic, back in 1979, the FDA recommended that hair dye manufacturers place a warning label on their products about 4-MMPD (4-methoxy-m-phenylenediamine), an ingredient that showed carcinogenic activity in lab rats. While manufacturers eventually removed this ingredient from their products, I wish I’d known this many years ago. If I’d been informed, I would have chosen temporary or semi-permanent hair color instead of opting for the more permanent solution.

Thankfully, after learning I had breast cancer, I stopped coloring my hair. The first few years without coloring were difficult. As the first few strands of gray began popping through, I was very discouraged, but now that I have come to terms with my natural hair color, I’ve been pleasantly surprised to find the change in hair color delightful. As more and more hairs have turned gray, my hair has taken on a unique glow I could never have achieved though store bought products.

I am glad that researchers are paying close attention to products that may or may not cause cancer. The better-informed consumers become, the wiser our choices. And though the information regarding permanent color and straightening products looks ominous, women can still color or straighten their hair. It will just take a little more planning to find the best product.

For example, those wishing to color their hair can find many plant-based natural products, such as henna. Although not a permanent solution, henna provides a safe alternative to chemical-based products. For straightening the hair, flat irons use heat to provide a temporary way of straightening the hair.

Whether one has hair they wish to change or no hair at all, it’s important to remember beauty comes from within. We are all unique and we are all beautiful. In the words of Francis Bacon, “There is no excellent beauty that hath not some strangeness in the proportion."

Recent Videos
Image of a woman wearing a red tank top.
Image of Annie Bond.
Image of a man with rectangular glasses and short dark hair.
Image of a woman with long dark hair.
Image of Kristen Dahlgren at Extraordinary Healer.
Image of a woman with short blonde hair wearing a white blazer.
Image of a woman with black hair.
Image of a woman with brown shoulder-length hair in front of a gray background that says CURE.
Sue Friedman in an interview with CURE
Related Content