Covering your gray could increase your breast cancer risk

I’m 63, and over the past five years or so, I’ve gone from “just a little gray” to “mostly gray.”

For a while, I was spending money on over-the-counter hair dyes that covered my gray. Not being bold enough to change my hair color permanently, I went for the stuff that lasted 24 weeks and had to be redone.

Now, I’m really glad that I was that much of a “chicken” about it.

With a mother who’s had breast cancer, I sure don’t need to increase my risk anymore. After reading this, maybe you’ll decide not to take the risk, either…

Dyes and straighteners linked to breast cancer

Research results published this month in the International Journal of Cancer demonstrated that women, and black women, in particular, increase their risk of breast cancer when they use dyes and hair straighteners.

The new study tracked 46,700 women who had taken part in the Sister Study, which spent six years tracking the health of women whose sisters had breast cancer.

Of the women in the newly published study, more than half said they had used permanent hair dyes in the year before joining the study, and about ten percent said they’d used chemical straighteners.

These women had a greater chance of being among the 28,000 who ultimately developed breast cancer. And, the chances were even higher if they were black.

Using permanent hair dye was associated with a 9 percent higher risk of developing breast cancer, compared to women who did not use hair dye at all. But black women who used hair dye had a 45 percent higher risk of breast cancer than non-users.

And, more black women than white women reported using straighteners, which were associated with an 18 percent higher risk of breast cancer.

This isn’t the first time that hair dyes have been suspected of causing cancer.

As early as 1979, a study was published that linked the two. But the results were thought to be inconclusive. Now, with a nationwide pool of subjects and a long-term study, the correlation seems amply clear.

The question is: does it matter whether it’s 100 percent proven that hair dyes cause cancer? Is it a risk you’re willing to take?

The FDA can’t protect you

The FDA does not approve each ingredient used in a hair dye before it goes to market. It’s up to the manufacturer to include cautions and warnings on their packaging.

If cosmetics (including hair dyes) or their ingredients are found to be unsafe, the FDA can request that the company recall the product. It cannot require a recall.

Kind of like a guard dog that’s tied to a post, the FDA can only go so far to protect you.

If you’re concerned about cancer risk from hair dyes, it’s up to you to decide whether the price of colored hair is worth the risk. At the very least, follow the cautions and warnings on the package carefully.

Dr. William Gradisher, director of Breast Medical Oncology at the Robert H. Lurie Comprehensive Cancer Center at Northwestern University, has this to say: “We don’t want to dismiss these results, but one has to be cautious about overinterpreting them.”

Personally, Dr. Gradisher, I would rather risk over-reacting and keep my grays and my healthy breasts.

With a little caution, however, you may be able to cover those grays if it means that much to you… Good Housekeeping recently listed several safer hair dye options (though you still won’t be “home free!”) in a recent report, including Aveda Full Spectrum Permanent Pure Tone Hair Color (4 percent of the ingredients are of synthetic content which are the colorants, dyes and preservatives), Madison Reed Radiant Hair Color Kit, Manic Panic Semi-Permanent Haircolor, and Clairol Natural Instincts Semi-Permanent Hair Color.

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  1. Permanent Hair Dyes and Chemical Straighteners May Be Linked to Breast Cancer, Study Says — Time
  2. A case-control study of hair dye use and breast cancerJournal of the National Cancer Institute
  3. Hair dye and chemical straightener use and breast cancer risk in a large US population of black and white womenInternational Journal of Cancer
  4. What Causes Cancer?: Hair Dyes — American Cancer Society
  5. Breast Cancer and Hair Dye: Here’s What You Need to Know — Healthline
Joyce Hollman

By Joyce Hollman

Joyce Hollman is a writer based in Kennebunk, Maine, specializing in the medical/healthcare and natural/alternative health space. Health challenges of her own led Joyce on a journey to discover ways to feel better through organic living, utilizing natural health strategies. Now, practicing yoga and meditation, and working towards living in a chemical-free home, her experiences make her the perfect conduit to help others live and feel better naturally.