Is your hair care regimen leading to unintended health consequences?
According to a new study published in December 2019, the answer may be yes.
The study found that products used to dye and straighten hair may kick-start cancer in women who are already at risk. Here’s what you need to know.
Researchers at the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) – part of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) – performed this large study called the Sister Study. The study compiled a vast amount of health data from families where one sister had been diagnosed with breast cancer while the other sister had not. They tracked the health of 46,709 of these women ages 35 to 74 for an average of 8.3 years.
While previous studies confirmed that the undiagnosed sisters have an increased risk of cancer, based on genetics, this study revealed something new: Using hair dyes and straighteners increased the women’s risk of cancer.
Researchers found that the sisters who used permanent hair dye every five to eight weeks in the year prior to enrolling in the study were nine percent more likely to develop breast cancer than those who didn’t use hair dye.
I’m not surprised by these findings. A prior study of over 25,000 women implicated hair dye in the development of breast cancer.1 We’ve been urging readers for nearly 15 years to avoid these products.
At the same time, the increased risk is not quite as scary as it sounds. I’ll explain why in a moment.
Racial disparities were profound
Perhaps the most interesting finding from the new research is the revelation that race appeared to play a role in the development of cancer. The breast cancer risk was far higher among African American women in the Sister Study.
In fact, women of color had a 60 percent higher risk of developing breast cancer, compared to only an eight percent increased risk among white women.
The study also found that those using chemical hair straighteners every five to eight weeks were 30 percent more likely to develop breast cancer than those who didn’t use straighteners.
Again, there was a disparity between the increase in risk for whites compared to African American women.
It’s important to note, however, that the sample sizes were vastly different, since 75 percent of black women use straighteners, while only three percent of white women do.
How alarmed should you be?
To begin to make sense of these statistics, you need to understand how scientists report risk. First of all, not all percentages are created equal.
Relative risk means how much more likely one group is to develop a disease compared to another group (Group A vs. Group B).
Absolute risk tells you how likely you are to get a disease at all.
For example, consider the studies showing that women who consume two or more alcoholic beverages per day have a 50 percent higher risk of getting breast cancer.
Over the course of a lifetime, these heavier drinkers are 50 percent more likely than non-drinkers to get breast cancer (Group A vs. Group B). This does not mean an individual in either group has a 50 percent chance of personally developing breast cancer.
In general, women have a 12 percent risk of developing breast cancer during their life. If you increase that risk by 50 percent, it goes from 12 percent to 18 percent.
So, in this example, the increase in absolute risk is six percent – the difference between 12 percent and 18 percent.
Yes, it’s a significant risk increase. But it’s not as scary as 50 percent.
In the December 2019 study, the 60 percent increase in relative risk for blacks shouldn’t be minimized. It is significant. But the absolute risk of a new cancer diagnosis (the chance that any one individual in this group developed cancer) was still less than one percent per year.
It’s still an important finding… just not as dramatic as 60 percent makes it sound.
Chemicals of concern
Researchers in the Sister Study did not study specific ingredients.
Hair dyes can contain more than 5,000 different chemicals, some of which we already know cause mutations, disrupt the body’s endocrine system, and/or cause cancer.
One concerning ingredient in hair dyes and straighteners is formaldehyde, a known carcinogen.
Prior to the year 2000, straighteners didn’t contain formaldehyde. But around that time, hair styling treatments heavily laden with formaldehyde – such as the Brazilian keratin treatment, also known as a Brazilian Blowout – became popular.
And remember, African Americans use straighteners much more often than whites and Hispanics do. This puts them at higher risk based solely on their amount of exposure.
But that’s just scratching the surface when it comes to dye chemicals and their negative health effects.
- Ammonia is an endocrine disruptor and sticks around in the environment for a very long time.
- P-phenylenediamine is a coal-tar color derived from petroleum. It’s linked to multiple types of cancer, skin irritation, liver and blood toxicity, and more.
- Toluene is a well-established neurotoxin. It’s also linked to birth defects and allergic reactions.
- Resorcinol is linked to endocrine disruption.
- Lead acetate is a brain toxin.
- Many other chemicals are also present in hair dyes. These include DMDM hydantoin, methylisothiazolinone, and various fragrances.
Why “natural” isn’t good enough
Are you safer using “natural” hair care products?
If you could trust labels and if there was a standard definition for ‘natural,’ you might be able to separate the sheep from the goats.
Unfortunately, it’s not quite that simple.
Not only are labeling laws sketchy (with many loopholes), but the fox is guarding the henhouse. The hair care industry is allowed to regulate itself, and there’s little oversight to ensure that companies are on the up-and-up.
What’s more, salons are not even required to label.
So, nobody knows what’s actually lurking in those products – not even your hairdresser.
That means there’s no telling how hair care ingredients could affect your health.
I can’t tell you how many hairdressers I’ve known who developed terrible reactions to the products they handled all day every day.
The “Toxic 7” – absolute worst ingredients in hair products
Okay, quick… check your hair products – including your shampoo and conditioner – to see if they contain any of these “Toxic 7” ingredients.
While a few safe ingredients have long “unpronounceable” names, that’s usually the exception and not the rule.
The best standard? Don’t put anything on your skin (or scalp) that you’re not willing to eat. After all, your skin absorbs what you put on it. And the stuff you absorb bypasses your GI system’s filters.
Here are the top seven nasties to avoid:
- Mineral oil. A carcinogen. Byproduct of petroleum. Used in baby oil, moisturizers, styling gels. Linked to tumors in animal studies. It never spoils, but is it worth the risk?
- Diethanolamine (DEA), Triethanolamine (TEA), Monoethanolamine (MEA). All carcinogens. These ammonia-based compounds are used as emulsifiers and foaming agents. The IARC warns that they react with nitrites from other products to form carcinogenic compounds.
- The common name for the ingredient 1,4-dihydroxybenzene, a potential carcinogen. Damages DNA. Also decreases skin elasticity and triggers skin thinning. Banned in Europe, Japan, and Australia.
- Combines with chlorine in tap water to make chloroform, a carcinogen. Alters hormone regulation. Harmful to fish and other wildlife. Some states have banned it.
- Sodium lauryl ether sulfate (SLES) and sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS). These two create carcinogens in the presence of other chemicals, and make soap foamy and shampoo lather, but also destroy cell membranes at the same time. Your liver can’t metabolize it. It’s often contaminated with 1,4-dioxane (a manufacturing byproduct toxic to the brain, kidney, and respiratory system). The EPA calls it a probable human carcinogen. Play it safe: avoid any product containing these.
- Fragrance/parfum. An umbrella term for hundreds of chemicals that could comprise a single fragrance. Not legally required to be listed, since they’re deemed “trade secrets.” Many fragrances include phthalates, which are linked to reproductive disorders (both male and female), endocrine disruption, allergies, asthma, and cancer.
- Parabens (methylparaben, isobutylparaben, propylaparaben). Believed to be linked to endocrine disruption and breast cancer. They compete with estrogen for receptor sites, toppling hormonal balance.
Don’t you deserve better?
The good news is that you can get it.
Embrace the good news
Ditching harmful chemicals doesn’t mean you’re stuck with inferior products that don’t work. In years past, that may have been the case…but not anymore. More than ever, you have choices. Non-toxic, safe ones.
And if the sheer number of toxins in hair products has you feeling overwhelmed, take heart in this…
A study of teenage girls showed that after a mere three days of using products without hormone-disrupting chemicals, internal levels of toxic chemicals nosedived by up to 45 percent.2
Which, all things considered, is an incredible return on a small investment in your health.
Another consideration: It’s unlikely that any single factor defines your cancer risk.
The chemical makeup of your hair products is only one of many possible cancer risk factors, although it can be significant over the course of a lifetime.
That’s a compelling reason to switch to safer products – like those certified by MADE SAFE, which are 100% free of endocrine disruptors, carcinogens, parabens, SLS, SLES, phthalates, synthetic fragrances, GMOs, and animal cruelty.3 These include brands such as Hairprint or Radico. (I have no relationship to these companies.)
But while you’re ditching those toxin-filled hair products, don’t ignore other important cancer risk factors that you also have control over – like eating too many calories or getting too little exercise.
Together they could make a much bigger difference than you know.