A recent study conducted by a London-based surgeon has attracted a lot of attention in the medical community, and caused alarm amongst anyone who has put a tint in their hair. According to the study, frequent hair-dyeing has been linked to an increased risk of developing breast cancer – with an estimated 14 percent rise in the rates of contracting it.
The study, conducted by Professor Kefah Mokbel of the Princess Grace Hospital in Marylebone, advises that women dye their hair no more than two to five times a year – and also recommends using as many natural hair-dye products on their hair as possible, including henna, beetroot or rose hip.
“What I find concerning is the fact that the industry recommends women should dye their hair every four to six weeks,” Professor Mokbel pointed out. “Although further work is required to confirm our results, our findings suggest that exposure to hair dyes may contribute to breast cancer risk.”
Could hair dyes really cause cancer?
The short answer is: it’s complicated. Over 5,000 different chemicals have been used in hair dye products, some of which have been reported to cause cancer in animals (and subsequently eliminated from use). A combination of the huge array of ingredients, the constant changing of those ingredients in hair dye products and the large proportion of people – both male and female – who regularly dye their hair has caused no end of confusion for scientists looking for a link.
However, there have been studies that have drawn a link between hair product chemicals and an increased risk in cancer. A 2007 study claimed to detect an increased risk of bladder cancer in hairdressers and barbers, while a report from the International Agency for Research on Cancer concluded that some of the chemicals these workers are exposed to occupationally are “probably carcinogenic to humans”. Furthermore, some studies have claimed there is a link between personal use of hair dyes and certain blood and bone marrow cancers, while others have denied that such a link exists.
While it is not known whether current hair dye products can cause cancer, the sheer numbers of people around the world that regularly use these products mean that any increase in risk – however small – would have a sizeable public health impact.
What can I do to reduce the risk?
It’s worth remembering that Professor Mokbel took great pains to make clear that the link is merely a correlation. “The positive association between the use of hair dyes and breast cancer risk does not represent evidence of a cause-effect relationship,” he wrote.
He also spelled out the following opinions on social media:
- Women are advised to reduce exposure to synthetic hair dyes to 2-6 times per year and undergo regular breast screening from the age of 40
- It would be preferable to choose hair dyes that contain the minimum concentration of aromatic amines such as PPD (less than 2%)
- It is reasonable to assume that hair dyes that consist of natural herbal ingredients such as rose hip and rhubarb are safe
- Further research is required to clarify the relationship between hair dyes and breast cancer risk in order to better inform women
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