To Dye or Not to Dye—Hair Dye Basics

To Dye or Not to Dye—Hair Dye Basics

According to the U.S. Food Drug Administration (FDA) “two out of every five American women and a smaller number of men dye their hair.” But did you know that most hair dyes do not undergo any type of pre-market testing for safety? In fact, hair dye consumer complaints are among the highest complaints received by the FDA, and these complaints range from damaged hair to emergency room visits.

The FDA has no authority to ensure pre-market approval for hair dyes, and for that matter, they have no authority over any pre-market safety testing for any type of cosmetic product. However, they can act on a case-by-case basis when safety issues are reported to their office, and they can look for complaint patterns. If warranted, the FDA can also request a product’s removal from the marketplace.

In the early 1990s, after it was discovered that coal tar caused allergic reactions, hair dye manufacturer’s successfully lobbied congress to exempt coal-tar hair dyes from the adulteration provision. So, instead, manufacturer’s now provide label warnings and as long as products have the authorized warning the FDA cannot take action against a manufacturer of hair dye products.

Because people often use the same hair dye for years, over time they can develop sensitivity to the product. Unfortunately, according to the FDA, because a consumer gets use to a product they fail to follow the label directions and do not do the patch test on the elbow. As a result, consumers often experience redness, itching, burning, or some other scalp or hair reaction, but many hair dye consumers are not worried about those reactions.

It seems hair dye consumers are more worried that hair dye might cause cancer. In the past, various studies have vacillated as to whether or not hair dye causes cancer. The following information might make that issue clearer. A study by the FDA and the American Cancer Society in February 1994 involved 573,000 women and it showed a decreased risk in all fatal cancers and no risk in hematopoietic cancer, which is a cancer of the body’s blood-forming systems. However, the study did also show that, with prolonged use (over twenty years), there was a slight increase in incidences of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma and multiple myeloma.

Another separate study by the University of California at San Francisco conducted in 1998, involved 2,544 respondents and inquired about consumers experience with hair dyes. Those consumer responses were combined with other animal and epidemiologic studies, and the results published in the American Journal of Public Health. The results showed there is likely no connection between non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma and hair dyes.

That’s good new for consumers. However, remember, if you want to be safe, follow the label warning that reads one of two ways:

Caution – This product contains ingredients which may cause skin irritation on certain individuals and a preliminary test according to accompanying directions should first be made. This product must not be used for dyeing the eyelashes or eyebrows; to do may cause blindness.


Warning – Contains an ingredient that can penetrate your skin and has been determined to cause cancer in laboratory animals.

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