PSA: Permanent Hair Dye & Straighteners Tied To Breast Cancer—What To Do Instead

December 23, 2019

From the moment I started getting grey hairs (early twenties), I found ways to eliminate them, albeit with varying degrees of success. When there were only three or four, I pulled them (I know, that’s a no-no). Then I tried various dyes: semi-permanent, which tends to blend grey away then fades after 4-6 weeks, and permanent, which definitely colors grey but requires regular root touch-ups—not to mention the potential damage to hair and annoying brassiness. I’ve also tried other, more natural methods, including henna blends and this interesting all-natural treatment. I’ve tried it all!

Lately, however, I haven’t fussed with my hair color. I’d gotten tired of dealing with the maintenance of both semi-permanent and permanent color, and somehow, a year slipped by without any color treatments. With winter break (and holiday parties in the forecast), I suddenly had the urge to color my hair (and spend 30 minutes sitting in front of the bathroom window gulping the fresh air), but I fortuitously came across some troubling news before doing so.

Recently, the National Institutes of Health found that permanent hair dye and chemical hair straighteners may increase the risk of breast cancer, especially when used regularly:

“Researchers have been studying the possible link between hair dye and cancer for a long time, but results have been inconsistent,” said Alexandra White, Ph.D., head of the NIEHS Environment and Cancer Epidemiology Group. “In our study, we see a higher breast cancer risk associated with hair dye use, and the effect is stronger in African American women, particularly those who are frequent users. “

More specifically, the study revealed that “Among African American women, using permanent dyes every five to eight weeks or more was associated with a 60% increased risk of breast cancer as compared with an 8% increased risk for white women. The research team found little to no increase in breast cancer risk for semi-permanent or temporary dye use.”

The study also examined use of chemical hair straighteners, and the researchers found that regular usage of chemical straighteners (once every five to eight weeks), increased risk of breast cancer by 30%. Chemical hair straightening is more prevalent among African American women.

I don’t have the scientific background to comprehend or comment on the insane racial disparity in the results concerning hair dye (60% vs. 8%?!), and as a white woman, I can’t even begin to relate to the struggle of facing discrimination for one’s natural hair texture and the accompanying pressure to turn to chemical straightening. Indeed, everyone’s hair journey is individual and sometimes mired in powerful notions of “beauty” shaped by patriarchy, racism, and/or ageism—but there are some things we all share—we all want to look our best (however we define that), and pursuing beauty treatments shouldn’t come at the price of our health.

What to Try Instead: Find a Balance with Your Hair

PSA: Permanent Hair Dye & Straighteners Tied To Breast Cancer—What To Do Instead

Making Peace with Your Hair Is a Work in Progress 

You may be wondering why I would bother with all the fuss (and expense) of different hair treatments to cover my handful of grey hairs, and the answer is twofold: One, I like experimenting! Two, I’ve had a hard time embracing my grays even though I know to do so would be to make the natural, healthy, and enlightened choice. I’m just not there yet. 

My personal goal is to find balance with my approach to hair. The authors of the study explain that while it’s hard to point to just one environmental factor as the cause of breast cancer—and further studies will need to be conducted—avoiding likely risk factors (like use of permanent dye and chemical straighteners) is probably a good idea.

So this means that I won’t be using permanent dye anymore, but because I’m still not crazy about my greys, I’m not going to be hard on myself about using some alternatives, whether that be henna or conventional semi-permanent color from time to time.

Expose Yourself to Natural Beauty 

Let’s be clear about something—sometimes grey hair is elegant AF. Thus far, I haven’t applied the same admiration toward my own hair, but again, it’s a work in progress. One way I’m helping myself is by seeking out more images of women with natural hair. (One lovely way to do this is follow @grombre on IG, an account dedicated to women growing out their grey!). We can also apply this approach to the natural texture of all ethnicities.

We can also educate ourselves about how to work with less invasive means to help our hair look its’s best—whether that’s a moisturizing henna treatment, hot tools (used responsibly!), deep conditioner, certain styles or cuts. By having honest conversations with our stylists (ask questions!) and friends and seeking information online, we can do a better job of working with our hair rather than against it.

Think about Why We’re Pulled Toward Certain Hair Treatments 

I’ve sat with my feelings about my greys quite a bit because I sense that my feelings are about something larger—not just a preference like a nail polish color. I think, at least in part, that my attitude toward my own greying is tied up in the fear that I will lose “value” as my appearance changes over time. While I realize that fear comes from some seriously problematic patriarchal hogwash, it’s hard to de-internalize that idea through sheer will—as it is with other deeply entrenched ideas about how we should look.  

But my hope is that being honest with myself about the reasons behind my urge to fight with my natural hair can help me strip them of some of their power. I know that my value comes from the way I treat others and what I give the world—not the color of my hair. The more we extend this kindness and truth to ourselves, the more we can extend it to others.

Like the root touch-ups of yore, this should be a regular thing if it’s to be effective.

Related: These 3 Vegan Hair Dyes Are Drop Dead Gorge–And Way Better For You

The One Change that Dramatically Improved the Health of my Hair

Best Cheap Vegan Hair Products & Tricks I’ve Found For Clean, Shiny, Healthy Tresses

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Photo: Natasha Brazil on Unsplash

Peaceful Dumpling Beauty Editor and creator of Bisou du Jour, Mary Hood Luttrell lives with her husband in Corpus Christi, Texas. Mary is a freelance writer and writing and blogging consultant. A lover of whole foods, Mary delights in learning new ways to prepare vegan dishes. Mary also enjoys reading and writing poetry, art journaling, running, and practicing yoga and ballet. Follow Mary on her blog Bisou du Jour, Instagram and Pinterest.


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