Advice for those who are dyeing. - (5/17/2022)

By Dr. Ron Gasbarro

Kimmy is a pharmacy technician who works with this pharmacist. As a college freshman aspiring to become a pharmacist herself, she studies hard, gets good grades, and is excellent with the people who come into the store. Kimmy is steady, predictable, and punctual. So today, when she came into work looking very different, the pharmacist almost dropped his mortar and pestle. It's her hair, the pharmacist realized. Once a deep brown, her bangs were now a light turquoise, while the rest of her shoulder-length hair was a muted pink. 

"Like it?" she asked the pharmacist. "It looks professionally done," he answered as diplomatically as he could. She laughed and said, "You know my mom owns a beauty shop, so I am pleased with how it came out." "Is it permanent?" he asked Kimmy, trying to be non-judgmental. "Ha! No, it's temporary," she said. "The colors will wash out after a couple shampoos. I'm going to a party this weekend and wanted something different." 

At his age, nothing should surprise the pharmacist. Indeed, people dyeing their hair is not new. What is new is that hair dyes are not only more temporary than in the past, but they are also safer. Note: "safer" does not automatically mean "safe." The early 1980s appears to be the pivotal period when certain dyes, specifically those containing coal tar, were scrutinized for safety. Why? Animal studies revealed that some dyes included cancer-causing chemicals such as lead acetate. Based on those findings, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) strongly advised removing these chemicals from future formulations. However, the cosmetic industry rebelled, asking for more time to research their products. Hence, all the FDA could do was put a warning label on the dyes’ packaging. Exactly 42 years later, in 2022, the risky chemicals in hair dyes were banned. Yet, the industry still had 12 months to "deplete the existing stock.” This meant that the consumer still had to follow the label, which would absolve the manufacturer from any litigation should the user suffer damages.

The results of the research were inconsistent and, thus, inconclusive. For example, dyeing your hair may or may not slightly increase the risk of breast, bladder, leukemia, lymphoma, and/or prostate cancers. So why not shut down the hair dye industry just in case? Obviously, consumer pressure would be intense. According to the National Cancer Institute, more than 33% of women over 18 and 10% of men over 40 use hair dye. But also, the FDA's ability to take legal action against coal-tar hair dyes associated with safety concerns is limited by law. So, it's not like they can throw Lady Clairol in the slammer. Therefore, the user must follow the label's directions and know the risks.
Is Kimmy at risk for hair dye-related disease? Not likely. She used a temporary dye, which covers the hair's surface but does not penetrate the hair shaft. There are also semi-permanent dyes, which do seep into the hair shaft. They usually last for 5 to 10 washings. Permanent hair dyes produce long-term chemical changes in the hair shaft. They are the most popular hair dyes because the color changes last until the hair is replaced by new growth.

More research and using better coloring agents will answer the safety question of hair dyeing. For now, the two biggest risk factors are for those who work with hair dyes, such as hairstylists and barbers, who have more exposure than those who get their hair dyed. Also, frequency could be a concern. The more often your hair is dyed, the more often you are exposed to its chemicals. The pharmacist wished Kimmy a "Happy Party." But he could not wait until Monday when she would not get so much attention from the customers because of her new, albeit temporary, look. 

Ron Gasbarro, PharmD, is a recovering pharmacist and writer-in-residence at Rx-Press.

The content contained in this article is for informational purposes only. The content is not intended to be a substitute for professional advice. Reliance on any information provided in this article is solely at your own risk.



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