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Ingredients in dyes may make hair curl

by Doris Penner

           Many women and a small percentage of men can relate to the euphoric feeling on leaving a hairdressing shop with a “new look” that comes from a just-applied hair colour—a return to the shining black or auburn mane one had before grey appeared to remind of creeping age, or a complete change, say from dark brown to blonde—that seems to denote a fresh chapter in life. And yet, in this day and age when chemicals in the form of preservatives, herbicides, plasticizers, colourants and solvents—added to foods, cleaning products and cosmetics—are being linked to the increase in the incidence of cancer and other minor and serious health conditions, is there anyone who has not wondered about the safety of hair dyes? Is there a valid basis to be concerned, and are you doing yourself a disservice by using hair dyes?

            To begin this discussion, it must be recognized that hair dyes along with shampoos, conditioners, hair sprays and make-up products are regulated by the Food and Drugs Act under Health Canada. By law, manufacturers cannot sell cosmetics that contain any ingredient that may cause injury when used according to the directions on the label. Ingredients must be listed and Health Canada monitors scientific literature and acts quickly if evidence surfaces that a product is harmful. A cosmetic ingredient hot list contains a list of all ingredients that are restricted for use in Canada.

Years of research

            This seems to indicate the population is protected and any anxieties about safety of hair dyes may be laid to rest. However, that is not quite the case. First of all, unless a chemical ingredient is confirmed as a carcinogen (or is toxic in some fashion) which usually takes years of research and testing, it may still be on the market. Some experts say Canada’s list of banned chemicals used in cosmetics is too narrow (Europe, for example, has at least 400 more products on the “hot list.”)

            A second problem is not all manufacturers are honest about the ingredients they list on the label. It is a formidable task for Health Canada to monitor and test every single of the thousands of beauty products in various brands found in stores across the country. Cosmetic manufacturers may ignore potent ingredients, passing them off as insignificant since they are present in miniscule amounts. However, using products day after day creates build-up. Another ploy is obscuring ingredients in beauty products by using terms on the label only a chemist can understand, or printing them in such a tiny script that one needs a magnifying glass to read them.

            Thus it is possible there could be ingredients in hair dyes that might pose a health risk, with the main concern being cancer. It should be noted that hair dyes come in three different grades: temporary, semi-permanent and permanent. It comes as no surprise that it is the latter two categories that would contain the harsher products and so be of the greatest concern. While research is constantly being conducted and some ingredients have been shown to be carcinogenic to animals, results have been conflicting and inconclusive with regards to humans.

Allergic reactions

Several after effects of using hair dyes that may be less serious than cancer but still of great concern are allergic reactions, dermatitis and hair loss. Of the 5,000 different chemicals used in hair dyes, the one often cited as worrisome is para-phenylenediame (PPD), which is used with oxidizing agents like hydrogen peroxide to create colourant molecules. This substance is known to be a sensitizer when used on the skin and a certain number of people experience adverse allergic reactions to the ingredients. PPD may cause blistering, open sores and scarring. Other chemicals in hair dyes that should raise red flags are ammonia (an irritant which is fatal in large doses), hydrogen peroxide (damaging to lungs when inhaled in large doses) and ethoxydiglycol (a solvent that may cause skin irritation).

            If you are concerned about the ingredients in regular hair dyes, you will be pleased to know there is an alternative. On the market today are hair dyes which use the minimum amount of chemicals possible to create an effective product. They may include a low level of PPDs for example, but most of the ingredients are natural and organic, including extracts of orange and grapefruit, calendula, wheat protein and green tea. This means they also provide antioxidants and vitamins.

            Marketers claim hair responds better to gentle products which means less damage to hair follicles, and colour that is as long lasting (or permanent) as the conventional product. Look for natural hair dyes at health food stores.