Many people use hair dyes, which can contain different types of chemicals. Studies have looked at hair dyes as a possible risk factor for various types of cancer. Here is what the research shows so that you can make choices that are comfortable for you.
Hair dyes vary greatly in their chemical make-up. There are 3 main types of hair dyes:
Most of the concern about cancer risk has been with the semi-permanent and permanent dyes. Because darker dyes have more of some chemicals that may cause cancer, these products are of greatest potential concern.
When people dye their hair or have it dyed, some chemicals in the hair dyes can be absorbed in small amounts through the skin or inhaled from fumes in the air.
People who work around hair dyes regularly as part of their jobs, such as hairdressers, stylists, and barbers, are likely to be exposed more than people who just dye their hair on occasion. Many of the concerns about hair dyes possibly causing cancer have focused on people who work with them.
Researchers have been studying a possible link between hair dye use and cancer for many years. Studies have looked most closely at the risks of blood cancers (leukemias and lymphomas), bladder cancer, and breast cancer.
Researchers use 2 main types of studies to try to figure out if a substance can cause cancer. A substance that causes cancer or helps cancer grow is called a carcinogen.
In most cases neither type of study provides enough evidence on its own, so researchers usually look at both human and lab-based studies when trying to figure out if something might cause cancer.
Studying hair dyes can be hard because not all hair dyes are the same – they can contain any of thousands of different chemicals. On top of this, the ingredients in hair dyes have changed over time. Early hair dyes contained chemicals, including some aromatic amines, which were found in the late 1970s to cause cancer in lab animals, so hair dye manufacturers changed some of them in their products. Studying exposure to hair dyes from decades ago may not be the same as studying current exposures. In fact, many studies classify personal hair dye use based on whether it took place before or after 1980.
Some of the ingredients used in hair dyes (including certain aromatic amines) have been shown to cause cancer in lab animals, usually when the animals were given large amounts of the dyes over a long period of time. Although studies have shown that some of the dye applied to an animal’s skin is absorbed into the bloodstream, most have not found a link between skin application and cancer risk.
It’s not clear how these results might relate to people’s use of hair dyes.
Most of the studies looking at whether hair dye products increase the risk of cancer have focused on certain cancers such as bladder cancer, non-Hodgkin lymphoma, leukemia, and breast cancer. These studies have looked at 2 groups of people:
Bladder cancer: Most studies of people exposed to hair dyes at work, such as hairdressers and barbers, have found a small but fairly consistent increased risk of bladder cancer. However, studies looking at people who have their hair dyed have not found a consistent increase in bladder cancer risk.
Leukemias and lymphomas: Studies looking at a possible link between personal hair dye use and the risk of blood-related cancers such as leukemia and lymphoma have had mixed results. For example, some studies have found an increased risk of certain types of non-Hodgkin lymphoma (but not others) in women who use hair dyes, especially if they began use before 1980 and/or use darker colors. The same types of results have been found in some studies of leukemia risk. However, other studies have not found an increased risk.
Breast cancer: Results of studies looking at a possible link between personal hair dye use and breast cancer have been mixed. Many studies have not found an increase in risk, although some more recent studies have. Some studies have also suggested possible links with certain subtypes of breast cancer but not with others.
Other cancers: For other types of cancer, too few studies have been done to be able to draw any firm conclusions.
Many people use or work with hair dyes, so it is important that more studies are done to get a better idea if these dyes increase cancer risk.
Several national and international agencies study substances in the environment to determine if they can cause cancer. The American Cancer Society looks to these organizations to evaluate the risks based on the available evidence.
Based on studies in people and studies done in the lab, some of these expert agencies have classified hair dyes or their ingredients as to whether they can cause cancer.
The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) is part of the World Health Organization (WHO). One of its major goals is to identify causes of cancer. IARC has concluded that workplace exposure as a hairdresser or barber is “probably carcinogenic to humans,” based on the data regarding bladder cancer. (The evidence for other types of cancer is considered mixed or inadequate.) But IARC considers personal hair dye use to be “not classifiable as to its carcinogenicity to humans,” based on a lack of evidence from studies in people.
The US National Toxicology Program (NTP) is an interagency program of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). The NTP has not classified the potential of hair dyes to cause cancer. However, it has classified some chemicals that are or were used in hair dyes as “reasonably anticipated to be human carcinogens.”
In the United States, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulates the safety of cosmetics, including hair dyes, but by law there are limits on what the FDA can do. For example, the FDA does not approve each ingredient used in hair dyes before it goes on the market, and in general the responsibility for the safety of products and ingredients falls to the manufacturers.
The FDA can take action if any cosmetics are found to be harmful or in violation of the law (such as being mislabeled). This includes any new ingredients to be used in hair dyes. However, many of the older ingredients in hair dyes (some of which are still in use) were excluded when the FDA was initially given the power to regulate these products back in the 1930s.
If cosmetics (including hair dyes) or their ingredients are found to be unsafe, the FDA can request that the company recall the product, although it can’t require a recall. The FDA can, however, take further steps if needed, such as getting a federal court order to stop sales, requesting that US marshals seize the product, or initiating criminal action.
It’s not clear how much personal hair dye use might raise cancer risk, if at all. So far, most studies have not found a strong link between hair dye use and cancer, but more research is needed to help clarify this issue.
Other than recommendations that apply to everyone (such as not smoking, eating a healthy diet, being physically active, and getting routine screening exams), there is no specific medical advice for current or former hair dye users. Smoking is a known risk factor for bladder cancer and some types of leukemia (as well as many other cancers and other diseases), and quitting smoking can improve your health, regardless of whether or not you use hair dyes.
Some people might want to avoid or limit their exposure to hair dyes for other reasons. For example:
For people who want to dye their hair but are concerned about safety, the FDA has some guidelines:
Some hair dye products are vegetable based. These products may have some drawbacks, such as not being able to change hair color drastically or having the color fade sooner than is seen with permanent dyes (unless they contain some of the same ingredients as the permanent dyes). But they could be another option for those people concerned about hair dye safety.
Our team is made up of doctors and oncology certified nurses with deep knowledge of cancer care as well as journalists, editors, and translators with extensive experience in medical writing.
In addition to the American Cancer Society, other sources of information and support include*:
National Cancer Institute (NCI)
Toll-free number: 1-800-422-6237 (1-800-4-CANCER)
Hair Dyes and Cancer Risk: www.cancer.gov/about-cancer/causes-prevention/risk/myths/hair-dyes-fact-sheet
*Inclusion on this list does not imply endorsement by the American Cancer Society.
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Last Revised: November 22, 2022