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Hair dyes and cancer

It is not clear if hair dyes are a cancer risk.Links have been suggested between hair dyes and a variety of cancers including bladder cancer, breast cancer, leukaemias and lymphomas. But there is no clear evidence that hair dyes could cause any of these cancers. 

In 2008, the International Agency for Research into Cancer (IARC) said that hairdressers “probably” have a slightly higher risk of cancer because they are regularly exposed to certain chemicals. They can reduce their exposure to these chemicals by wearing gloves.

There’s not enough evidence to say for sure whether people who use hair dyes themselves have a higher risk of cancer as a result. From the evidence that's available at the moment, it seems there is no significant link between personal use of hair dyes and bladder cancer, even when using permanent dyes or frequent use for a long time. And if hair dyes are linked to any other type of cancer, the increase in risk would only be very small in comparison to other factors.

Taking precautions

If you use hair dyes and are concerned, you could dye your hair less often, wear gloves and make sure the room is ventilated.

Improved safety over time

In the 1970s some hair dye ingredients were found to damage DNA and cause cancer in the lab. But since then, the use of these chemicals has been discontinued and modern dyes are thought to be much safer. Cancer can take many years to develop - so it could be that the link we are seeing now between working as a hairdresser and cancer is because of exposure to these older chemicals many decades ago.

In July 2006, the EU Commission announced that it would ban 22 different hair dye substances which do not have adequate safety files. This is a reassuring move for consumers as it means that only dyes that are proven to be safe will be available.

Smoking - putting risks in perspective

Smoking is the biggest risk factor for bladder cancer, causing over a third of UK cases. If you want to reduce your risk of bladder cancer, as well as over a dozen other cancers, the best thing you can do is quit smoking. 

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Updated: 13 March 2014