NIH links hair dyes, straighteners to increased risk of breast cancer

Risk from permanent hair color much higher in African American women than in white women

Scientists at the National Institutes of Health found that women who use permanent hair dye have an increased risk for developing breast cancer.

Women who use permanent hair color or chemical straighteners have an increased risk of developing breast cancer, a new study found.

The study, published online Dec. 4 in the International Journal of Cancer, concluded breast cancer risk increased with more frequent use of these chemical hair products.

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The research team, with the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, part of NIH, used data from 46,709 women in the Sister Study and found that women who regularly used permanent hair dye in the year before the study were 9% more likely than women who didn't use hair dye to develop breast cancer.

The increased risk was greater for 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.

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"Researchers have been studying the possible link between hair dye and cancer for a long time, but results have been inconsistent," said corresponding author Alexandra White, 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."

The scientists also found a link between chemical hair straighteners and breast cancer. Black and white women who used the straighteners every five to eight weeks were about 30% more likely to develop breast cancer. Although the risk was the same, the study pointed out, African American women are more likely to use chemical straighteners.

"We are exposed to many things that could potentially contribute to breast cancer, and it is unlikely that any single factor explains a woman’s risk,” said Dale Sandler, chief of the NIEHS Epidemiology Branch and co-author of the study. “While it is too early to make a firm recommendation, avoiding these chemicals might be one more thing women can do to reduce their risk of breast cancer."

Linda Loretz, chief toxicologist for the Personal Care Products Council, urges caution when interpreting the results of the study.

"The majority of the cohort studied were non-Hispanic white, well educated, and economically well off," she said in an email. "Women recruited for the study were at higher risk for breast cancer. While these women had no personal history of breast cancer, they had at least one sister who had breast cancer (the Sister Study). Therefore, the conclusions of this study cannot necessarily be applied to the broader population. Clearly, further research is needed."

She continued: “Hair dyes are one of the most thoroughly studied consumer products on the market. As with all cosmetics and personal care products, companies are required to substantiate the safety of hair dyes and straighteners and individual ingredients before marketing to consumers, and the labeling of those products must be truthful and not misleading. “

The Personal Care Products Council shares safety information on its science and safety website,