Deadly Dyes, Straighteners, Sprays and More

Hair-care products generally are not required to pass government safety tests before being sold in stores or used in salons. Some contain ingredients known to be toxic or to trigger potentially severe allergic reactions. This can be true even of hair-care products labeled “natural” or “hypoallergenic” or that salons insist are perfectly safe.

Bottom Line/Personal interviewed Sonya Lunder, senior analyst with the Environmental Working Group, a nonprofit organization that provides safety ratings for thousands of hair-care products on its Skin Deep Web site (

Here are her important warnings for men and women…

    • Chemical hair straighteners usually contain formaldehyde, which can cause skin irritation, allergic reactions and even cancer. This is true even of the hair straighteners used at high-end salons. Example: The makers of the popular hair straightener Brazilian Blowout claimed that this product did not contain ­formaldehyde, but tests revealed that it did.

Even if a hair straightener truly does not contain formaldehyde, it likely contains chemicals closely related to formaldehyde that have similar health effects…or chemicals that are not technically formaldehyde but that release formaldehyde when heated by a hair dryer. Some hair straighteners also contain lye and other highly caustic chemicals.

What to do: There is no chemical hair straightener that’s safe enough to recommend. Chemical-free heat straightening—that is, straightening blown-dry hair with a flat iron—is safer but, of course, not long-lasting.

    • “Gradual-change” hair dyes often contain lead acetate. Some men’s hair dyes are designed to alter hair color slowly over a period of weeks to make the change less jarring. But gradual-change hair dyes often contain lead ­acetate, which is extremely toxic and can lead to serious health issues including cancer. These hair dyes actually can cause elevated lead levels throughout the homes of people who use them, triggering health issues for other family members, too.

Examples: Grecian Formula for Men and some Youthair hair dyes have been found to contain lead acetate.

What to do: Avoid hair dyes that list lead or lead acetate as an ingredient. Check the safety rating on the Skin Deep Web site of any hair dye that claims to change hair color gradually.

    • Permanent dark hair dyes frequently contain coal-tar ingredients linked to cancer, such as aminophenols and/or pheylenediamines. (Other hair dyes sometimes contain potential ­carcinogens and allergens, too.) The European Union recently banned 181 hair-dye ingredients for health reasons, yet many of these remain in use in the US because the FDA does not have to approve the majority of products used in hair salons.

What to do: Consider using temporary or semipermanent hair dyes rather than permanent dyes, particularly with dark-color dyes. These tend to be safer. If you use a permanent dark dye, do full dye jobs as infrequently as possible—just touch up your roots in between.

Wear plastic gloves when applying hair dyes to limit exposure to your skin. Before using any hair dye, enter its name into the Skin Deep site to find out about any potential health risks.

    • Aerosol hair sprays often are inhaled, because aerosol cans typically distribute a mist of hair spray throughout the area around your head. Inhalation increases the risk for internal exposure and any associated health consequences. Even natural fragrances could trigger allergic reactions when inhaled.

What to do: Choose a hair spray that comes in a pump bottle rather than one that comes in an aerosol can. The spray from pump bottles tends to be less widely dispersed than that from aerosol cans, decreasing the odds of significant inhalation.

    • Shampoos and conditioners can cause allergies. Shampoos and conditioners tend to be rinsed off relatively quickly, reducing exposure to any problematic ingredients relative to leave-on products. However, some people are allergic to the ingredients in these products, including the chemicals that add fragrance…preservatives and ­antibacterials that increase a shampoo’s shelf life…and surfactants that, for example, work as an antistatic agent in conditioners.

What to do: If your scalp or neck gets itchy or red, look up your shampoo and conditioner on the Skin Deep site. If you discover that one or both contain ingredients known to cause allergic reactions, try a different shampoo or conditioner that doesn’t contain these ingredients and see if the condition ­improves.

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