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Inside: A conversation about hair dye safety with True Roots author Ronnie Citron-Fink
With all the grim news coming out about the potential dangers of hair dye, I thought this was the perfect time to consult an expert. Who better to ask than one of our own silver sisters?
Ronnie Citron-Fink is the author of True Roots: What Quitting Hair Dye Taught Me About Health and Beauty, and she is also the editorial director of Moms Clean Air Force, an environmental protection organization dedicated to improving air quality standards and combating climate change.
Gray hair is increasingly in the news—from celebrities choosing not to cover their grays to young people intentionally dyeing their hair silver. How does True Roots fit into this conversation?
Gray hair – both dyed and natural – is definitely trending as a popular hair color.
True Roots considers the beauty aspects of going gray and goes beyond the cultural moment to ask important questions about hair dye such as:
Why do we color, are the chemicals in hair dye toxic, what are the potential health risks, which ingredients are harmful, who is most at risk, what agency(s) regulate what manufacturers of hair color can put into formulas, do safer alternatives exist, and ultimately, where does hair dye go once it’s dumped down the drain?
Why did you decide to go gray?
I had three reasons to go gray: the upkeep, the cost, and the chemicals.
I started coloring my hair in my early 30’s to cover gray strands that seemed to multiply daily.
I dyed my hair dark, dark brown, almost black. This was the color closest to my original hair color, but over the years, the gray hairs overtook the dark.
I needed to color more and more often to cover the skunk stripe that would line my part.
Coloring had become both labor-intensive and expensive. Nevertheless, I kept up this whack-a-mole hair routine because I worried my vanity would take a hit and that I would look old with gray hair.
The tipping point came when I began to work deeply in the environmental health field and started to question the health of personal care products, like hair dye.
It was particularly unnerving to learn that most of my products were untested and unregulated.
What did you learn along the journey and what you would say to someone who is considering going gray?
As mentioned, I thought I would look older, like I had given up on beauty.
I learned this was a myth that the 70 billion dollar hair and beauty business perpetuates because they need to sell products.
Over and over again, I talked with women who went gray and said they felt healthier and freer when they stopped coloring.
My son told me to keep it real, authentic. He was right. I feel more real and I don’t think gray hair makes me look older.
My colorist repeatedly told me the hair in the back of my head was still dark, and it would look weird. She also said my hair would change, and the gray would wash out my complexion.
None of those things happened.
I have a full head of silver hair. The texture feels softer than dyed hair. Also, the harshness of the dark hair against my skin was not as forgiving as the shiny silver, which seems to compliment my complexion.
Hair dye was the last step in cleaning up my beauty routine, and I needed to learn how to read ingredient labels even closer than I had before to figure out what ingredients were harmful.
I found the more knowledge I amassed about the potential risks from the ingredients in hair dye, and how those chemicals were untested and unregulated, the more it boosted my resolve and helped me through the difficult grow-out phase.
My health concerns settled any lingering thoughts about going back to coloring.
I found support in online “going gray” social media groups, learning the journey to uncolored hair is different for everyone, but women around the globe were up for the challenge for various reasons,
It takes a lot of patience to grow out dyed hair unless you cut short. For me, it took well over two years. Hair grows at a snail’s pace!
Gray hair needs special maintenance because it seems to be more porous than dyed hair. Chlorine, pollution, smoke, certain shampoos, hair products, and the mother of all gray hair enemies: hard water, can affect the look and feel of gray hair.
Friends, family, and strangers were curious. Their comments were mostly positive, but some were not. I wrote about some of those strange interactions for InStyle magazine.
Women told me, and still tell me, their hair stories. Many confess that they would love to stop coloring, and might one day. Some women were inspired to go gray after reading the book.
With so much stigma and cultural bias against women who don’t dye their gray, do you see, or have you seen, a shift in that perception?
Yes and no.
I’m noticing more and more articles about transitioning colored hair to gray, gray hair products, and ads about aging gracefully with beautiful gray hair. In that way, it has become more of a mainstream beauty choice.
But I also noticed that advertisers and the media will latch onto trends, and that doesn’t necessarily change attitudes.
For many women who dye their hair because they feel compelled to “cover up,” gray hair is still equated with getting old.
And there’s a distinct double standard between men and women who are gray. Men with gray hair are embraced in a positive way, as silver foxes and distinguished gentlemen.
Women get messages – overt and subliminal – from media outlets, to cover up if you care about your beauty. Or give in to the signs of ageing and become invisible.
Ageism and sexism intersect powerfully when it comes to ingrained beauty ideals.
For women, is there power in going gray?
I think it’s powerful to feel comfortable in your own skin. If that means letting your hair go gray, then do it.
If not, it won’t seem like much of a power move to feel self-conscious.
For me, it’s been immensely freeing, and it’s made me feel stronger to know that I’m also protecting my health by lessening the body burden, or body pollution, from known and unknown harmful ingredients in hair dye.
Knowledge is power.
IS HAIR DYE SAFE?
What are the known risks of hair dye? What would surprise people to know about hair dye and human health?
The latest study from the National Institutes of Health (NIH), tracked 46,709 women ages 35-74 over eight years and found women who regularly use permanent hair dye could be increasing their risk of breast cancer up to 60%.
The results are particularly harrowing for black women: those who used permanent dyes at least every 5-8 weeks had a much higher risk of developing breast cancer than those who did not.
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ National Toxicology Program (NTP) classifies some chemicals in hair dye as “reasonably anticipated to be human carcinogens.”
The U.S. National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI), part of NIH, cites hair dye as a major risk factor for certain types of cancer.
What alarmed me was that women who used permanent hair dyes at least once a month had twice the risk of certain types of cancers compared to non-dyers
You reference a study that concludes salon workers who work for ten or more years experience a fivefold increase in cancer risk compared to those not exposed. In your experience, are most hairdressers aware of this risk?
In True Roots I discuss professional hair dye Safety Data Sheets. These inserts may or may not be included in professional hair dye, as manufacturers are not required to provide their products’ safety information to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
That mostly leaves salons and hairdressers to vet and fend for themselves.
What responsibility should the government have to ensure they are informed?
Before I got started working deeply in the environmental health field, when I made a decision to put on lipstick or nail polish or to color my hair, I gave it little thought.
Like most women, I was simply anticipating that feel-good pleasure of a beauty transformation, assuming that something or someone—a government agency, I hoped—had made an independent evaluation of the product and determined that it was safe.
It’s on the shelf. This is America. It must be safe.
Unfortunately, that’s not the case.
For the most part, the government doesn’t determine whether or not our products are safe. What it does is set a framework for businesses to follow and for consumers to follow suit.
And this is where it gets messy…
While the FDA can regulate cosmetics, including hair dye, it does not preapprove products before they land on store shelves. That is mostly left to the Cosmetic Ingredient Review (CIR): a program of the Personal Care Products Council (PCPC), a trade organization that represents the US cosmetics industry.
In other words, it is the responsibility of the product manufacturers to decide whether or not the ingredients in their products are safe according to FDA rules. The conflict of interest is stunning. By leaving safety oversight to the CIR, we are essentially letting the fox guard the henhouse.
In my personal and professional opinion, we can’t bank on profit-seeking companies to protect us from toxic chemicals in our products.
And it’s not fair to dump responsibility in the laps of consumers because those without a degree in toxicology have almost no way to determine what is safe and what is not in hair dye.
Also, women often bear the brunt of this injustice. We are disproportionately, far more than men, victims of body pollution and therefore of diseases linked to our environment.
So, what can we do?
We can advocate for sound science that clarifies the risk of chemical dyes. Additional research is needed to create strategies to avoid toxic chemicals in salons. This will lead to a better understanding of hairdressers’ health and women’s health in general, including the effects of collective exposures to multiple chemicals.
We deserve this research for ourselves and for future generations, who can’t advocate for it themselves.
We can also boycott products we believe will harm us. Then the manufacturers will clamor to create healthier ones to meet customer demand.
And we need stronger laws to ensure that our products are safer and our health is protected.
The book discusses some healthier alternatives to traditional hair dye. Are there new technologies or products that show promise?
If you’re not ready to break up with your hair color, there are some promising alternative hair coloring methods, but it’s still important to read the labels carefully. Some brands may mix natural dyes with chemical preservatives and other chemical dyes.
There are also more environmentally conscious salon practices.
There’s a new directory of green salons that collect, recycle, and repurpose hair clippings, foils, color tubes, excess hair color, papers and plastics, glass, and other salon waste, and divert them from landfills and waterways.
While researching and writing True Roots, did you learn anything that surprised you?
The health and beauty aspects of hair coloring fascinated me, as I am somewhat obsessed with hair.
I assumed, like many other women, that since hair dye is such an integral part of the women’s beauty culture that there must have been years of safety testing.
Unfortunately, the chemicals in hair dye, and how they interact in our bodies with other chemicals, have not been tested.
I learned we have ways to test individual chemicals, but we don’t have systems to test what happens over time, when a potential carcinogen (hair dye has a few of these chemicals of concern) is applied daily, monthly, yearly.
And we have no idea what happens when these chemicals interact with one another as they are absorbed in our bloodstreams. To make things worse, very few of these studies ever see the light of day because the cosmetic and chemical lobby is so powerful.
This is why there were so many twists and turns to answering such a personal question as, “Should I continue to dye my hair or not?”
We just don’t know whether it’s safe enough. From that perspective, we need, without a doubt, more scientific health studies.
What do you hope readers take away from this book?
It’s hard to calculate a health risk, but why take a chance?
People are much more conscious of what’s in their products these days. Yet, I’m aware that some basic understanding of chemicals in hair color doesn’t necessarily mean everyone who reads True Roots will quit dyeing their hair.
It does seem like a transformational moment though, as the deeply ingrained beauty ideal about gray hair has become unhinged and is shifting.
It’s my hope that knowing a “chemical hairprint” may have an effect on overall health will make women ponder the possibility of beauty after coloring. It did for me.
Find out more about Ronnie’s other projects and events at her website, https://www.ronniecitronfink.com
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