Is It Safe to Color Your Hair During Pregnancy? Maybe Not!

Is It Safe to Color Your Hair During Pregnancy?

When pregnant with my son, I partially highlighted my hair with a dye.  At the time, I found out from my trusted hairdresser and an intense google search that it was “probably” safe for a pregnant woman to color her hair.  However, looking back I wonder if that was a wise move.  Is it still considered safe to color your hair while pregnant?

Hair Dyes
There are several kinds of hair dyes ranging from plant based temporary hair color to coal-tar based permanent hair dyes. Currently, permanent hair dyes are mostly made from petroleum, but the previous name of “coal-tar” is still used because permanent dyes were once made from coal industry products. Twenty-first century hair dyes can be divided into three groups:

  • Temporary dyes (last for 1-2 washings): Hair dye covers only the hair surface; does not enter into the hair shaft.
  • Semi-permanent dyes (last for 5-10 washings): Hair dye penetrates the hair shaft.
  • Permanent oxidative dyes: Hair dye color remains until the hair is replaced by new growth; reportedly used by 80% of those who dye their hair.

Safety Issues
Based on recent studies, it is still currently unknown if dying your hair while pregnant is safe.  Studies have investigated potential cancer risks in people who use and work with semi-permanent and permanent hair dyes.  

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) reports that, “in the 1980s, some coal-tar hair dyes were found to cause cancer in animals and population-based studies have found a higher cancer risk among women who regularly dyed their hair prior to that time. The FDA states that the two hair product ingredients that were tied to cancer in animals (4-methoxy-m-phenylenediamine 2,4-diaminoanisole and 2, 4-methoxy-m-phenylenediamine sulfate 2,4-diaminoanisole sulfate) have now been removed from most permanent hair color products.

Dyes used prior to 1980, dark colored dyes, and frequent applications may increase cancer risks. Those with a family history of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma may want to be extra cautious. 

Statements from expert cancer research groups include:

  • The American Cancer Society: “Some hair dye applied to an animal’s skin in studies is absorbed into the bloodstream; however, most studies have not found a link between skin application and cancer risk.”
  • The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC): The IARC concluded that workplace exposures to hair dyes by hairdressers and barbers probably increases their risk of developing bladder cancer while the evidence for other types of cancer is considered mixed or inadequate.

Hair Dye During Pregnancy and Breastfeeding
While much of the research is reassuring about the risk of hair dye and the development of cancer, there remain questions about its use during pregnancy. The first trimester is the time of highest risk for the development of birth defects. Therefore, many health care providers recommend that pregnant women hold off on dying their hair during the month prior to conception and wait until after the first 12 weeks of pregnancy before using a hair dye.

However, a few (but not all) population-based studies found a small increased incidence of cancer in the babies whose mothers used permanent or temporary hair dye within one month of conception, during pregnancy, or during breastfeeding. Therefore, some physicians suggest that all pregnant and nursing women should avoid coloring their hair.  More research is needed.

Hair Dye Tips
 The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the agency who regulates cosmetic products, recommends the following tips related to hair dye application:

  • Wear gloves when applying hair dye.
  • Rinse your scalp thoroughly with water after use.
  • Do not mix different hair dye products as they can hurt your hair and scalp.
  • Check to see if you allergic to the hair dye by testing a small amount on your arm first, called a patch test.

Similar to years ago when I first researched this topic, it is still unclear if hair dye use is safe during pregnancy.  For potential safety reasons, some doctors recommend that pregnant women wait until after the first trimester before using hair dyes and others recommend avoiding it at any time during pregnancy and breastfeeding.  The American Cancer Society suggests using a vegetable-based hair dye product for those concerned about strong chemical effects from hair dye. Vegetable-based hair dyes may fade quicker than alternative hair dyes, but may offer an alternative option.  For women who dye their own hair, follow the FDA’s safety recommendations when applying hair dye products. Pregnant and breast-feeding women should consult their doctor if they have questions or concerns regarding dying their hair.

What have been your experiences? Share in the comments section below! 

Jacqueline Kostick
Jackie Kostick PharmD is a pharmacist, medical/science writer, and mother of two children. She has written and researched pharmacy-related material --medical newsletters, drug monographs, medical/science website content-- for organizations including Medscape, the American Society of Health-System Pharmacists (ASHP), CVS/Caremark, and United HealthCare.

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