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Hair dyes may cause cancer, new research cautions

Health & Science

NAIROBI, KENYA: Leo Tolstoy once said, “It is amazing how complete is the delusion that beauty is goodness.”

In search of beauty – and goodness – people could be putting themselves in danger unknowingly through hair treatment – dyeing, curling and straightening - according to a new research published in BMJ Occupational & Environmental Medicine.

The permanent dyes used in hair treatment and perming might just be containing toluidines which have been banned in countries within the European Union because they have carcinogenic properties.

If this is true then Kenyan women who dye their hair or treat their hair regularly using such cosmetic products could be in danger of carcinogen in their blood; with the beauticians who use these cosmetics on clients being at the greatest risk.

Nairobi alone has thousands of salons as well as cosmetic products that go with the beauty of hair. Most of these offer employment in the informal sector.

Scientists estimate that the hair dye has over 5,000 chemicals, some of which are suspected to be harmful. A study in the 1970s found out that nine in every ten chemical formulations in hair dye contained carcinogenic chemicals. This fact forced manufacturers of hair dye to start using different chemicals some of which were still considered carcinogenic.

During the research, studies were conducted in the blood of 295 female hairdressers, 32 regular users of hair dyes and 60 people who had not used the products one year before the study.

In a nutshell the research found that among hairdressers, the levels of carcinogens in the blood samples were higher in direct proportion to the number of dye treatments that they did. They had a high exposure compared to more the people who used hair dye.

The researchers focused on haemoglobin in the blood since this was the best way of achieving a better view on exposure over a long period of time.

There was no significant difference on aromatic amines among the three groups of people studied since the levels were found to be between 0 and 200 units per gramme of blood. But hairdressers had the levels of toluidines rise with the number of weekly visits they had from their clients for treatment. The research found that the same trend persisted with perming treatments as well.

Past studies have branded hairdressing as an occupation with increased risk of cancer with the highest occurrence being cancer of the bladder whose frequency among hairdressers is higher than that of the general population.

The researchers however urged for further studies to analyse hair dyes and perming products to find out of the products are still sources of toluidine exposure.

Their word of advice to hairdressers to avoid further exposure is to use gloves in order to stop absorption through the skin. They also urge hairdressers to perform tasks in sequence – for instance if they are to cut hair and perming on the same client, then they can cut the hair first, wear gloves then do dying or perming. This ensures that they are not exposed.

According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), cancer is a top killer; 8.2 million people died of cancer in 2012. More than half of cancer cases also occur in Africa, Asia, Central and South America.

The major cause of cancer according to WHO is behavioural and dietary risks. This finding however adds to the occupational risks. 

Meanwhile the global body estimates that cancer cases will increase from 14 million in 2012 to 22 million in the next twenty years.

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