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Dyeing for beauty: Hair dyes can cause low sperm count, bladder cancer

By Gloria Milimu | June 12th 2021

Kenyans just love dyeing their hair, especially urbanites, musicians and comedians. While the trend turns heads, the chemicals used in hair dyes could have several harmful side-effects, including low sperm count in men.

Kevin Mwanzia has been a barber in Nairobi for 14 years and attends to about 18 customers per week, most of them for hair dye services and who return “after two weeks to apply hair dye. I often advise clients to use water-based hair dyes because they contain fewer chemicals and are also natural, this prevents irritation of the scalp.”

Whereas irritation of the skin is just one of the side-effects after chemical reaction between the hair pigment and pigments in the dye come into contact, doctors are warning of deeper health implications associated with chemicals in dyes, including implications on fertility and even bladder cancer.

A study done in Germany comprising 280,000 hairdressers and barbers aged between 20 and 45 revealed that children born of these hairdressers had health issues caused by lead acetate, a chemical found in hair dyes. 
The study found that there was a slight increase in deformities among children born of those who used hair dyes and some had chromosomal issues.

Dr Kireki Omanwa, a fertility expert in Nairobi, says as much as the studies are not conclusive and the fact that they were not locally done, they cannot be wished away. 

“There could be a connection between the chemicals which are in hair dyes and in bleaches used by hairdressers but the connection is not very clear as it were,” he says.

He intimates that other studies have linked low sperm count among men to the use of hair dyes. 
“A small study in Europe showed that there could be a slight connection but no direct link. They noticed that some of these men had low sperm count but there are so many factors that can lead to a low sperm count, so this could just be one of them,” said Dr Omanwa, adding that “some environmental factors can also affect male fertility.”

 Dr Omanwa argues that some chemicals used in hair dyes more often than not, find their way into the food chain. 
“Some studies have shown that pesticides and herbicides can actually find their way into semen. Studies done in the USA and West Africa confirmed the presence of pesticides in semen,” he says.

Other factors that can affect male fertility as revealed in studies done in European countries include chemicals used to soften plastics, and female hormones that find their way in streams and eventually drinking water.
 Dr Omanwa says these could be contributing to the poor semen and sperm quality being witnessed among men in their 30s in  Kenya.

 “We see men who are young in their early to mid 30s who don’t have any problems with drinking, smoking, or narcotics, and when you look at their profession they should not have any problems at all with chemicals. But you find that most of them have issues with semen and sperm quality.”
He adds that “when you have a low sperm count, the numbers are low. You’ll find that the mortality of the sperm is also low, and the normal forms are also low. 

“So when you start scratching your head to find out what actually could be the problem, the only thing that we are left to think about is that most of the time is environmental factors.”
As an expert, he says what they do is try to improve the quality of the sperm through treatment to increase the chances of the patient to father a child. 

Fertility experts also warn that human fertility is declining worldwide and in Kenya, about 40 percent of the reasons for infertility among couples is connected to men.

“As a country, we are deep in the bush in terms of fertility because the incidence of infertility is about 20 per cent in the Kenyan adult population,” explains Dr Omanwa. 

This translates to about five million people with issues of infertility, whether primary or secondary.
Dr Omanwa explains, “primary infertility means you have tried to have a baby for one year without using any contraception and regular intercourse two to three times a week and there is no conception. 

“In secondary infertility,  there has been conception in the past or there is a child or children and you want to have another child or children and it hasn’t happened in the space of one year, again with regular intercourse two to three times a week, no contraception and the woman is not breastfeeding.”

He adds that if you consider five million people who could be affected “that is approximately the whole of Nairobi then you throw in one or two neighbouring counties so that you can see the extent of this problem.”


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