The sex, politics, religion and philosophy of fashion, esp. of hair, by session hairdresser and stylist Ian Robson

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Small Cause For Concern

I've had a few concerned conversations about cancer with clients who colour their hair. There is some cause for concern. But, don't panic, the risks of developing a cancer from having your hair tinted are small. A number of U.S. based animal studies found that the hair-colour ingredients 4-methoxy-m-phenylenediamine (4-MMPD) and 4-methoxy-m-phenylenediamine sulphate (4-MMPD sulphate) can cause cancer. These findings and others, which show that 4-MMPD can penetrate human skin, prompted the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in 1978/9 to propose warning labels on products containing 4-MMPD. However, the warning wasn't implemented because a group of hair-colour manufacturers challenged its legality in court. Since then, many manufacturers have stopped using 4-MMPD and several other potentially carcinogenic chemicals in their products. But, some of these compounds have been replaced by others of similar chemical structure, raising concerns that their cancer causing potential may not differ much from the original offending chemical ingredients. Leading brand name Wella simply states "Contains Ammonia, phenylenediamine". A recent study suggests women who use dark, especially black, hair-colour for prolonged periods might have increased risk of non-Hodgkin's lymphoma and multiple myeloma (malignant tumours formed by bone marrow cells) Journal of the National Cancer Institute, February 1994

Apart from the potential carcinogenic effects of hair-colour, chemical sensitivity to allergens in synthetically based products sends many people to natural product stores in search of chemical-free hair-colour that their salons don't offer! Unfortunately natural is not necessarily the safest. "Para-phenylenediamine (a compound found to be carcinogenic in animal studies) is the reason most people suffer a skin reaction to permanent hair-colour. It's this colourless (hair-colour) precursor that, under the influence of ingredients such as ammonia and hydrogen peroxide, helps colour develop in hair." Andrew Scheman, assistant professor of clinical dermatology at Northwestern University in Chicago Anyway, even without para-phenylenediamine, ingredients such as fragrance and preservatives in synthetic hair-colour can sensitise skin or cause an allergic reaction. "The levels of hydrogen peroxide needed to swell hair so the colour molecule can enter the (hair's) cortex can irritate the scalp." Rebecca James Gadberry, a professor of cosmetic sciences at the University of California at Los Angeles Natural hair-colours are generally a lot less permanent because ingredients such as henna and plant extracts only coat the hair. Without chemicals such as ammonia, a hair-colour can't strip away natural colour. Secondly, the absence of hydrogen peroxide means colour will only stay on the cuticle (outer) layer. To use a natural hair-colour your hair should naturally be lighter than the colour you're applying to colour it. Henna will never turn a brunette into a blond without ammonia's and hydrogen peroxide's bleaching action. As for black henna, don't touch it (PPD, P-Phenylenediamine is frequently added to henna to make it stain black).


I use Koleston Perfect made by Wella, as I believe it to be the best. Koleston Perfect does contain ammonia and phenylenediamine and requires the use of hydrogen peroxide. Clairol, L'Oreal and Revlon all contain Phenylenediamine. "Occasionally people are sensitive to certain ingredients in hair colorants. I will always do a preliminary skin test on clients who are having a hair colour for the first time. If there are any signs of inflammation or irritation, I will not be using that product on your hair. If you have already experienced a reaction to hair colorant, if your scalp is sensitive or itchy or the skin is broken, I advise you not to colour your hair. A consultation and skin test will cost £25. I recommend highlights as the very safe hair colouring alternative because the hair-colour does not come into contact with the skin". Ian Robson, 1974 to date.

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