As a woman with a multicultural background, the odds are pretty high that you were born with darker hair. Whether you choose to keep it as an adult is totally up to you. I have had blonde, red and brown hair as well as green, fuschia and blue highlights at various times in my life. Most of the time I think of hair color as fun, it’s like an accessory, but as grey hairs become more of a reality, it also becomes necessary, at least for me. But I have noticed that there has been a lot of noise about the safety of darker hair dyes often used by women of color. Last spring, a study led by Adana Lianos, PhD. an assistant professor of epidemiology at Rutgers School of Public Health and Rutgers Cancer Institute studied more than 4,000 women. According to Lianos,

“We found that use of dark shade hair dyes (dark brown or black) was associated with a 51 percent increased the overall risk of developing breast cancer among African American women, and a 72 percent increased risk of estrogen receptor-positive breast cancer among African Americans.”

But then she cautioned that “these findings do not mean that using hair dye or chemical relaxers/straightener causes breast cancer.” Confused? So am I. Essentially, this study examined the relationship between the use these products and cancer risk, retrospectively. The study was not designed to identify a cause/effect relationship. More research is needed to determine if a causal relationship exists but the correlation certainly raises some concern.

There has also been quite a bit of attention on the allergic reactions caused by para-phenylenediamine (PPD). According to Mabel Covey, a cosmetic chemist and the co-founder of hair care company Cue Beauty, PPD is only associated with permanent or oxidative hair color.  “It’s hair color that has a 2-part system with a color with a liquid or cream activator,” she explained. “A good 90{62937e24b4261d41c5187cd264b3713a1edf5bc8a6084238a41e684420661999} of formulas contain PPD and it is in shades from blonde to black. But the pigment load is higher in darker colors.” So why are more becoming allergic? Women have started using hair color much earlier, even as teenagers. Covey likened dye sensitivities to people who suddenly develop food allergies. “You eat strawberries all the time and you become sensitized,” she says “Then one day your body’s immune system says, that’s enough!” Reactions can range from dermatitis to swelling of the face and extremities to anaphylaxis, which is rare.

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Thinking about turning to natural hair color instead? Not so fast. PPDs are also in some natural and organic hair colors, even some hennas. In fact, even henna applied to the skin may have an impact on your sensitivity to hair dye. An article published in  Contact Dermatitis noted that it is black henna which has potential to elicit an allergic reaction because it is actually comprised of red henna and PPD. This matters because if you react to skin henna, you are more likely to react to hair dye.

So what’s the solution? David Stanko a colorist at Licari Cutler NYC says ” I suggest using a color product with a para-toluene diamine, as opposed to para-phenylenediamine. Check the ingredients label, and always consult your dermatologist.”  Patch testing can also be your best friend. Covey suggests taking the time to do it before you color your hair every time. Yes, every time. “You never know when you are going to hit that threshold,” she explains.

Stanko notes that permanent color doesn’t need to be your first choice when those silver strands start popping up. “When a woman begins to go grey, the first introduction to hair color should be a demi-permanent color,” he explains. “These products have no ammonia, deposit only and serve to blend and cover the first signs of grey.” And if you have highly textured hair and want more coverage, Stanko suggests looking for an ammonia-free permanent formulation that has a conditioning oil base. “There are considered to be gentler on sensitized, multi-textured hair types.”

If you get your hair done at the salon, ask questions about what is being applied to your hair. When in doubt, go in a few days earlier for a patch test.

If you are doing your hair at home, here are the Ms. X Factor color and care picks to explore:



Corynne Corbett
I work at the intersection of beauty, technology, storytelling, and empowerment. I believe that beauty can be used as a catalyst to change the world.