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Q. Dear Umbra,

I thank you for the wisdom your articles have given me. I’ve been very curious about the health risks imposed by my wife’s hair coloring. She uses a common brand, and when she is dyeing her hair it smells horrible, and lingers in the air long after she’s finished. The closest thing I could use to describe the smell would be old, rotten, fungus-filled fruit sacks. I am not concerned about being exposed, but my wife’s health is extremely important to me. Is it safe for her? If not, do I have an alternative to suggest?


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Very Concerned Husband
Susanville, Calif.

It's natural ... to freak out about hair dye.

ShutterstockIt’s natural … to freak out about hair dye.

A. Dearest VCH,

If you are not a writer by trade, you should become one. Your description of “old, rotten, fungus-filled fruit sacks” is impressively detailed, inarguably repulsive, and, I imagine, at least as colorful as your wife’s tresses.

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Have you told your wife how you feel about her stinking up Susanville in the name of beauty? Perhaps you could suggest that you’d prefer to see a few gray hairs spring forth than watch her breathe in a cocktail of toxic chemicals. Even better, tell her you adore the gray hair (or whatever she is trying to alter). I bet she would appreciate your candor and, more than that, your unconditional love. Sometimes that’s enough to get one through the day, isn’t it?

You might also gently tell her that hair dye has been fingered in a number of health concerns. We know it contains carcinogenic ingredients — here’s a handy overview from the Food and Drug Administration — but when you comb through the data you’ll see that the science is not absolutely sure about all the various connections. Over the years, studies have connected long-term hair dye exposure to increased risks of leukemia, non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, and bladder cancer. Women in their first trimester of pregnancy are encouraged to forgo it, just to be safe. Should we not apply the same precaution in all stages of life? I vote yes.

I think you and your wife should also make a trip to the Environmental Working Group’s Skin Deep Database and look up the exact brand she uses to find out more about its ingredients and the potential hazards they pose. I often recommend this site, because it’s an amazing resource for all manner of head-to-toe personal care products, from hair dye to foot spritzers. (Foot spritzers? That’s a thing? Just when I think I have a grasp of what’s going on in the world.)

Your wife might brush you off. Or she might decide she wants to avoid these toxic products but still wants to achieve some color other than her own. In that case, you could encourage her to look into the natural options available, from lightening with lemons to darkening with coffee grinds (Grist readers and others swear by them). There is of course the love-it-or-hate-it henna, and a little poking around online will yield other natural routes for your wife’s roots.

In the course of writing this column, I came across statistics suggesting that up to 75 percent of adult women have dyed their hair at some point, and 7 percent of men. It irks me to no end to think how many of those people are knowingly or unknowingly pouring chemicals onto their bodies just to live up to some externally imposed standard of beauty. A word to the wise: Don’t approach me when I’m fuming about the cosmetics industry. It’s not a pretty sight.