Albany Times Union


By Kristi L. Gustafson
Albany Times Union

Tuesday, February 24, 2004

“Scientists probing cancer-hair dye risks”    It was a small item in the newspaper, but it caught Ania Bickham’s eye. Hair coloring and cancer? As the owner of Ania Hair Studio in Guilderland, those are definitely not words Bickham wants to see in the same sentence.

But there they were, and for personal and professional reasons Bickham did a little research on the purported link between hair dye and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a form of cancer that begins in the lymph system.

She wanted to both educate herself and to be able to address concerns raised by customers.

“One client did call asking about the study and worried if it was OK for her to dye her hair,” says Bickham.”But I reassured her the dyes we use are safe, and we have not been cautioned against using them.”

The study, out of Yale University, looked at more than 1,300 women. It found those who began coloring their hair before 1980 increased their chances of developing non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma by 40 percent.

The most significant finding, says Tongzhang Zheng, the Yale epidemiologist who led the study, was evidence of a possible link between the disease and long-term use of permanent, dark (brown, black, red) hair dye.

“Light colors didn’t seem to be as much of a concern,” says Zheng, adding the risk doubled for those who darkened their hair frequently (eight times a year or more) for at least 25 years.

That may sound alarming, but other experts say women don’t have to suddenly resign themselves to spending the rest of their lives with their natural hair color.

The statistics

“I see the disease in plenty of men, and they don’t dye their hair,” says David Riseberg, a medical oncologist with Mercy Medical Center in Baltimore. “Women shouldn’t say, ‘I can’t dye my hair because I’m going to get cancer.’ … (T)here have been studies to say there isn’t a link.”

Regardless of hair dye, the average American woman has a 1-in-57 chance of developing non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma in her lifetime, according to the American Cancer Society. For men, the chance is 1 in 48.

Josephine Amore, who started darkening her hair in the past year to cover gray and add sheen, says she’d need more and better evidence before opting not to dye.

“It seems every day you turn the news on there is something else out there that will cause cancer,” says Amore, who is 43 and lives in Albany. “I’m not going to stop dying my hair because of some small study.”

Determined dyers think like Amore. Bickham’s staff darkens hundreds of heads of hair a week — 20 percent of her dye jobs are dark colors — and hasn’t seen a drop-off.

“We just had a meeting last week and none of the staff had had clients who expressed any kind of concern,” says Bickham.

Foiled again

One option for those concerned with the study’s findings is foils, a method popular among pregnant women because the dye doesn’t touch the scalp.

“Foiling is a little more expensive because it takes more time,” says Bickham. But if people are worried enough, she says, time and money are probably less of a concern.

Since there has been no conclusive study, caution can’t hurt, says Susan Fisher, chief of epidemology at the James P. Wilmost Cancer Center at the University of Rochester Medical Center.

“Cancer should never be taken lightly,” says Fisher, adding that similar studies have proved comparable results, while others came back mixed. “But in this case, the evidence seems a little weak.”

She sees potential for error in the study, starting with the small sample size. More importantly, researchers were asking women to recount what they did to their hair as many as 25 years ago.

“If I’m sitting here with cancer I remember a lot more of the bad things that happened to me,” says Fisher. “As opposed to someone who has the same hair-dye history but is healthy.”

Michael Shaw, too, says the Yale study doesn’t hold a lot of weight because cancer is so unpredictable. The California-based biochemist, with Interscan Corporation, closely follows medical studies linking cancer to behavior.

“Cancer is so much more complicated than just saying ‘avoid this’ or ‘avoid that,’ ” says Shaw. “If you could have a list of all the things to avoid, that would be great, but it’s just not possible.”