Your hair color could be toxic, according to advocates. (Photo: Getty Images)
A group of public health advocacy organizations is petitioning the Food and Drug Administration to bar a lead compound it says is toxic from hair dyes. Lead acetate, a widely used ingredient that darkens gray hair, is a neurotoxin and carcinogen that should not appear in hair dyes, the group says in a joint petition.
The group, which includes the Environmental Defense Fund, the Environmental Working Group, and the Breast Cancer Fund, among others, is asking the FDA to revisit a 1980 decision that allowed lead acetate to remain in hair dyes.
“Most people know that lead is highly toxic to small children, but lead is also harmful to adults,” Sonya Lunder, senior analyst at the EWG, tells Yahoo Beauty. Lead can cause kidney damage and adverse neurological effects in healthy adults, she says, noting that the Canadian government banned lead acetate hair dyes in 2008, determining that their use could “result in the accumulation of potentially harmful body burdens of lead.”
Janet Nudelman, director of program and policy at the Breast Cancer Fund and director of the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, agrees. “Lead and lead compounds are considered the ‘gold standard’ for bad-actor chemicals, linked to cancer, brain and kidney damage, and infertility,” she tells Yahoo Beauty. “Especially troubling is the large body of scientific evidence showing that lead is a potent neurotoxin with no safe level of exposure for children, and is particularly harmful to pregnant women.”
Of course, most children probably aren’t using hair dye to cover grays, but Tom Neltner, chemicals policy director at the EDF, tells Yahoo Beauty that they can still be exposed to it. Here’s how: When people dye their hair, the dye can get on their hands, which can then touch a faucet handle that a child touches later. “Anyone using that bathroom is likely to get exposed,” he says, adding that people could then put their hands near their mouth, accidentally ingesting the lead acetate in the process. People can also be exposed by touching the hair of a person who has used dye containing lead acetate. “If someone touches that hair, some of the lead comes off,” Neltner says.
Because people typically dye their hair more than once, that repeat use can cause lead to rub off and linger on other household products, such as towels, phones, and pillows, where it could pose a risk to other people, Lunder says. And, of course, lead acetate could also harm the people coloring their hair — it can be absorbed into the skin, Nudelman adds.
Once someone is exposed to lead, it’s not something their body is easily rid of. “It comes out slowly,” Neltner says. “The longer you’ve been exposed, the longer it will take, but it generally takes time.”
While lead acetate appears in some hair color, it’s easy to spot those products — they list the compound on the label. “Consumers should read hair dye labels carefully and by doing so should be able to avoid lead acetate,” Nudelman says. There is a safer alternative to lead acetate — bismuth — and it works the same way. “As far as I know, I don’t see any problems with it,” Neltner says.
But, Nudelman points out, people shouldn’t have to be up to speed on chemistry in order to protect themselves from toxic chemicals. “Lead acetate has no business being in hair dye or any cosmetic product given how much we know about its toxicity and harmful health effects,” she says.
The FDA must make a final decision within 180 days. If the petition is approved, the ban will be effective immediately upon publication in the Federal Register, the group says.
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