Toxic Hair

My hair is at its best in the wintertime because I can then wear a hat, which flattens it down, especially if I sleep in the hat.

Does it ever look like a nylon wig?

Well yes, it does sometimes if I’ve been sleeping in the hat. But wiggy or not, when it begins to hang close to my head I get respect and find myself more readily accepted.

Well, why not try to get it to look like that all the time?

I would have to move to the North Pole.

“You have beautiful hair,” they all gushed when I was a child—lush and so dark a brown, it seemed almost black.

At age twelve, after a pixie haircut, it looked all endy. So my aunt took me to a haircutter, who evened it out. I set it on rollers every night, lined my eyes with liquid eyeliner, and wore pale tangerine lipstick. Then a friend suggested I let it grow long and become a beatnik.

My college roommate had fine, limp hair. She aimed what looked like a small vacuum cleaner at it—and it came out fluffy. This was something I had never seen before. High school classmates would place their head on an ironing board and have a friend carefully press their hair using a towel. Before that, a smooth roller-set flip had been the gold standard—for brunettes. But unlike Jackie or the Johnson girls, this roommate had light hair that was easy to blow-dry–the hair of the future.

“You’re looking more like a head of hair that has a girl than a girl with a head of hair,” my aunt was saying; and my mother: “If you put something on it while it’s wet it will flatten it down.”

I dropped out of college and took a job as a “correspondent” at Colonial Penn insurance company, copying paragraphs of boilerplate from a loose-leaf book in response to old people’s questions about their AARP policies. My boss called me in and made me take off my armband protesting the war.

So I quit and went back to being a nature girl. My hair with its snakelike tangles, its rich darkness–really a luminous red when held up to the light–was beautiful. It just looked awful to some people. One look and they hated me. Truck drivers screamed, “Take a bath.” I’d give them the finger. They would jump out of their vehicle, spoiling for a fight.

“A woman’s hair problems never end,” my mother said.

But I went to Elizabeth Arden on Locust Street and got a smart cut; then people said, “Oh now you have that high-fashion look.” Sadly, it began to look shaggy; it was long past time for a trim, and . . .

You reach a point beyond which you can no longer get any assistance from a salon. Try walking in and they’ll assign you to a trainee—who will snip away, spend a half hour blow-drying your hair, and then have you loyally returning at short intervals, looking like a eunuch in the interim. But your wallet will have a nice haircut.

“You have the thickest hair I have ever seen”—an acquaintance was tossing her sparsely shimmering locks. I would have happily reminded her that thick hair is associated with a higher level of intelligence but for the fact this only applies to body hair on men.

Keratin–a protein found in the horns, nails, hooves, claws and hair of mammals (including people)–when mixed with the right amount of formaldehyde, applied to the hair, and sealed in with a flat iron, can temporarily restore the hair’s adolescent smoothness.

Formaldehyde is an established carcinogen, but the Keratin process won’t work without it. In September 2011, the FDA warned that the Brazilian Blowout products contain “dangerously high levels”–from 8.7 per cent  to 10.4 per cent. Some supposedly formaldehyde-free products contain formaldehyde derivatives.

My first intimation that people who appear to have naturally straight hair regularly straighten their hair occurred a decade ago. A Korean friend suggested I come along when she went to have her hair thermally reconditioned (also called Japanese straightening). All of these hair-straightening methods can cause hair breakage and consequent loss.  Traditional relaxers, popular among African-Americans, contain ingredients such as lye, which can cause burns, sodium hydroxide, and other alkaline chemicals.

Eech. Now it frizzes so easily. I touch it with a comb and it breaks into more lifeless dry layers. Do I have to squander my bank account—and possibly even risk lymphoma to refashion this gray pyramid into some colorful ribbony disguise?

Higher rates of non-Hodgkin lymphoma have been found among women who regularly used permanent dark dyes to color their hair before 1980 (the risk may not be limited to them) and hairdressers have a greatly increased risk of bladder cancer. In response to an email inquiry to the FDA regarding their current position on hair dyes, I was told they don’t issue medical opinions. But a Consumer Affairs Specialist (from the Communication and Coordination Branch of the Division of Education and Communication, Office of Food Defense, Communication, Education and Response, at the Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition) was kind enough to pass along the following:

Several ingredients in coal-tar dyes have been found to cause cancer in laboratory animals. In the case of 4-methoxy-m-phenylenediamine (4-MMPD, 2,4-diaminoanisole) which had also been demonstrated in human and animal studies to penetrate the skin, the agency considered the risk associated with its use in hair dyes a “material fact” which should be made known to consumers. The regulation requiring a label warning on hair dye products containing 4-MMPD published in October 1979 was to become effective April 16, 1980. The regulation required that hair dyes containing 4-MMPD bear the following warning:

Warning – Contains an ingredient that can penetrate your skin and has been determined to cause cancer in laboratory animals.

Some hair dyes manufacturers held that the potential risk was too small to be considered “material” and challenged the validity of the regulation in court. The agency decided to reconsider its earlier position, entered into a consent agreement with hair dye manufacturers, and stayed the effectiveness of the regulation until completion of an assessment of the carcinogenic risk of 4-MMPD in accordance with scientifically accepted procedures.

In addition to 4-MMPD, the following other hair dye ingredients have been reported to cause cancer in at least one animal species in lifetime feeding studies: 4-chloro-m-phenylenediamine, 2,4-toluenediamine, 2-nitro-p-phenylenediamine and 4-amino-2-nitrophenol. They were also found to penetrate human and animal skin.

Most hair dyes are now made from petroleum sources but the FDA still considers them coal-tar dyes. It is widely assumed that voluntary changes in the chemical composition made by manufacturers in 1980 made them safer–although many of the new ingredients are similar to the ones they’re replacing; they don’t go through any safety testing; and studies may not have allowed for the long time lag between exposure and the onset of cancer. In the meantime, the American Cancer Society, while minimizing the likelihood of any cancer connection, advises consumers to avoid them where possible—and to consider putting off dyeing your hair till you’re old and gray and likely to die first from some other cause.

Allergic reactions to an ingredient in most permanent dyes, PPD (para-phenylenediamine), can occur—and children as young as 12 have ended up in intensive care—but most of those affected never seek medical treatment.

My hairdresser assured me she was using a semipermanent–not a permanent–dye. But I thought I would go even one step further and brought in a box of Herbatint, a product sold in health food stores, and had her use that. On this particular day, she was exuberant because she had just cut a celebrity’s hair and she ran out and left the stuff in my hair for a full hour. When she finally got back and told her assistant to rinse out my hair it was almost black but it looked great. I thought, she has finally restored my youthful color.

Later, when I checked out Herbatint on the Environmental Working Group website (, which ranks cosmetics, shampoos, sunscreens and other consumer products—based on their ingredients–on a scale of one to ten, ten being the most dangerous–I discovered Herbatint had a grade of 7 and contained mutagenic carcinogenic chemicals believed to cause—among other things–cancer, neurotoxicity, reproductive and organ toxicity, and endocrine disruption.

. . . I know this much for certain–every time she uses dye of any kind, my scalp stings, and it seems to thin out the hair. Particularly this last time.

Many months along now, I find myself wearing hats and berets so as to avoid a two-tone look–and nearly succumb to an urge to re-dye the roots, but my new hairdresser says, “Do you really want to spend years letting it grow out again?” She likes the idea of naturally gray/white hair. Anyway, she is convinced that dark brown hair looks unnatural on an older person.

At a local trendy shop, I talk hair with a friendly retiree who works there part-time. Her hair is smartly styled: casual, edgy, feminine short. “It didn’t really come into its own until I let it go gray,” she says. She advises me to tend to my hair properly while it’s growing in and refers me to a high-end salon. I tell her I had envisioned an effortless look that was actually effortless.

On the street outside I notice a tall woman with a gray spinsterish hairdo chatting with another woman who is considerably younger—or maybe it’s just her colored hair. They are loading a car together. The gray one’s movements are small, self-effacing; she seems to be trying to offer the other one some advice, but to no avail. Given that young people can make it a point of honor to not hear or comprehend anything a woman with a gray bun is saying—I suppose it’s not surprising. She is being directed around.

In the supermarket parking lot I see two more dye-free women of a certain age, resplendent in the noonday sun. The stark whiteness of their coiffures, at least in broad daylight, looks somewhat unnatural–when compared to a skillful dye job—as if they are trying to get attention or make a statement. It also makes it difficult to discern their ages—which could be anywhere from fifty to eighty. Each has resolved her hair issues differently. One wears a buzz cut; the other has her white mane tightly slicked back into a high, narrow pony tail. Neither style is right for me—nor for them; they both look a little wacky.

But I will grow my hair. Already it’s shoulder length. I ask my new hairdresser, “How do you think it will look when it is long—and pulled back–with bangs.”

“Oh God,” she says. “Gray hair and a bun. Are you kidding?”

Maybe I will follow my mother’s advice and wear a hat.

Kathy Deacon is a free-lance writer living in New York.


Kathy Deacon can be reached at