by Scott Sachse
While medical experts debate the cancer risks posed by the use of chemical hair dyes, there is little argument about one thing: it’s a topic that demands further research. A report by the National Cancer Institute on the subject notes that, in the U.S., 30% of women over 18 years old use some form of hair dye, as do 10% of men over forty. This amounts to well over 40 million hair dye users in the U.S. alone. The same report indicates that 80% of the hair dyes used contain chemicals.
Before discussing the scientific findings mentioned in the NCI report, here’s a personal story:
My wife has been dyeing her hair since her mid-fifties. I know this because she uses me to finish the job on the places she can’t reach, namely the back of her head. It’s a ritual we share, one that has grown more frequent as her thick black hair has gradually grayed.
The monthly routine is more or less the same. Sometimes I get a warning the previous night, other times she just announces it that morning: “It’s time for your second favorite thing!” (lol, girl.) I recognize the irony instantly, and let out a theatrical groan.
She mixes that black tar sludge and applies it to the accessible parts of her head herself, in front of her mirror. Then she sits in a sunny spot on the porch, and hands me the goods.
I take the tray and hard-bristled dyeing brush, and begin to work the goo into the hair at the back of her head. If you’ve never performed this operation, you’re lucky. There’s a reason people use latex gloves (tho I never do) when applying chemical hair dyes. The concoction stains like hot asphalt slurry, and smells just a strong. I learned long ago (at her insistence) how to get this paste deep into her scalp and hair follicles; I push the gooped-up bristles firmly against her skull, draw down along the roots, then outward. The whole point is to blacken every white and silver strand, to eliminate the dreaded “oreo effect” where the hair grows out.
Hey, it takes about fifteen minutes. A husband’s gotta show some love, right?
When my wife was diagnosed with breast cancer this past August, our initial reaction was: What? There must be some mistake. There’s no history of cancer in our family. We eat right and exercise! We’re healthy! Yet even as we tried to deny it, the biopsy and visits to the oncologist were confirming the diagnosis. Sadly, what I am telling you is the truth. No time was wasted. It was just a matter of weeks before she underwent surgery, and then the chemo started.
If you think having a wife with no hair is sad, think again. That’s a breeze (though I think it broke her heart.) Seeing your wife barely able to stand after an infusion of four powerful chemotherapy drugs – now that will get to you. The catheter in her chest for a year is no fun. Catching the comments of other female chemo patients in her weekly support group zoom meetings – some of those words will stay in your head forever.
My wife has now finished the four-month ‘heavy’ chemo regimen. She’s also completed her month-long, daily radiation treatment. (The burns on her chest and back are fading.) Because of her specific type of breast cancer, she still has to continue lighter chemo infusions for another six months. But the doctor has been optimistic about her recovery prospects all along. Her prognosis is excellent.
I’m certainly no expert on cancer, so I won’t pretend I know how my wife got it. You can read the report by the National Cancer Institute on Hair Dyes and Cancer Risk at: https://www.cancer.gov/about-cancer/causes-prevention/risk/myths/hair-dyes-fact-sheet#where-can-a-person-find-more-information-about-hair-dyes
But you can be sure about this. Now that my wife’s hair is starting to grow back, we are going to think very carefully about how she – and I – treat it.