Is hair dye safe while expecting? A colorist (and mom) weighs in

I had just started my first job as a hairstylist and colorist at the start of 2007 when I found out I was pregnant with my first child. Naturally, I freaked out. “Would the chemicals I was exposed to at work harm my baby?” I worried. I knew I could find ways to avoid other chemicals like hairspray and perm solution but I work with hair dyes all day long. I get it on my hands, I breathe the fumes, I take my breaks in the same room it’s mixed in, and I have my own hair colored. Colleagues assured me I’d be fine, but I’m a bit of a worrier and I was skeptical. So I set out to find out if hair color is truly safe for pregnant women.

Much to my surprise, it’s hard to get a straight answer. My doctor at the time told me something along the lines of, “It should be fine.” That seemed like a vague response to a pretty important question, given my new profession. I wondered why so little research had been done on a topic that affected so many women. Stylists aside, many women of child-bearing age count on their monthly touch-up or 6-week highlight to boost their confidence. But as I soon found, it’s not the easiest subject to research.

First of all, hair-coloring products including permanent dyes, demi-permanent dyes, and semi-permanent dyes (which wash out over time), not to mention various lightening agents, all contain thousands of different chemicals. In other words, consistency in testing a major issue, according to Cancer.org. Secondly, hair color formulations are constantly evolving and improving. For example, L’Or’al Professionel’s INOA is a relatively new permanent color line that uses no ammonia, so long-term studies aren’t possible yet. Finally, while animal testing has not shown changes in fetal development, humans aren’t identical to animals – and it’s obviously unethical to test on human fetuses.

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Despite the limited data, it does appear to be widely regarded as safe to use hair dye while pregnant. The Mayo Clinic reports that although a small amount of dye is absorbed through the skin, “the dye isn’t thought to pose harm to a developing baby.” Pregnancy.org states that “many experts now contend that the dyes are most likely safe and that women needn’t be afraid.” My current care provider, Sherri Ruerup, CMN, MS, offered that “when using these products, as long as the scalp skin is not compromised (burned or deeply cut), there is extremely limited systemic absorption. Because there is such minimal absorption, the dyes are unlikely to cause any negative effects to the developing baby.”

Additionally, my industry is dominated by women, many of whom are mothers. In my humble opinion, I think if there was a serious health risk, some sort of pattern among cosmetologists would be fairly evident by now. In fact, the agency that provides information regarding exposures during pregnancies, the Organization of Teratology Information Services (OTIS), has never had a report of hair dye causing any change in a pregnancy.

Still, it is a difficult decision. The ingredients in hair coloring products and lighteners are chemicals, and many holistic doctors are still skeptical about their use during pregnancy. Leading alternative doctor Andrew Weil, MD discourages the use of hair color for all people, not just pregnant women, stating that the artificial colors “are as suspect in cosmetic products as they are in food.”

If you have concerns, pediatrician Dr. Mary Parker suggests following the advice on the American Pregnancy Association’s website. Should you want to err on the side of caution, the site offers a few great suggestions. For example, you may choose to wait until after the first trimester, when key neurological functions are developing. You can also consider highlighting processes, which keep dyes off the scalp. If you color your hair at home, be sure to wear gloves and apply the color in a well-ventilated area.

Now that I’ve been in the business a while, I no longer have anxiety about the chemicals in hair color or their potential effects on unborn children. I know many women who came in for their once-a-month touch-up throughout their pregnancies and went on to have happy, healthy children. My own son is now 4 years old, rarely sick, and he’s in the 95th% percentile for height and weight, passed his vision and hearing test with flying colors, and is smart as a whip. So is hair dye safe while pregnant? As far as I can see, yes.

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