To Dye Hair or Not? Does Coloring Your Locks Cause Cancer?

My hair is finally growing back after many months of baldness. During the time of “no hair” I wore wigs or caps, no exceptions.
And then about 45 days post melphalan, I started seeing the first signs that my hair was growing. Hooray! Last month, we went to Costa Rica and Nicaragua and I just couldn’t wear a wig in the heat and humidity so I went natural—either the small amount of hair on my head was good enough or I wore hats to keep my scalp from burning.
Today, I have maybe one inch of hair and I have ventured out, even among people I know, with it as is. I’ve been stopped a few times asking who does my hair. So apparently I don’t look like Cancer Girl anymore—some people think I did this on purpose. It is different than my long hair. I’ve had to start developing a new “brand” on how I see myself and how others might see me. Short hair is stronger, more angles, harsher. Ok, fine. I think it ages me but perhaps I’m just getting older,  (and I’m happy to age, because that means I’m still alive). But… my hair is coming back all sorts of grey and I don’t like it. I desperately want to color it light blonde—like Mia Farrow in Rosemary’s Baby.
But what is concerning me is the toxins I may be exposing myself. Pre cancer diagnosis, I colored my hair about once per month. I also got Brazilian blow-outs, which make one’s hair super silky, shiny, and straight. Did this contribute to getting multiple myeloma? When I did my first tandem stem cell transplants and my hair grew back, I colored my hair about once per month. No Brazilian blow-outs this time—I decided the toxic risks were too great. I also switched up all my haircare products, like shampoos, conditioners and hairsprays, to organic-type products. No parabens, at a minimum. There are a surprisingly great number of products that fall into this category. 

But now it’s time to decide… color or not? Grey or blonde? Are hair dyes toxic enough to cause cancer? I did a little research and found this from the American Cancer Society. Here are excerpts that summarize findings…

It’s not clear how much personal hair dye use might raise cancer risk, if at all. Most studies done so far have not found a strong link, but more studies are needed to help clarify this issue.

Most of the studies looking at whether hair dye products increase the risk of cancer have focused on certain cancers such as bladder cancer, non-Hodgkin lymphoma, leukemia, and breast cancer. These studies have looked at 2 groups of people:

  • People who use hair dyes regularly
  • People who are exposed to them at work

Bladder cancer: Most studies of people exposed to hair dyes at work, such as hairdressers and barbers, have found a small but fairly consistent increased risk of bladder cancer. However, studies looking at people who have their hair dyed have not found a consistent increase in bladder cancer risk.

Leukemias and lymphomas: Studies looking at a possible link between personal hair dye use and the risk of blood-related cancers such as leukemia and lymphoma have had mixed results. For example, some studies have found an increased risk of certain types of non-Hodgkin lymphoma (but not others) in women who use hair dyes, especially if they began use before 1980 and/or use darker colors. The same types of results have been found in some studies of leukemia risk. However, other studies have not found an increased risk. If there is an effect of hair dye use on blood-related cancers, it is likely to be small.

Breast and other cancers: Most studies looking at hair dye use and breast cancer have not found an increased risk. For other types of cancer, too few studies have been done to be able to draw any firm conclusions.

Many people use hair dyes, so it is important that more studies are done to get a better idea if these dyes affect cancer risk.

For me, all of this is… clear as mud. So am I going to color my hair? Well, vanity won the day. I did it. I love it. And I’m now on a quest to find a good hair color that is non-toxic and one that my stylist will agree to try on me.

A new hair color for me! Now on to finding a non-toxic version before “next time”


About Author

Lizzy Smith was diagnosed with myeloma in 2012 at age 44. Within days, she left her job, ended her marriage, moved, and entered treatment. "To the extent I'm able, I want to prove that despite life's biggest challenges, it is possible to survive and come out stronger than ever," she says.


  1. Hi Lizzy, I love your articles (and Jenny’s!) Actually I just love all of Myeloma Crowd, here and on FB. Great post here! I am older than you, but not ready for “field mouse grey/brown” yet, as I’ve always been a very light natural blonde. After SCT (2010), I became a grey, brown, blonde, multi-color curly poodle head. Very funny and fun at first, but it was so interesting other’s reactions to me “chemo-reinvented”, short old lady looking hair. Such a psychological study of human reactions… anyway, I eventually decided to hi-light my hair back blonde. Blonde is me, and bla-post SCT hair just wasn’t for me… I never previously did the full head dye, always hi-lighted with foils, so the chemicals did not come in contact with my scalp. But it’s still chemicals we’re breathing and I’m sure absorbed into our skin… my hair did great on Revlimid/Dex, but is thinning with Kyprolis/Dex, so I have been thinking about buzzing again… not bald by any means, but thin… Anyway, I LOVE your cut and color! You look gorgeous! Loved your towel/spa look too. Thanks for all your great heartfelt and honest articles Lizzy! 🙂 <3

    • How nice– thank you!! I really need to try and find an organic color. And THEN try to find someone who will use it on me instead of their products. I also think that next time I’m going a little darker. Right now, I look like Billy Idol! Or John Bonjovi. Still, it is HAIR and I will just be happy with that. My hair is curly too. I hate to be crass but it’s sort of like pubic hair. As it grows, it starting to be slightly less curly. Honestly… it just confuses me so I wear a lot of bandanas and caps when it’s too crazy. Plus, it’s summer and it protects my scalp. Best of luck on your myeloma journey and managing that hair!

    • Thank you, Julie! You are THE BEST! 🙂 I think I’m going to stay blonder on top (using a cap to minimize contact with scalp) and let the underneath be dark. Why not? Might as well have fun with it!

  2. You look great! Anyway the chance of getting another cancer from dying your hair must be pretty near zero… or feeling good about yourself and not worrying cancels out any risk?

  3. Susan Mandel on

    You look fabulous, Lizzy! You wear short hair really well. In fact, I think I like it better than your long locks. I, too, color my hair and have for years, but I was exposed to radiation as a little girl, which I strongly believe is the culprit of my MM and not the hair highlighting and coloring. (I had back pain before I started coloring, so I’m not going to worry about it.) I am enjoying a red tone to my head right now, because I will look too old with all the grey that’s coming in! Thanks for these helpful articles. I just read the one on kidney function monitoring. I have been concerned about that for a while and your article was very helpful.

    • Thank you Susan! I think I am going to grow my hair out a bit more and stop. The short hair feels good in this heat! Best, Lizzy

  4. Inevitably hairdye on scalp is found in fat and organs inducing
    several cancers. One chemical in hairdye is “Phenylenediamine”
    by Dupont who states in their MSD-sheet to use gloves and cap,
    but hairdye companies only include gloves giving a false safe.

  5. My neighbor is 98 years old (and is healthy!) and colors her hair regularly. However, I am 67, have lightened my hair my entire life and was just diagnosed with a blood cancer. The problem with association is that our environment is so toxic, our food so degraded with chemicals, that I cannot blame my condition on hair color. Good genetics seem to be the protective factor for women like my neighbor.

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