Dad’s lead-laden hair dye could impact the whole family: FDA to consider barring lead compound in widely-used men’s hair dyes

Jack Pratt is Chemicals Campaign Director

Today, EDF joined a group of advocates in filing a petition that could force a ban on lead in hair dyes. Over the last several decades, we have gone to great lengths to reduce lead exposure—from eliminating the use of lead in gasoline, to tackling legacy uses in paint and water pipes. Yet, somewhat incredibly, lead is still permitted in hair dyes in the United States. Unfortunately, the evidence indicates that use can have an impact not only on the men who use it (it is seemingly exclusive to men’s dyes) but can have an impact on kids in the house too. That’s why FDA should take action and reverse their decades-old approval of lead in hair dyes.

No one contests that lead is a potent neurotoxin, with an especially devilish impact on

Think twice about how you cover up that gray.

kids. Children with elevated blood lead levels can see life-long impacts, including lost IQ points, ADHD and other significant cognitive and health impacts. While there are still critical areas that require attention—such as the lead pipes providing drinking water to millions of Americans and the hazard of old lead paint—decades of work on lead policies has made a real impact, resulting in significant declines in children’s exposure. Some of these policy initiatives were quite dramatic, like removing lead from gasoline, but the societal impact has been well worth the trouble.

For all that work, it is surprising—astonishing really—that an intentional, purely cosmetic use of lead remains permitted. Today you can walk into almost any drug store or supermarket in the United States and purchase a so-called “progressive” men’s hair dye that could contain as much as one gram of lead. While use of lead acetate in hair dyes is prohibited in Canada and the European Union, the U.S. FDA approved of such use in 1980. That approval included only minimal restrictions—a vague warning label and that the dye only be used on the scalp, not on facial hair. The levels of lead in the product are allowed to be as high as 6000 ppm. To put that in perspective, three years before FDA’s decision, the Consumer Product Safety Commission banned the sale of household paint containing more than 600 ppm of lead.

The petition filed by EDF and our colleagues cites cases where users of such hair dyes have noticed real health impacts, including one user who didn’t realize it should not be used on facial hair and lost feeling in his hands and feet. He did not return to normal for a year.

Perhaps more notably, however, the petition cites major advances in science since the 1980 FDA decision that show the risks go beyond the users themselves and put other members of their family at risk. One such study showed lead contamination from the hair dyes—especially on surfaces touched after using the hair dye like blow-dryers, combs and faucets—and found these surfaces had up to 2,804 micrograms of lead per square foot. In 2001, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) said that more than 40 micrograms of lead per square foot on the floor posed a hazard to children.

I certainly understand the desire for a youthful appearance—I’ve got more than a few grey hairs myself. But as the parent of two small children, there is simply no contest for where my priorities lie, especially since there are many hair dyes that do not contain lead. I’m sure that many, if not most, users of these products have no idea they could be putting their health and that of their families at risk. FDA now has 6 months to review the petition and make a final decision. This should be a no-brainer—FDA should take action to protect Americans from this unnecessary source of lead exposure.

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