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Ob/Gyn Salena Zanotti, MD, dives into hair dye, pregnancy and its effects on fetal development.
Hair color, whether you purchase it in a store or go to the salon, contains chemicals. And we know that recent research has raised questions about how safe hair dye is in general. But that doesn’t necessarily mean your hair has to go au naturel throughout your whole pregnancy.
“We don’t have much data on the safety of hair dyes during pregnancy,” Dr. Zanotti says. “But we do know that your skin is a strong barrier. Only minimal traces of the chemicals in hair dyes get absorbed into the body if you have a healthy scalp.”
Part of the reason our knowledge on the topic is limited has to do with the way we run clinical trials. People who are pregnant usually get excluded from studies for both ethical and cost reasons. It’s a double bind: We want to know how drugs or cosmetic products impact a pregnancy, but it’d be unethical to intentionally expose an individual who is pregnant to harm.
So, no, we don’t know much for sure. But don’t despair: There’s a lot of anecdotal evidence — meaning from healthy parents and children — to suggest dying your hair during pregnancy is generally safe.
Still, you can take these precautions to keep your hair coloring routine as safe as possible during pregnancy:
The first trimester is a time of rapid growth and development. Major organs are forming, including the brain and spinal cord. If you want to be cautious (and rest easier at night), wait until this critical period is over before reaching for the hair dye.
“Many doctors recommend holding off on hair color until week 13 of your pregnancy, just to be safe,” Dr. Zanotti reports.
There are many hairstyles that don’t require that your stylist apply dye to your scalp. Balayage, for example, gives your hair an ombre effect, with the artificial color being applied at the bottom of your hair and fading as you go up.
Highlights, lowlights, two-tone hair, streaks — there are a lot of styles out there that can be adapted to give you a pop of color without messing with your roots. This might be the time to try a brand-new look!
There’s a wide range of different hair dyes out there, composed of a wide variety of ingredients. That’s great, as it gives you the option to choose the dye that makes the most sense for you.
Maybe you want to use ammonia-free or peroxide-free dyes. Maybe you need to use a dye that’s formulated for sensitive skin. Maybe you found a brand of henna- or vegetable-based box dye that’s actually all natural. Score!
If you’re struggling to figure out what the best option is for you, talk to your stylist about the different coloring products they use and their chemical components.
According to the American Cancer Society, semi-permanent and permanent dyes contain larger quantities of chemicals that may be carcinogenic. If you’re concerned about dying your hair in the second or third trimester of your pregnancy — or any other time for that matter — opting for temporary color on special occasions might be the best choice for you.
“These conditions can cause tiny breaks in the skin and may decrease some of your skin’s protection,” Dr. Zanotti cautions. “You may also have more irritation or sensitivity from hair dye if you have skin conditions.”
Stick to the same hair dye you’ve used in the past to lower your risk of any unexpected reactions, too.
A hallmark of many pregnancies is having a supersensitive sniffer. Even smells you may have tolerated before could now send you running away gagging. Most hair dyes are a bit pungent, which might not mesh well with your newly delicate nose.
Save yourself some nausea or headaches by coloring your hair in a well-ventilated area. “Proper ventilation is also a good way to lower your exposure to chemicals in the air,” she adds.
Do your hands a favor and cover them up before you color your hair — pregnant or not.
“Skin can be more sensitive to irritation during pregnancy,” notes Dr. Zanotti. “So, always wear gloves when you’re coloring your hair. Even if you’re not pregnant, though, gloves are a necessity. You don’t want to stain your hands or expose them to irritating chemicals.”
If you’re breastfeeding (chestfeeding), you need to watch what goes into your body. Substances like alcohol and certain prescription drugs can end up in your breast milk. Tell your doctor about any medications you take if you’re planning on breastfeeding your baby.
Just like we don’t have a lot of research on how hair dye impacts fetal development, we have very little real data about the impact (if any) hair dye has on breast milk. Fortunately, there’s no evidence at this point to suggest that hair dye will get into your breast milk if you use it as directed. So, on balance, it seems highly unlikely that it would pose a risk to your baby.
“You can safely color your hair if you’re breastfeeding,” states Dr. Zanotti. “Just keep your baby out of the room when you’re coloring so the smells don’t irritate them. And you should still wear gloves and do it in a well-ventilated area.”
If you want to go for a lighter shade on your head, bleaching is usually the tool of choice. And like hair dye, hair bleaching products are likely safe to use during pregnancy, but more research is needed.
“Many people bleach their hair during pregnancy. The bleach does penetrate your skin, but not to a degree that most doctors would consider harmful,” says Dr. Zanotti.
“Follow the same precautions as you would with hair dye,” she urges. “Apply it in a well-ventilated area, wear gloves and wait until the second trimester for extra safety.”
There’s little research on the effects of perms and relaxers on fetal development, but recent analysis has found a significant correlation between the use of hair straightening products and uterine cancer.
The data, published in 2022, suggests a relationship, but much more research needs to happen to define that relationship. In other words, scientists can’t say, based on the available information, that using hair straightening products actually increases your cancer risk. If it does, though, that suggests that the chemicals being applied to the scalp when straightening hair cancause hormonal changes.
Here’s some good news: The same researchers that found the correlation between hair straighteners and uterine cancer didn’t see a correlation when looking at perm solutions.
Here’s some not-so-good news: Some people find relaxers aren’t as effective on their hair while they’re pregnant. So, you may not get the bang for your buck you’re hoping for.
If you opt to have your hair straightened during your pregnancy, Dr. Zanotti recommends doing some homework ahead of your appointment.
“If you’re getting a perm or relaxer treatment done at the salon, ask them about their ventilation practices. You don’t want to be getting a treatment done with two or three other people without ventilation. The smell could be overpowering and make you feel sick,” she says.
Hairstylists spend a lot of time on their feet. And during pregnancy, all those hours coloring and cutting hair can be even more exhausting. (Hello, back pain!) Try taking breaks and sitting when you can. And make sure to stay well hydrated during the day.
If your pregnancy is progressing well, you can work in a hair salon with a couple of basic precautions.
“Hairstylists should always wear gloves when coloring or perming hair,” Dr. Zanotti says. “And ventilation is even more important because you might be exposed to hair dye or other chemicals several times a day.”
She continues, “If you work in a salon, wear a mask at work to help reduce the risk of inhaling chemicals in the air.” And a bonus: It can help protect you from contagious respiratory viruses, too.
It’s hard to keep track of everything you should or shouldn’t do when you’re pregnant. If you aren’t sure if something is safe, don’t be afraid to ask your healthcare provider.
“Your doctor is here to help you have a healthy pregnancy,” Dr. Zanotti reassures. “If you’re concerned about something, call your doctor and ask. With their help, you can make the best decisions to ensure pregnancy is as safe as possible.”
While you’re at it, consider talking with your hair stylist. They know their way around hair, after all. And they may be able to help you find a style that will leave you looking great and feeling safe — whatever that means for you.