Lead is not something you want in your water, paint, food, or personal care products. You might not realise this, but lead acetate is found in a certain type of hair dye, on the basis of old studies that found it didn’t migrate from hair into the bloodstream. This week, the FDA finally banned it – which makes its continued use in Australia a bit of a worry.
The hair dyes in question are the kind, like Grecian Formula, that are marketed as gradually darkening your hair over the course of days or weeks. They’re mainly sold to men.
Lead acetate works by bonding to hair, and darkening in the presence of oxygen. The hair only darkens a little bit with each treatment, so you’re supposed to use them repeatedly, darkening your hair slightly each time. The FDA calls them “progressive” hair dyes.
These dyes probably aren’t going to kill you, but they do carry a risk of introducing lead into your body or getting into the hands of children. These products have already had to be packaged with a warning saying not to use the dye if you have cuts or abrasions on your scalp, and to not use it on facial or body hair, and to wash your hands after use.
Several consumer groups in the US petitioned the FDA to reexamine the study that they used to originally determine that the shampoos were safe enough for the market. The FDA announced:
This decision takes into account that, according to the U.S. Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, there is no safe exposure level for lead; there were deficiencies identified in a 1980 study estimating exposure to lead from hair dye that originally supported its use; and the fact that blood lead levels in the U.S. have dropped significantly since 1980, so we no longer can conclude that potential exposure to lead from lead acetate-containing hair dyes is insignificant.
That last sentence is a little bit of good news: we’ve done enough work toward eliminating the big sources of lead in our environment that little ones like hair dye are worth looking at now too.
Companies have 12 months to stop making the lead-containing dyes. Many have already replaced lead acetate with bismuth citrate, especially if they also sell their products in Canada or the European Union. In those places, lead acetate was already banned.
In Australia, lead acetate is still used in cosmetic products. However if you would like to avoid the potential health risks consider importing your products from either the US, Canada or countries in the EU.