With Paul Clark, intern for U.S. PIRG Education Fund's Toxics team

Lead acetate is a substance used since the Roman Empire added it as a sweetener to food and drinks. But today we don’t drink it — we know that lead acetate can cause serious health problems. Some health risks posed include lung irritation, abdominal pain, nausea, high lead levels in blood and urine, cancer, and even death in the most serious cases.

So lead acetate is no longer used as a sweetener. But we are still at risk. Lead acetate is common in hair dyes — particularly, in “progressive” hair dyes. Progressive hair dyes, more commonly used by men, work to cover gray hair gradually. The color transition is subtler; this gradual transition makes progressive hair dyes a popular choice for men. The most common progressive hair dye brands are Grecian Hair Color, GrayBan, and Restoria.

Lead acetate is the ingredient in progressive hair dyes responsible for the gradual coloration of hair. When the lead acetate reacts with oxygen, colorful pigments are produced, darkening gray hair. For maximum effectiveness, progressive hair dye manufacturers advise using shampoo less, avoiding too much direct sunlight, and avoiding chlorinated water. In other words, stay inside and do not wash your hair. This is a problem when you’ve just put lead acetate over your head, and continue to sit and breathe in the fumes indoors.

Continued exposure to lead acetate is potentially a serious health concern, and it is time for the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to ban its use in hair products.

The FDA passed a regulation in the early 2000s allowing the use of lead acetate in hair dyes. This is despite a study done by the U.S. National Library of Medicine that found lead acetate to have a harmful effect on experimental male albino rats. The study advises people to avoid exposure to lead acetate. Lead acetate is currently banned in Canada and Europe, and it is time for the United States to join them.

U.S. PIRG Education Fund, along with over fifty other environmental and health organizations, is calling for the FDA to reconsider the use of lead acetate in progressive hair dyes. Lead acetate has been linked to skin irritation, abdominal cramps, nausea, convulsions, lead poisoning, cancer, and death in the most serious cases. Because men use most progressive hair products, men are most at risk. The health risks are not worth it, and it is time for the FDA to recognize that.