The cytogenic repercussions of occupational exposure to oxidation hair dyes were assessed by using three assays in professional hair colorists. The assays were sister chromatid exchanges (SCE) in circulating lymphocytes to evaluate the interchange of DNA replication products at apparently homologous chromosomal loci, single cell gel electrophoretic (SCGE) assay to detect the presence of DNA strand breaks/alkali-labile damage, and the Ames assay using Salmonella typhimurium strain TA98 to detect the urine mutagenicity. The ability of these assays to detect genetic damage caused by oxidation hair dyes in man compared with closely matched controls produced the following findings. (i) The SCE assay could not detect the mutagenic effect in lymphocytes of exposed subjects from whom complete data were obtained. However, subjects (controls and exposed) with a history of smoking had slightly increased SCEs than the non-smokers in both groups. (ii) The extent of DNA migration (SCGE assay) did not distinguish between the samples in either the exposed or control subjects. Like the SCE results, the exposed and control smoker subjects showed a greater proportion of damaged lymphocytes with apparent migration of DNA. (iii) No clear differences in the mutagenic activity of the urine samples were observed between the exposed and control subjects. But, pooling exposed and controls together, a positive and significant variation in the urinary mutagenic effect was observed with the number of cigarettes smoked per day. (C) 1997 Elsevier Science B.V.