Are You Allergic To Hair Dye? Here’s How To Tell

While this isn’t your run-of-the-mill sensitivity, it can be severe. Here’s how to recognize a reaction and what to do if you’re not ready to go au naturel.
Written by Elise Minton Tabin
(10)Is this article helpful?9 min read
Are You Allergic To Hair Dye? Here’s How To TellAdam Winger/Unsplash

Imagine it going down like this: You fork over a pretty penny and the better part of your Saturday afternoon in hopes that you’ll walk out from behind the salon chair with gorgeous, natural-looking hair color that will have women chasing you down the street wanting your colorist’s name and number. Instead, you succumb to an allergic reaction on your scalp (or worse, your face, too) that rivals the itch and burn of chickenpox. While your color looks fabulous, the discomfort and pain leave you questioning if the J.Lo-inspired shade of honey brown locks was really worth it.

If this sounds familiar, you likely have a sensitivity to hair dye. Here’s how to recognize a reaction and what to do if you’re not ready to go au naturel.

The Dicey Ingredient in Your Hair Color

There are numerous chemicals in hair color, but the one that is most commonly associated with allergies is paraphenylenediamine (a.k.a. PPD). “PPD is an amine that is mainly used as an ingredient in hair dyes and henna tattoos,” says Naana Boakye, MD, a board certified dermatologist in Englewood Cliffs, NJ. The ingredient, which is used in almost every dark hair color formulation, allows the dye to deposit into the hair shaft and for the color molecules to penetrate the cuticle and stick.

PPD (it can also appear in the ingredient deck as PPDA or 1,4-benzenediamine) is a well-known skin irritant and allergen — so much so that, according to Dr. Boakye, it was declared the Contact Allergen of the Year in 2006 by the American Contact Dermatitis Society (ACDS). Sure, plenty of women and men safely color their hair with no side effects. But, for those that are sensitive to color, it’s an uncomfortable allergy. “A reaction of some sort to the ingredient is more common than people might realize, but it more often causes a mild dermatitis irritation,” says Ava Shamban, MD, a board certified dermatologist in Santa Monica, CA. As she explains, research estimates that 1 to 2 percent of users experience an allergic reaction and less than 1 percent a severe allergic reaction.

Other ingredients frequently used in hair color include paratoluenediamine (PTD), which is said to be better tolerated but can still cause reactions, as can cobalt, glyceryl thioglycolate, ammonia, peroxide, and resorcinol. “Hair dye, in general, can cause issues — even those that claim to be organic,” says Kavita Mariwalla, MD, a board certified dermatologist in West Islip, NY. And reactions and irritations aren’t limited just to darkening hair. “Anytime you lighten the hair, you are exposed to chemicals that are some form of ammonia or bleaching agent,” she explains. “Over time, the skin can become sensitized and develop a rash.” In case you’re wondering, the same goes for henna, too.

What a Hair Dye Allergy Looks Like

If an allergic reaction ensues as a result of hair coloring, it’s common for a series of dermatitis-like reactions to appear on the skin. “It classically appears on the hands, head, and neck where the chemical is in contact with the skin,” Dr. Boakye says. “These allergies appear as eczema, spongiotic like a rash, or, at times, it can appear very non-specific and present with hives or lichen simplex chronicus, which is thickened skin.” Other symptoms include an itching, stinging, burning sensation on the scalp and blisters, welts, and swelling at the hairline and on the scalp, forehead, neck, ears, eyes, lips, upper back, or feet.

Here’s the tricky part with hair color allergies: the reactive response is not always instant. “Symptoms may occur immediately or take up to 48 hours to manifest and become more severe over time,” Dr. Shamban notes. This classifies the allergy as a type IV hypersensitivity reaction (meaning it doesn’t show immediately).

But that’s not to say that one session in your colorist’s chair (or if you’re doing your hair yourself at home) can’t lead to an immediate reaction — it can. Dr. Mariwalla says that if there is an aggressive exposure that occurs over several episodes (like ignoring the itching at first and then getting your hair done again with the same product), the reaction will worsen. “So, what may begin as itch can progress to severe redness and even swelling and blisters,” she shares.

Because an allergy can occur the first time color is used or years afterward, it’s important to patch test hair dye on the inner crease of the elbow and the nape of the neck. “Patch testing is crucial because, otherwise, you are just guessing,” advises Dr. Mariwalla. “The right way to do it is to see a board certified dermatologist or an allergist for proper patch testing” However, as Dr. Shamban points out, any single-use or contact point can solicit an allergic response. “Therefore, even a patch test one day, on one area or repeating use of a product used multiple times previously can still result in an unexpected allergic reaction,” she adds. Dr. Boakye agrees and says she has a few patients that have developed allergies to hair color after years of use, which “was a surprise to them because they have been dying their hair for years and subsequently developed the allergy.”

Age can also be a driving force — especially since the body’s ability to fight off allergens declines as we get older — but plenty of younger people are sensitive to hair color, too. It is important to note that once the body is exposed to an allergen, the body will continue to recognize the known allergen and, “while it does not accumulate or remain in the body, usage is like pulling the wild card out of the deck; one never knows when it will occur,” Dr. Shamban explains.

Hair color shifts the pH of the scalp, which won’t necessarily cause an allergic reaction, but it can lead to an irritated or inflamed scalp. “Color is meant to be placed on the hair, which is already-formed keratin strands,” Dr. Mariwalla says. Even so, the scalp is impacted. “The process of hair dying can irritate the scalp, but, once the hair is dyed, there is usually not an issue,” she explains. “During the process, the scalp takes an insult due to the chemicals, heat, and processing experience.”

New York colorist Lauren Paglionico of LRN Beauty has watched minor color reactions ensue right before her eyes. “I have seen clients experience sensitivities to hair color with PPD, which shows up as itchiness or redness at the nape of the neck,” she shares. “Luckily, it went away after an hour.” But that’s not always the case for everyone.

In extreme cases, the face can become so swollen, puffy, and tight that the eyes and nose appear distorted and the face doubles in size and width. The lips can react, too, and blow up. In the most extreme cases, anaphylaxis (a severe, potentially life-threatening allergic reaction) can occur, which can land you in the emergency room. “Symptoms to look out for with anaphylaxis may include the same stinging, burning, swelling, or rash, but it will extend to the tongue and throat, followed by trouble breathing with feelings of faint, nausea, or vomiting,” Dr. Shamban says. “It is very, very rare, but a hair dye allergy can even be fatal if not attended to properly with immediate medical attention.”

How to Treat a Hair Dye Allergy

To remedy dermatitis and allergic reactions, first rinse off the dye as much as possible with warm water and a gentle, fragrance-free shampoo (like baby shampoo). “A shampoo with a topical corticosteroid, such as Clobex, an antifungal shampoo, like Ketoconazole, or a coal-tar shampoo for dandruff may work as well,” Dr. Shamban says.

Next, apply a layer of topical cortisone or a corticosteroid cream or lotion to the affected areas and take Benadryl to reduce the inflammation. “I also suggest using hydrogen peroxide to oxidize the PPD, steroids to help cool the scalp, and antihistamines to quell the itch,” says Dr. Boakye, who also recommends allergy testing to determine the exact causative agent. As far as any scabs that form, treat them with a layer of emollient-rich, fragrance-free cream applied to damp skin.

Gentler Color Options

So, what’s a girl (or guy) to do if the act of hair coloring is too risky and virtually out of the question? For starters, avoid any type of hair color that contains PPD (PPD-free color is available in Wella Koleston Perfect Me+ dyes) or an allergen. “Highlights and balayage are safer options because bleach does not contain PPD,” Paglionico says. But bleach can be irritating, too, so proceed with caution. Gloss and toner, which are used after highlights to add shine and soften freshly highlighted hair, typically don’t contain PPD and are applied to the hair, not the scalp.

A few hacks to keep in mind include adding a few packets of Sweet N’ Lo (yes, you read that correctly) to the color, which Dr. Mariwalla says changes the pH of the solution to prevent an itchy scalp. Or try an anti-irritation solution, like Antidot Pro Scalp, which is mixed into hair color to prevent reactions. “Also, if you can avoid it, don’t color your hair on your own at home,” she cautions. “You don’t know what is in the box and you can get exposure without realizing it.”

“Hair color has come a long way and many of today’s lines are safer than they used to be,” says Paglionico, adding that her favorite is the ammonia-, silicone- and PPD-free L’Oréal INOA. Now that clean beauty is the norm, it’s fitting that options like these are available in the hair color arena:

  • CHI’s Iconic Shine Shades Permanent Hair Color is an ammonia- and PPD-free formula that can be used as permanent, demi-permanent, or semi-permanent color depending on how much of the color is mixed with the brand’s Color Generator (a developer).
  • Although Maria Nila’s Colour Refresh isn’t traditional hair color, the 17 different shades (they’re available in both DIY and professional versions) deposit non-permanent color pigments in minutes, while adding moisture to hair — sans parabens, PPD, sulfates, and animal byproducts.
  • Madison Reed’s Radiant Hair Color Kit (it’s also available as a color service at a Madison Reed Color Bar) is a permanent color option that’s in the clear of ammonia, resorcinol, and PPD. Instead, it uses PTD- Toluene 2,5-Diamine Sulfate (TDS) as an effective replacement for PPD. According to the brand, studies show that more than half of users who are allergic to PPD did not experience any adverse effects to products using a PTD substitute. Because the ingredients are chemically similar, it is possible for users who are allergic to PPD to experience some irritation when using color with PTD. So, always patch-test first.
  • Miranda Shaffer, a hair color specialist and balayage expert at Adel Atelier in New York City, recommends a powder-based color line called Water Works, which she says works similarly to henna (it can’t lighten hair) to cover greys or deepen your natural color. “Instead of using a developer, the color is mixed with water,” she shares. “But, for some, natural products can also cause reactions, so always proceed with caution.”
  • Ammonia-free color is another avenue to explore. Celebrity colorist Ryan Pearl of IGK Salon in Miami says color that is formulated without ammonia “helps to decrease the tingling and burning sensation that can come with regular color” because ammonia “opens up the follicles on the scalp and gives the allergen easy access to penetrate the skin.” He likes the Redken Chromatics color line (available through professionals) because “it is a lot less harsh than traditional color” and “it does a great job of lifting and depositing color.” To keep the follicles closed and less permeable, Pearl suggests not washing your hair for a day or two before getting color.

If none of the above are viable solutions, hair extensions are always an alternative option. Pearl says that any color can be added to extensions (pick the right shade to start with so less color work is needed). “It’s best to leave this one to a professional to get the color match just right,” he says. And rest assured that the color will never touch your strands or scalp. “The nice thing about wearing extensions as opposed to coloring your hair is that the color doesn’t come into contact with the scalp at all,” Pearl explains. “We color them off the head, using a methodical process that pretty much eliminates any sort of adverse reaction.”

And, of course, you can always go au naturel, which is — hands down — the safest bet.

All products featured are independently selected by our editors, however, AEDIT may receive a commission on items purchased through our links.

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ELISE MINTON TABINis a contributing writer for AEDIT.

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