Are You Allergic to Your Hair Dye?

Causes and Treatment of Dye-Related Contact Dermatitis

Hair Dye Allergy
Cavan Images Collection/Iconica/Getty Images

The use of hair dyes in the United States is common among women but has gained popularity in recent years among men as well. According to research, people will start to dye their hair by around the age of 27. Of these, as many as 37 percent will report itchiness or localized reactions to the hair products.

Causes of Hair Dye Allergy

Hair dye allergies occur when the immune system responds to certain chemicals that are placed on the skin.

When this happens, the body will release a substance known as immunoglobulin E (IgE) into the bloodstream. The release of IgE will trigger the eruption of specialized white blood cells, known as mast cells, which flood the body with histamine. Histamine is the very substance which triggers the cascade of symptoms we recognize as an allergy.

The chemical in hair dye most likely to cause an allergy is para-phenylenediamine (PPD). PPD is found in more than two-thirds of permanent hair dyes and is effective at not only penetrating the hair shaft but binding to proteins in the skin.

Other potential allergens include cobalt found in brown hair dyes and glyceryl thioglycolate used for permanent cold hair waves.

Symptoms

One of the hallmark symptoms of a hair dye allergy is contact dermatitis, an itchy, flaky rash that will typically develop on the face, eyelids, ears, and neck. While rashes are less common on the scalp due to the thickness of the skin, there may be a stinging or burning sensation as well as a generalized redness.

The allergic reaction will usually develop within two to three days of using the dye and resolve within several days to weeks.

In rare instances, exposure to hair chemicals can cause a potentially life-threatening, all-body reaction known as anaphylaxis. Anaphylaxis tends to develop rapidly, within hours rather than days, and manifest with serious symptoms such as:

  • Raised and swollen hives
  • A severe blistering rash
  • Swollen eyes, lips, tongue, hands, or feet
  • Lightheadedness or fainting
  • Wheezing and shortness of breath
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Confusion

Call 911 or go to your nearest emergency room if you experience any of these symptoms. If left untreated, anaphylaxis can lead to coma, shock, heart or lung failure, and even death.

Diagnosis

While a hair dye allergy will often be self-evident, an allergy test may be appropriate if a person has multiple allergies or has experienced a particularly bad reaction. Some people will also take the test to determine if there are other dye products they can use.

The most common form is the patch test in which a battery of suspected allergens is placed on the skin. The patch is typically removed after 48 hours to see what, if any, reactions have taken place. A positive result is characterized by the appearance of small, red bumps or blisters.

Treatment

If you experience a hair dye allergy, topical corticosteroid creams may be used to relieve inflammation and itching. They are available over the counter but should be used under a doctor's supervision as overuse can lead to the permanent thinning of the skin (known as cutaneous atrophy).

This is especially true on the delicate tissues of the face. As a rule, topical corticosteroids should never be used around the eyes.

An oral antihistamine may also be prescribed to suppress the production of histamine, particularly in cases where there is rash, facial swelling, or nasal congestion.

There are other topical formulations, such as Elidel and Protopic, that may be more appropriate for treating a facial rash. Severe allergies may require systemic corticosteroids delivered either in pill form or as an injection.

Sources:

Mukkanna, K.; Stone, N.; and Ingram, J. "Para-phenylenediamine allergy: current perspectives on diagnosis and management." J Asthma Allergy. 2017; 10:9-15. DOI: 10.2147/JAA.S90265.

Patel, D.; Narayana, S.; and Krishnaswamy, B. "Trends in Use of Hair Dye: A Cross-Sectional Study." Int J Trichology. 2013; 5(3):140-3. DOI: 10.4103/0974-7753.125610.