Are You Allergic to Your Hair Dye?

Causes and Treatment of Dye-Related Allergies

Woman getting her hair dyed with foils

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The use of hair dyes in the United States is common among both women and men. According to research, people will start to dye their hair by around the age of 27. Of these, as many as 38 percent will report itchiness or localized reactions to the hair dye products.

Causes of Hair Dye Allergy

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

The most common form of hair dye allergy manifests as contact dermatitis, an itchy, flaky rash. Generally, this is the result of an allergen that comes into contact with the skin, which then elicits an immune response from the body: antigens form and interact with T-lymphocytes (part of the immune system's defense mechanism), and this triggers a release of inflammatory cytokines, which causes a localized inflammatory response to fight off what the body sees as a foreign invader.

Rarely, the body will release a substance known as immunoglobulin E (IgE) into the bloodstream as a result of a more serious allergic reaction to dye. 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 substance that 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

The hallmark symptoms of hair-dye related contact dermatitis are redness, itchiness, and rash 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.

Allergy testing should be performed in a physician's office. 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, and a final reading approximately four days after the initial placement is performed to see what, if any, reactions have taken place. A positive result is characterized by the appearance of small, red bumps or blisters.

Note that small areas of redness seen on the day that the patch is removed may go away by the final reading, and in that case would simply indicate an irritant reaction and not constitute a true positive allergy.

Treatment

If you experience a hair dye allergy, topical corticosteroid creams may be used to relieve inflammation and itching. Weaker versions such as hydrocortisone 1% are available over the counter but more potent formulations require a prescription and would be used in more significant reactions. Overuse of stronger formulations can lead to the permanent thinning of the skin (known as cutaneous atrophy).

This is especially true on the delicate tissues of the face. Topical corticosteroids are generally not used around the eyes, and should only be used in that area when directed by a physician.

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.

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