Hair dye and allergic reactions

Experiencing a reaction when using hair dye is not uncommon and there are various reactions a person may experience.

Most commonly people will experience irritation in the area where the product has come into contact with their skin. This is known as Irritant Contact Dermatitis (damage to outer layer of the skin which causes itching, redness and sometimes a burning or stinging sensation).

Some people may experience a more serious allergic reaction to the chemicals in hair dye. This is known as Allergic Contact Dermatitis (similar symptoms, as noted above, will be evident; however a person’s immune system may also be compromised). In very severe cases a person may experience an anaphylactic shock. This is a potentially life threatening allergic reaction and requires immediate professional medical attention. Symptoms of anaphylaxis include:

  • breathing difficulties
  • feeling lightheaded or faint
  • changes to your skin, such as itchy skin or a raised, red skin rash
  • swelling of certain body parts, particularly the face

One of the main chemicals which may cause a reaction to hair dye is Paraphenylenediamine. More conveniently known as PPD, it is a chemical that is widely used in dyes, especially those at the darker end of the colour spectrum. It is a colourless substance that becomes coloured when it comes into contact with oxygen. It is when it comes into contact with oxygen that PPD can cause an allergic reaction in sensitive individuals.

PPD is a common ingredient in hair dye for the simple reason that it is permanent, and the hair can be shampooed, permed and styled as normal without losing any colour or damaging the hair. Inevitably, hairdressers will come into regular contact with PPD and are therefore vulnerable to allergic reactions.

Allergy to PPD is usually confirmed by a patch test which involves placing a small amount of the hair dye on a patch of skin and waiting 48-72 hours to see if it causes any irritation. These days most hairdressers will require you to have a patch test before they will apply any hair dye during your visit. If this has not been requested make sure you ask before allowing any hair dye products to be applied. Similarly all boxes of hair dye will state that a home patch test should be carried out before the application of the product. You are then advised to seek the help of a qualified medical professional if any serious or long lasting effects from hair dye are experienced. There is also a chance that you may be allergic to substances related to PPD. These include Azo dyes and some medicines such as sulphonamides which are used as antibiotics and some local anaesthetics. Ensure that you always tell your doctor, dentist or pharmacist if you are allergic to PPD. Also, always check the contents list of a product for PPD as it comes in many different guises as outlined below:

The following are all alternative names for PPD: PPDA; Phenylenediamine base; p-Phenylenediamine; 4-Phenylenediamine; 1,4-Phenylenediamine; 4-Benzenediamine; 1,4-Benzenediamine; para-Diaminobenzene (p-Diaminobenzene); para-Aminoaniline (p-Aminoaniline); Orsin™; Rodol™; Ursol™.

Sources used in writing this article are available on request

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Information written by the talkhealth team

Last revised: 12 November 2015
Next review: 12 November 2018