I Was Allergic To Hair Dye And I Didn’t Know It (And You Might Be, Too!)

August 2, 2018

Will I ever dye another day?

I’ve been coloring my hair for a really, really long time.

My mom told me I could start when I turned 18, so I’ve been dyeing my hair since… basically the moment I turned 18. I’ve dyed my jet-black hair red, pink, brown, and back to black, then blonde (and as many of you know, going from black hair to blonde isn’t easy!). I’ve done highlights. I’ve done some purple here and there. Most recently, I’ve finally achieved my platinum blonde ambition by using a revolutionary new process to bleach my hair.

But something has happened that will forever change my hair-coloring ways. Suddenly, I’m allergic to hair dye. What the hell happened? “Believe it or not, reactions to hair dye can be pretty common,” explains Dr. Tania Elliott, Allergist, Internist, and Chief Medical Officer of the nationwide preventive health company, EHE. Dr. Elliott answered my questions and helped me figure out what had happened after an unpleasant experience. I’ll start at the very beginning… 

I was having hair dye applied to my head at a salon, and I started to itch. Like my scalp itched a lot. Like so much that I had to apologetically reach up and put my hand into the mass of chemicals and scratch my head to the point where the colorist handed me a hair pick so I could really get in there.

Hmm. That had never happened before. Neither had this: within the next hour as the dye sat upon my head doing its magic, my entire body started to itch like mad. Finally I got up and went to the restroom. I lifted up my salon robe and noted with alarm that spots were appearing on my waist. My arms, too, looked swollen and spotted. And did I mention itchy? What was happening?

“Your body’s immune system deployed allergy cells to fight what it thought was a foreign invader,” says Dr. Elliott. “To your immune system, the hair dye ‘looked’ as though it were a bacteria or parasite.” And there was no way for me to jump in and say, “Hey, immune system! Thanks, but this is just hair dye! Don’t worry about it!” 

The hair dye was briskly washed out. My face was bright red, and it wasn’t from embarrassment (although I did feel embarrassed)! I took two Benedryl and waited anxiously. Was that the right thing to do?

“As long as the symptoms remain localized to the skin, Benadryl or Zyrtec are fine,” assures Dr. Elliott. “The second you have breathing difficulty, throat or tongue swelling, or feeling like you are going to pass out — lay down, elevate your legs, and call 911. If you have an EpiPen, that’s the time to use it.” Thankfully, it didn’t come to that (and Dr. Elliott adds that “The likelihood of having a systemic allergic reaction to hair dye though, is very low”). 

But wait just a second! I’ve been dyeing my hair for a reeeally long time and had never had a problem! (Well, never had a problem like that, I should say. Egg-yellow hair and damaged-beyond-repair locks — those were the problems I had!) Why didn’t I ever have an allergic reaction before?

Dr. Elliott explains that “That’s how allergies work. You typically have an initial exposure, or even multiple exposures, and you can be fine.  At some point, the allergy and other immune cells on your skin can go haywire and react to the hair dye as if it’s a foreign invader. The exact mechanism for why this happens is not entirely known.”

The colorist was able to send me home with beautifully colored hair and a rapidly-returning-to-normal complexion, but I was already brooding about what I’d do next time. I couldn’t help but ask Dr. Elliott the following: “Is it okay to just keep on using that hair dye and be all like, ‘Well, the reaction isn’t so bad!’?”

In a word, “No,” sums up Dr. Elliott succinctly, adding that “The next time you use it, the reaction can be worse. That said, the most common allergen found in hair dye is p-phenylendiamine (PPD). In the future you should try a PPD-free formulation and do a test area first by applying a small amount to your skin (typically the forearm crease where your skin is thinner and more sensitive, or behind your ear), and wait for a day. If no reaction occurs, that formulation should be safe.”

Well, what if a reaction does occur? What am I going to do? I can’t give up coloring my hair! (Well, unless I have to. Do I have to?)

Dr. Elliott explains that I can see an allergist or dermatologist and do a Patch Test, which will “help you determine what exactly it was that you reacted to, and make sure the next formulation of hair dye you use does not contain that ingredient,” she says. “There is a great database put out by the American Contact Dermatitis Society, that will tell you what products are safe for you based on your patch test results.”

So, if I decide to safely dip my toe into the waters — by doing a test and/or seeing a medical professional — I may in fact dye my hair again. And if not, well, that’s okay. Because there’s really no hair color that complements a lobster-red face.

Images via tumblr and shutterstock.

Comment: What’s your worst hair-dyeing experience ever?


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