Are You Risking Your Life When You Colour Your Hair?

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Well, that's a dramatic title, isn't it? Apologies if it sounds a little over the top, but this is a subject I feel strongly about. Hair dye allergies are rare, but they can be serious, and in at least two cases I've seen documented in the news, they have proved fatal. Given that several hairdressers I have spoken to don't seem to know anything about this issue, it seems to me that there just isn't enough awareness regarding the potential dangers of those innocent-looking boxes on the drugstore shelves. Perhaps you don't colour your hair. Perhaps you have done so many times without problems and religiously do the 48 hour patch test before every application. If that's the case, you probably won't be interested in this post. However, if you've ever experienced an adverse reaction to a colourant, or if you've ever skipped a patch test, then please read this. I'm allergic to hair dye, and recently I had an experience that brought home to me just how serious this allergy is. I've also done a fair amount of research into the issue, and if I can help even one person by sharing what I've learned, then I figure that's worth doing.

If you've ever applied a hair dye (or a patch test for a hair dye) and experienced any itching, blistering or swelling as a result, then chances are that you're allergic to PPD, like me. PPD (or p-Phenylenediamine) is the active ingredient in hair dye. Basically, it's the chemical that actually lays the colour down in your hair. It's also present in toners, which hairdressers use after bleaching to achieve the desired shade of blond, and, as I learned to my cost very recently, it's present in eyebrow tints as well.

The other day, I was foolish enough to allow a beautician to apply a tint to my brows after waxing them, without having a patch test first. I should have known better, as I'm all too well aware of what happens to me on contact with hair dye, but because the tint would be on my brows for no longer than two minutes, I thought I would be OK. I wasn't. I woke up the next morning with my brows itching like mad and my entire eye area swollen and sore. I took antihistamines and applied ice packs, but I was still in considerable discomfort for a good three days, not to mention that I had to walk around town looking like the creature from the black lagoon. You can see in the photo that I look quite red and swollen around the eyes. In fact, I looked worse in real life than I've managed to capture on camera.

Effects of allergy to PPD found in hair dye

This experience reminded me just how unpleasant an allergic reaction can be, but also, more importantly, that it really isn't worth taking a chance on. I thought that any reaction I might have would be lessened by the fact that this was an eyebrow tint, to be applied to a much smaller surface area for a shorter amount of time than a hair dye. In fact, it was the strongest reaction I have ever experienced. So if you're thinking of colouring your hair (or indeed your eyebrows), please, please, please do the 48 hour patch test first. Even if you've coloured your hair many times before, allergies can develop at any time and repeated exposure, as I now know only too well, can make the reaction worse. 
 
It's also worth noting that what I have just been through is still relatively mild. More extreme reactions can involve becoming cross-sensitised to related chemicals found in other products - I've read about people who can no longer use lipstick or deodorant, for example - right up to being rushed to hospital because the swelling has affected your ability to breathe. And, as I have mentioned before, there have been fatalities (see an article about one here). Basically, if this stuff causes you any sort of irritation, however mild, then I would urge you to avoid it from now on, because nothing is worth the risk of it escalating to this point. I have already resigned myself to never dyeing my hair again. Needless to say, I won't be having any more eyebrow tints either.

On a more positive note, there are still ways to change your hair colour without having to go near PPD. Choices are more limited, but it's possible. Holland and Barratt do a range of semi-permanent colourants that are PPD free. They won't cover greys, but they will give a subtle colour change that washes out in a few weeks. I have tried one of these in the past and it left my hair shiny and smooth. Check them out here. I believe that Clairol also do a range like this, though I haven't tried it. If you have grey hairs that you want to disguise, like me, your best bet is highlights. Bleaching hair is a completely different chemical process from dyeing it, so you don't have to worry about PPD, and the resulting mix of shades masks greys very effectively. You won't be able to use a toner, but different shades of blond can be achieved by varying the length of time the bleach is left on the hair. For a long time I used to do my own highlights, and I wrote a whole post on that here if you're interested. Recently, however, I went to a salon to have it done. This photo was taken later that day. You can see a nice caramel/honey shade has been achieved without the use of toners.

Highlights achieved with bleach only - no toners, no PPD

I hope this post has been useful. If there is anything I have missed that you would like to know, please ask, and I will do my best to answer. Alternatively, if you know more than I do on this subject, please feel free to add anything you think is relevant or correct me if I've got anything wrong. As I said at the beginning, most people will never have a problem with this, but those of us who do really need to be aware of what we're dealing with.

Finally, if you're concerned that you might have had an allergic reaction or you're really not sure, I would strongly advise you to seek medical advice. A doctor should be able to identify the symptoms and confirm the cause, as well as offer the best advice on how to treat it.

Kate x
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22 comments

  1. Oh that is awful what you experienced! I regularly dye my hair and I have to admit that I never did a patch test before, I know, a bit foolish, but thankfully nothing ever caused me allergic reaction. x

    Mummy’s Beauty Corner

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    1. I think what's scary is you can dye your hair 100 times and be fine, then develop an allergy and react to the 101st time, when you're far more likely to skip the test! It's human nature - we're so sure we will be fine, and we want our hair dyed now, not in 2 days time! x

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  2. So sorry you had such a bad experience Kate! I'm actually allergic to hair dye and can't color my hair. Last time I've visited a salon (very fancy one at that) I told the stylist that I sometimes experience an allergic reaction and asked that she washes the color off thoroughly and uses gentler formula, but I still experienced an awful reaction where my ears and neck swell up so badly I couldn't move my head. It took two weeks for it to go away. Years a go I had a stylist who colored my hair and always was very careful and used some special dye on me that didn't irritate me, but unfortunately she ended up moving and ever since then I wasn't able to find anyone as good as she was. This is a great topic that you've covered here, I myself was relieved when I did some research few years a go and found out that I'm not the only who doesn't get along with hair dyes ;)

    Paula
    Thirteen Thoughts

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    1. It is quite rare, isn't it? I remember trying to ask a hairdresser's advice once and she didn't really know what I was talking about, which made me feel like a complete freak of nature! I would love to know what your earlier stylist used on you. I really hope in the future there will be a greater choice of colourants that are safe for those of us that are allergic. Sadly at the moment I don't think there are enough of us for the big companies to care, they still sell plenty of boxes! x

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  3. I've never dyed my hair but I have seen cases where the hair dye does affect the hair and turns it into a really weird green colour :S

    Serene xoxox

    http://www.imserenel.wordpress.com

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    1. Yes, I have seen this happen to a friend of mine! Definitely not fun! x

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  4. Oh my, you poor thing! I hope you have fully recovered now? I've never dyed my hair before, mainly because I can't see any other colour suiting me and to maintain healthy hair but I hadn't actually thought about the possibility of a reaction. Thank you for raising awareness and spreading the importance of testing out a dye/tint beforehand :)

    Style Sunrise ☀

    :)
    x

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    1. Yes, all better! I was never interested in colouring my hair either, until I started to get greys! Then I found out it wasn't going to be as easy as I thought! x

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  5. The other day I spend almost 4 hours at the hairdresser's - colour, highlights, cut...I'm lucky because I never (touch wood) get any allergies. But I'm sure applying all these chemicals on your hair is not great!

    www.allnnothing.com

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    1. It would be great if they could find a way to make dyes both effective and safe for everyone! x

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  6. THis is really good to know! My friend wants to dye my hair for free-- but I still don't think its worth it!
    Melanie @ meandmr.com

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    1. I think it's just really important to do the patch test and follow all the instructions, and if you do that you should be fine. You are right to take it seriously though! x

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  7. Good to know about the reactions that cause the compounds of the dyes is very important to be careful

    Melange-Boutique Blog by Noe&Lolita

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  8. Oh no, what a bad experience, and such a shame. I've been quite lucky with colouring my hair!

    Annabel ♥
    Mascara & Maltesers

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    1. Most people are fine with it, but yes, this was not much fun! x

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  9. Oh that's to bad dear!! Nice post and great blog!!

    http://fashionwalkinbrussels.blogspot.com/

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