I’m allergic to hair dye, can you recommend a more natural approach?


I trained in Hairdressing many years ago but had to give it up due to being allergic to hydrogen peroxide. 12 years ago I also suffered a severe allergic reaction to hair dye in which I had to stop colouring my hair, which was fine until I reached the age I am today, 44.

I have recently started to notice grey hairs coming through, not a great deal but I would like to try colouring my hair again. I would like to try henna but after reading up various articles on the internet it seems getting the colour right is quite difficult. I would like to be able go to a professional hair colourist wherein they themselves could advise me of the right colour and also to apply the henna.

Would you be able to offer some advice, is Henna the only solution to my problem or do you know of another way I could dye my hair?

Many thanks,

Anon, UK

Hi there,

Over time, the way that our body reacts to hair dye can change, so I definitely think it’s worth performing patch tests with professional hair colourants to see if a reaction still occurs. Henna hair dye can be tricky as you say, and you will probably find it difficult to find a reputable salon that uses the old traditional type of Henna colours. Instead, there are now various types of organic and natural hair colours available in professional salons, so I would recommend going down this route.

The best course of action would be to visit a salon that offers this type of hair colour, tell them your full history, and ask them to perform a patch test. If you experience a reaction, just try a different type of organic or ammonia-free colour, and keep going until you find one that doesn’t cause a reaction. Always get the salon to tell you specifically what colour they are testing on you, so you know what you’ve tried and what you haven’t! A permanent colour would produce better results in covering grey hair, but a semi-permanent uses a lower level of peroxide and therefore may be a better bet. L’Oreal produce a permanent ammonia-free colour called INOA, and Schwarzkopf manufacture an organic range called Essensity and an ammonia-free range aimed at sensitive scalps called Senea, so these would be a good start.

Because you have experienced severe reactions in the past, make sure the patch test is done thoroughly; test a small area of skin first, as normal, and if that’s fine then it would be worth going back to the salon and testing it again over a larger area of skin to make absolutely sure. Get advice from your doctor as well on what do to if you experience any discomfort; I know people with sensitive skin who just take anti-histamine tablets before having their hair coloured, although we would never recommend this unless advised by your doctor.

Hope you find a solution – good luck!

Michelle Lawley at Royston Blythe

Sorry to hear about your allergy to the chemicals in hair colour. At present there isn’t much in the way of professional colourants without p-Phenylenediamine (PPD) or Resorcinol. These are essential in the colouring process and are the main components of the dye.

I can suggest that first you go and have a skin test at a salon to see if you are still very sensitive to colour, I have heard about a professional Schwarzkopf colour line called Senea that is super gentle and is designed for delicate skin. It is worth a try to see if that would possibly work for you. If that fails then maybe you could try using a vegetable colour or as we call it in the industry a true semi-permanent colour. Chromative by L’Oreal Professionnel lasts for around 6-8 shampoos and has a good range of shades. But have a skin test first before you have the service.

Henna is always an option but you have read correctly that it is quite a difficult colour to get right. If you want orange or vibrant red then I think it is a great product, however if you are looking for natural browns or blacks then be aware that even they could contain PPD. Lots of Henna is made in countries with less strict laws about what the manufacturers have to tell is in the ingredients. Pure natural henna should contain no PPD and be made of 100% Lawsonia Inermis (the latin for henna).

I don’t use henna at work and off the top of my head I don’t know of any salons or colourists that do. This is because once hair is coloured with henna then it cannot be bleached or lightened with regular hairdressing colourants. All sorts of complications arise, so you will have to do some research in your local area about salons or people that colour with it and go have an in depth consultation, strand test and skin test.

Would love to hear how you get on, whatever you decide to do.

John Clark at Brooks+Brooks, London

Hello, and thank you for your question!

This is a common problem (and a common question) as more and more people seem to be becoming ‘allergic’ to colouring their hair. If you have suffered from an allergic reaction in the past, the likelihood is that it’s to do with PPD (a fixative) which is in all hair dyes. Henna does not contain PPD, but more people are actually allergic to henna than they are to normal conventional hair dyes. Just because they are ‘natural’ does not mean they are ‘safe’ (far from it!).

The safest thing to do is to ask your hairdresser to use a colouring technique which does not let the colour onto the scalp; i.e. highlights/low lights, this is safe because it’s only the skin which can allergically react and NOT the hair (there are no nerve endings or blood vessels in it for it to react).

Please always tell the hairdresser you have had a reaction before so they can be extra careful when using colour in this way.

Good Luck,

Iain Sallis of Iain Sallis Trichology Clinics – www.hairmedic.co.uk

Hair dye reactions

Signs and symptoms of a hair dye reaction

Reactions to PPD can range from mild irritation in the scalp to an allergic reaction that can potentially trigger serious symptoms throughout the body.

Mild irritation

If you’re mildly irritated by PPD, you may find that your scalp, neck, forehead, ears or eyelids become irritated and inflamed after using hair dye.

The skin exposed to the PPD may become red, swollen, blistered, dry, thickened and cracked. You may feel a burning or stinging sensation.

Symptoms will usually appear within 48 hours, although strong irritants may cause your skin to react immediately.

Learn more about irritant contact dermatitis.

Allergic reaction

If you’re allergic to PPD, your scalp and face may feel itchy and start to swell.

PPD may also trigger symptoms throughout your body, such as itching, a nettle rash and generally feeling ill.

These symptoms may not develop until hours, or even days, later.

A severe allergic reaction that develops within minutes is called anaphylaxis, or “anaphylactic shock”. Signs of anaphylaxis include:

  • itchy skin or a raised, red skin rash
  • swollen eyes, lips, hands and feet – the eyelids can swell so much that the eyes close
  • feeling lightheaded or faint
  • swelling of the mouth, throat or tongue, which can cause breathing and swallowing difficulties
  • wheezing
  • tummy pain, nausea and vomiting
  • collapsing and becoming unconscious

What if I am allergic to hair dye?

If you have had a reaction to hair dyes in the past, it is likely that you have developed intolerance to one or other of the ingredients in hair dyes.

Reactions of one kind or another to the use of hair-dye products in general are not that uncommon. They range from irritation occurring locally in areas in direct contact with the dye (irritant contact dermatitis) to ‘genuine’ allergy which will provoke local symptoms (allergic contact dermatitis) but may also produce a systemic reaction affecting other areas of the body. In both cases the symptoms can vary from very mild to quite severe. The local irritation will tend to affect the scalp, neck, forehead, ears and eyelids; the generalised symptoms may include more widespread itching, urticaria (nettlerash), general unwellness or, rarely, anaphylaxis.

Hair-dye products in general contain a wide range of substances and almost any of these could trigger sensitivity reactions. However there are some well known culprits.

Most permanent hair dyes contain p-Phenylenediamine (PPD), especially those at the darker/black end of the range. Daniel’s Advanced Formula Water Colour does not contain p-Phenylenediamine; this is as a direct result of Daniel’s on-going programme of research whereby ingredients are continually monitored and updated wherever he believes there is a better alternative that will achieve the same outcomes. Daniel’s Watercolour contains no active bleaching agents, ammonia or alcohol, the benefit being that it will not cause damage to the hair. On the other hand Water Colour will not lighten the hair; it will add colour.

Because PPD is known to be a strong sensitiser in some people, for the patient who has become sensitised there are no ‘safe’ permanent hair dyes and in common with all hair dye suppliers, Daniel recommends carrying out a “patch test” prior to each and every application. Details of the patch test are contained in the instruction leaflet sent out with every pack and are repeated below.

Although unlikely with Daniel’s Advanced Formula Water Colour, should you experience any kind of reaction or sensitisation and are unsure as to the culprit in you particular case, you should consider undergoing formal patch testing at an allergy (dermatology) clinic. The main chemicals that cause problems in hair-dyes are well known, and are available in patch-test form. The clinic will test a range of these chemicals as well as other potential sensitisers and will then tell you which ones you are sensitive to. You can then look for products that are free of the offending chemicals. There are drawbacks with this plan – getting referred; waiting lists; the limited number of chemicals tested – they can’t test everything, and you may be sensitive to something they haven’t tested, that could then cause a problem if it is in the product that you choose to use.

The alternative would be to “patch test” a range of products yourself (unless you have suffered a severe reaction from hair dyes previously). This has the advantage that you test the whole product, although if you react to some of them you won’t know exactly what component is causing the problem but you will know to avoid using the product. Patch test by dabbing a small amount of the dye solution on the inner elbow, leave to dry and leave uncovered for at least 48hrs. If any irritation, rash or unwellness occurs then do not use the product and wash it off your skin immediately.

If you find that permanent dyes are a “no-no” for you, you could try switching to non-permanent hair dyes. These generally use different, less troublesome chemicals, although about 10% of people sensitised to PPD will suffer allergic sensitivity to non-permanent dyes as well. Unfortunately, non-permanent dyes or semi-permanent dyes are not effective in covering grey hair.

Black henna tattoo reaction

What is henna?

Henna is a flowering plant that has been used since medieval times to stain skin, hair, and fingernails a light brown colour due to its active ingredient naphtha-quinone.

Henna is used to celebrate various occasions such as weddings in Hindu and Middle Eastern cultures in India, Pakistan, Sudan, Libya and many other countries.

Temporary paint-on tattoos do not involve needles and usually fade after 3 weeks.

What is a black henna tattoo?

To make them temporary henna tattoos look more like a real tattoo, para-phenylenediamine (PPD) is added to make ‘black henna’.

The procedure is also called pseudo-tattooing.

Red and black temporary henna tattoos

What is a black henna tattoo reaction?

Black henna tattoo reaction is a form of allergic contact dermatitis to PPD.

Natural pure henna does not cause allergic reactions. Nor do other possible additives such as vinegar, olive oil, coal and cloves.

Who gets a black henna tattoo reaction and why?

Henna tattoo reactions have mostly been reported to affect tourists visiting the Middle East or South East Asia, especially Bali, Morocco, Turkey and Egypt. Reports are also now appearing from tattoos applied in Europe and the USA. Temporary paint-on ‘tattoos’ have usually been applied by transient street artists.

Both children and adults can be affected.

Slow acetylators are more prone to developing the allergy than fast acetylators.

The concentration of PPD in black henna has been found to exceed the regulated levels in most countries. Often kerosene or petrol is also added to improve the uptake of the colour. This seems to increase the risk of sensitisation and may cause irritant reactions.

PPD is also present in hair dyes and dark clothing dyes and is used in the rubber industry. Sensitisation can develop with exposure to any of these and once it has occurred reactions may then appear with other sources including chemicals with a similar structure such as azo dyes, parabens, para-aminobenzoic acid and para compounds. Cases have been reported where the initial sensitisation occurred with a hair dye and a rapid and severe reaction then developed to the paint-on tattoo. Others have been sensitised by the tattoo and have later reacted to hair dyes, clothing dyes and a marker pen. Intoxication with PPD has been reported to rarely result in systemic adverse effects including acute renal failure, rhabdomyolysis and multiple organ failure.

What are the clinical features of a black henna tattoo reaction?

The contact allergic reaction usually appears in the pattern of the tattoo 7–14 days after first exposure. In someone already sensitised to PPD due to earlier exposure to the chemical, the reaction develops within 48 hours.

  • Black henna dermatitis usually presents as an acute eczematous reaction with erythema, severe itching and a burning sensation, oedema, vesicles and oozing.
  • The morphology may also be lichenoid (scaly), pustular or blistering.
  • The rash may generalise, extending well beyond the initial tattoo pattern.
  • Urticaria, angioedema and anaphylaxis may rarely occur.
  • An erythema multiforme-like rash has been reported as has localised hypertrichosis.

The reaction slowly resolves but can leave either increased pigmentation or a white outline of the original tattoo. Keloid scarring has been reported.

Black henna tattoo reactions

How is a black henna tattoo reaction diagnosed?

The diagnosis of black henna tattoo reaction is usually made on the history and clinical appearance.

  • Patch testing can be performed with PPD to confirm the allergen.
  • Swabs for bacteriology taken from pustules may grow Staph. aureus although biopsies do not demonstrate the bacteria.
Henna reaction (above) was followed by allergy to hair dye

What is the treatment for a black henna tattoo reaction?

Treatment generally involves the use of topical corticosteroids.

  • Sometimes oral corticosteroids are required for generalised rash.
  • Antibiotics may be prescribed for the pustular form, although the pustules may be sterile and continue to extend despite the antibiotic.
  • Antihistamines may be prescribed to reduce the itch, especially in the presence of urticaria.

Avoiding black henna tattoo reaction

Minimise the risk of subsequent exposure to other sources of PPD (particularly permanent hair dye) and chemically related compounds once sensitisation has occurred.

We recommend avoiding exposure to temporary paint-on black henna tattoos, because of the high risk of sensitisation.

For some women, chemical hair dyes can work wonders on transforming your strands and covering up gray hairs. However, some formulas also contain harsh ingredients that can cause sensitivity or even allergic reactions.

After a regular salon visit, lifestyle blogger Chemese Armstrong found out she was allergic to paraphenylenediamine (or PPD), a common ingredient typically found in commercial hair dye. Chemese consulted with her doctor who recommended that she use henna as an all-natural alternative. Henna is a plant-based dye known for its potent color payoff, making it a safe option for tinting eyebrows, eyelashes, and hair.

But what Chemese didn’t know was that she would also suffer from another scary allergic reaction to henna. She took to her Instagram to share her experience along with a photo with her followers. “I was in severe pain from my scalp burning and itching with my face completely swollen to the point I was unrecognizable,” she wrote.

Luckily, the reaction didn’t affect her breathing, and she was able to heal from her traumatic outbreak. In a follow-up video posted to her YouTube channel, she updated her followers on her recovery and stressed the importance of being aware of the ingredients you consume and apply on your body. Her story is an alarming reminder to always perform a thorough spot-test on your skin before using topical products (natural or chemical) and to always carefully read ingredients lists. Watch her explain more of her scary experience ahead.

Henna hair dye allergy

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