Dying for Color: The Environmental & Health Risks of Hair Dye

Salons and home color kits make it easy to say goodbye to grey hairs and roots, but sudden serious allergic reactions to hair dye are on the rise—even among those who have been using the same hair coloring product for years

health risks of hair dye
Credit: Palmira Van, FlickrCC

“You can develop an allergy to a product at any point in time,” says Dr. Rajani Katta, professor of dermatology at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, Texas. “One allergic reaction we’re seeing commonly is to hair dyes.”

Dye Disasters

In recent years, severe or even fatal allergic reactions to para-phenylenediamine (PPD), a chemical used in 99% of all hair dyes, have been reported. The chemical is stronger in dark hair dyes than in light shades. In mild cases of hair dye allergies, scalp burning or tightness can occur. With more severe allergic reactions, a red rash may erupt or the entire face may drastically swell—as was the case with one teenage boy this past February, whose head swelled to twice its normal size after he dyed his hair black. Pictures of the head swelling were posted on the website Reddit, and they soon became a viral sensation with nearly two million views. A similar reaction after applying hair dye was reported by teenager Lois Queen, whose face ballooned after using L’Oreal Casting Crème Gloss in chocolate brown. Queen was rushed to the hospital, where doctors diagnosed a severe allergic reaction and gave her steroids and antihistamines.

“The pain was intense. It was terrifying,” the UK-based teenager told the Daily Mail. “Within hours of using it my eye went red and itchy, then the swelling started. The next morning I could barely open my eyes. It was so painful. I thought I was going blind and dying. My head was such a weird shape, I looked like an alien.”

Queen’s mother added, “The doctor said she was lucky to avoid permanent eye damage… I’m revolted and Lois will never dye her hair again. L’Oreal obviously uses very strong ingredients.”

Fatal Reaction

In extreme cases, an allergic reaction to hair dye can trigger anaphylaxis. Anaphylaxis (aka anaphylactic shock) is a severe multi-system reaction that can cause death. Such fatal reactions from hair dye occurred in 2011, causing 17-year-old Tabatha McCourt and 38-year-old mother Julie McCabe to lose their lives. McCourt decided to dye her hair a new darker shade with friends, but within 20 minutes of applying the color, her friends found her screaming in agony and soon collapsed “like a lifeless doll.” Tabatha was rushed to hospital and later died. McCabe fell into a coma after coloring her hair at home with a L’Oreal Preference dark hair dye. After over a year in the hospital, McCabe passed away this past November.

“She finished dyeing her hair and told her husband, ‘I don’t feel well, I can’t breathe’. He rushed her to hospital and her heart stopped beating on the way,” McCabe’s father, Keith Miller, said.

Though PPD has been banned in France, Germany and Sweden, Julie’s family has called for the ban to extend to the U.S. and England. “I promise for the sake of my daughter and other women to get this chemical outlawed,” Miller said. “I don’t want this happening to anybody else’s daughter or wife.”

Dyeing on the Rise

Horrific allergic reactions could be more common as use of PPD-laced hair dye increases. “Even the most conservative estimates put [more than] 100 million Americans as hair dye users,” Dathan Hamann of the University of Arizona College of Medicine reported at the 2013 Annual Meeting of the American Contact Dermatitis Society. “PPD is implicated in allergic contact dermatitis, but also in immediate hypersensitivity reactions, and it has been implicated as a possible risk factor for a number of cancers,” he added.

Hair-dye manufacturers advise consumers to conduct a patch test, which involves applying a small amount of dye to a patch of skin for a 48-hour period, prior to coloring. Patch tests should be performed prior to applying any colorant containing PPD as well as sensitivity to the chemical can build up through repeated exposure. Those with positive PPD-allergy patch test results or those looking to simply avoid the chemical can turn to an emerging market of safer, alternative hair dyes and chemically conscious salons that color without PPD and other irritants like resorcinol and ammonia. Companies with safe, botanical hair dyes include Palette by Nature, No Limits by Organic Color Systems and Light Mountain (made from henna).