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What hair dye can I use if I’m allergic?

Dyeing your hair can be a fun way to change up your look. However, some people discover they are allergic to the chemicals found in hair dye. This allergic reaction, known as hair dye dermatitis, can cause redness, itching, swelling, and even blistering around the scalp, ears, eyelids, and neck. If you’ve had a reaction to hair dye in the past, don’t panic – there are still safe options for coloring your hair. This article will cover everything you need to know about hair dye allergies, from common symptoms and causes to suggestions for alternative hair dyes you can safely use.

Symptoms of Hair Dye Allergy

How can you tell if you are allergic to hair dye? Some common symptoms include:

  • Itchy, red, swollen, or blistered scalp
  • Itchy or watery eyes
  • Redness or swelling around ears, eyelids, or neck
  • Burning or stinging sensation on scalp
  • Rash on face, neck, or hands
  • Headache, dizziness, or breathing difficulty in severe cases

These reactions usually start within 48 hours after dyeing your hair and are your body’s way of responding to the chemicals it has identified as harmful. If you experience any of these symptoms after coloring your hair, it likely indicates an allergy.

Common Causes

So what exactly are you allergic to in hair dye? Some common culprits include:

  • PPD – The chemical para-phenylenediamine is found in over two-thirds of hair dyes on the market. It helps create permanent color. PPD allergy is the most common cause of hair dye reactions.
  • Ammonia – Ammonia helps open the cuticle so dye can penetrate the hair shaft. Those with sensitive skin may be irritated by its strong odor.
  • Fragrance – Added fragrances or perfumes can also cause allergic reactions in some people.
  • Couplers – Chemicals like resorcinol, PPD, and aminophenol are used in dye to bind color to hair. You may be allergic to one or more of these couplers.
  • Metals – Metallic salts or nickel content can rarely cause allergy as well.

PPD is known to cause the most frequent and severe hair dye reactions. However, identifying exactly which ingredient you are allergic to can be tricky. The best way to test for hair dye allergy is to undergo a patch test at your dermatologist’s office.

Patch Testing

Patch testing is the gold standard way of diagnosing contact allergies like hair dye dermatitis. Your dermatologist will expose your skin to small amounts of common dye chemicals and ingredients. The standard hair dye patch test kit includes the following allergens:

Chemical Uses
PPD Primary dye pigment
Toluene-2,5-diamine Oxidative hair dye
Resorcinol Hair dye coupler
Ammonium persulfate Bleaching agent
Nickel sulfate Dye additive
Fragrance mix Fragrances

Around 48 hours after the patches are applied, your skin’s reaction will be assessed. Redness, swelling, bumps, and itching at a patch site may indicate an allergy to that chemical. This will provide valuable information about which ingredients you’ll need to avoid when selecting alternate hair dyes moving forward.

Non-Allergenic Hair Dye Options

While you should always consult your dermatologist first, here are some of the most hypoallergenic hair dye options recommended for those with sensitivities:

1. PPD-Free Dye

PPD-free hair dyes remove the most common culprit from the equation. Brands like Madison Reed, Overtone, and O&M Organics use alternative dye pigments like tetraaminopyrimidine sulfate (TAPS) instead of PPD.

2. All-Natural Dyes

Plant-based dyes use ingredients derived from herbs, fruits, vegetables, and minerals to color hair. Common options include:

  • Henna – made from a plant, leaves a reddish hue
  • Cassia – subtle yellow tones
  • Indigo – adds blue/brown tones
  • Coffee – brown shades
  • Tea – black/brown shades

While gentler, keep in mind all-natural dyes don’t provide permanent color and won’t cover grey hairs as well.

3. Bleaches and Highlights

Since bleach and highlights don’t contain dyes, those with dye allergy can often tolerate these services. Foil highlights applied by a hairdresser pose a lower allergy risk than all-over color.

4. Dermatologist-Approved Dyes

Your dermatologist may suggest specialty hair dye products that are less likely to cause a reaction based on your patch testing results. Some options include:

  • DermOrganic – uses PPD alternative ADS
  • Pureology – low-ammonia and fragrance-free
  • Naturtint – PPD-free permanent dye

Always check with your dermatologist before trying a new product.

Tips to Prevent Reactions

In addition to choosing a low-allergen dye, here are some tips to help avoid hair color allergy reactions:

  • Perform a skin patch test each time you dye your hair.
  • Protect skin with petroleum jelly around face, neck, and ears.
  • Rinse dye off immediately if scalp feels irritated or burns.
  • Wear gloves when applying dye.
  • Follow instructions carefully and don’t leave dye on longer than directed.
  • Wait at least 6 weeks between dye jobs to avoid cumulative irritation.

When to See a Doctor

Schedule an appointment with your dermatologist if you experience:

  • Severe reactions like swelling, rash, or trouble breathing
  • Allergy symptoms that don’t improve within a week
  • Itching, redness, or reaction after coloring your hair for the first time

A doctor can provide medication to soothe allergy symptoms and diagnose what specific ingredients you are sensitive to through patch testing. Your dermatologist can also guide you in choosing alternative hair dyes less likely to cause an allergic reaction.


While developing a hair dye allergy can be frustrating, there are still many safe options for coloring your hair. Always patch test before dyeing and immediately wash out any products that cause irritation. Look for ammonia-free, PPD-free, fragrance-free, or all-natural dyes. With the right approach, you can find a way to safely change your hair color without adverse reactions.