Women who have an allergy to PPD – a colouring agent used in permanent hair dye – are more likely to be allergic to methylisothiazolinone, as well as other chemicals, such as parabens and colophonium.
MI is a strong allergen, but PPD allergies can be worse. The most common symptoms are rashes and irritation around the hairline, eyelids, neck and ears, but more widespread and alarming reactions are possible, including swelling and breathing difficulties. Hospitalisations are not unheard of, and you’re at increased risk if you’ve ever had a ‘black henna‘ temporary tattoo. Tragically, there have been several deaths.
Permanent hair dye kits typically consist of several products:
* hair dye blend
* activator / developer / oxidiser
* conditioner and/or shampoo
PPD – or para-phenylenediamine – is found in the hair dye blend. It only becomes reactive as it is mixed with the activator, which usually contains hydrogen peroxide, and it is in the resulting partially oxidised state which can trigger allergic reactions. (Once fully oxidised it is safe, which means wigs and synthetic furs dyed with PPD pose no danger.)
Even if you’re not allergic to PPD, you still have to look out for MI in hair dye kits, commonly found in the conditioner or shampoo, but also sometimes in the activator. For example, Clairol Natural Instincts (US / Canada) / Clairol Nice N’Easy (UK / Australia) use PPD, and use MI / MCI in the conditioner and in many of the activators.
The following use PPD, but are MI-Free:
Alternatives to PPD are in use, but there are several issues with them:
1/ They’re not always as effective as PPD – so occasionally brands use greater quantities to compensate;
2/ Some who react to PPD also react to the alternatives;
3/ Even those who don’t react to PPD may react to the alternatives, or to other ingredients.
The most common alternatives are toluene-2,5-diamine (TD / TDA) and toluene-2,5-diamine sulfate (TDS). These are also called para-toluenediamine (PTD) and para-toluenediamine sulfate (PTDS), respectively. They are still potent allergens and sensitisers.
One small study suggested that around 50% of those allergic to PPD could tolerate TDS, but this was conducted a decade ago.
The following use TDS, and are PPD-Free and MI-Free:
One way to sidestep the PPD / PPD-alternatives problem is to avoid permanent hair colour altogether and choose semi-permanent options instead. These do not use an activator, so are peroxide-free, but do not penetrate the hair as well, therefore don’t last for as long and aren’t as effective, especially on grey hair. Most can only darken or enhance dark hair. Some of the artificial colours used (such as azo dyes) may also be reactive, however; and around 10% of those sensitive to the colouring agents in permanent hair colours may also react to the semi-permanent alternatives.
Again, you have to keep your eyes open for MI.
These are PPD-Free, TDS-Free and MI-Free:
Naturtint Reflex – this is Naturtint’s non-permanent line, which contains artificial colorants.
Herbatint Vegetal – this is Herbatint’s non-permanent line, which also contains artificial colorants.
Tints of Nature Semi-Permanent – contains artificial colorants.
Surya Henna Cream – combines artificial colours with henna and other natural botanical dyes.
Temporary / Natural
Although no hair colour or dye can be guaranteed safe, probably the least risky options are temporary colours or vegetable rinses, which contain largely or entirely natural ingredients, with no oxidisation. Here’s a selection – all are free from PPD, TDS, ammonia, peroxide and MI.
Surya Brasil Powder – All natural powders, consisting of henna, amla, indigo and others extracts, to be blended with water before application.
Logona – German brand of creams and powders, made with entirely natural ingredients, including henna, jojoba, indigo, rhubarb, cassia, plus essential oils, wheat protein and algin.
It’s Pure Organics (UK) – Powders made only with indigo, cassia, henna, amla and similar natural dyes.
Light Mountain Natural Hair Colors (US) – Powders using only henna, senna and indigo – in very beautifully designed boxes!
Rainbow Research Henna Powders (US) – powders using neutral henna, red henna, black henna, chamomile and marigold.
Permanent AND Natural
Palette by Nature claim to make a permanent hair colour system via a patented plant-derived process, using only a wide diversity of botanical ingredients and natural compounds, free of PPD / PPD alternatives / ammonia and peroxide. Products consist of a base cream and colour cream, both with very long lists of ingredients, plus cleanser. The base cream is applied, followed by the colour cream, and then heat via hair drier.
In the UK, Suvarna (who stock a variety of natural dyes), have been stocking the products, but are phasing them out.
In the US, try direct from the Palette by Nature site, which has further information and full lists of ingredients.
Natural — with Oxidisation
Another original alternative comes from US brand Hairprint, who use natural food and mineral ingredients with hydrogen peroxide as an oxidising agent to create eumelanin – the pigment which forms natural brown / black colour in human hair – and embed it in the follicle of the hair. It is not a dye, and is formulated specifically for brown and black hair which is greying. They claim to return the hair to its original natural colour and shade – whatever it may be, as each individual’s natural hair structure is a unique ‘hairprint’, which can be restored. A very interesting concept, unique to the brand throughout the world. Patch tests available too. More info on their website.
* Get a diagnosis from a dermatologist, if you can. If you do react to any cosmetic ingredients, including those used in hair dye, your dermatologist will explain which ones, and which other ingredients you may also be sensitive to.
* Do a patch test at least 48 hours before you plan to use the colour / dye. This should be explained in an accompanying leaflet, but generally, instructions are to place a small amount of dye mixture (including activator, if included) behind the ear for two days. If you react – reddening, rashes, for example – then don’t use.
* Avoid PPD / PPD alternatives strictly if you have ever had a ‘black henna’ tattoo.
* Always read labels carefully before using – ingredients change and with so many colours and variations, problematic allergens and chemicals can sometimes be introduced and missed.
* Don’t assume that ‘natural’ means ‘allergy free’. No dye / colour is 100% safe for 100% of people.
Allergy Insight — Hair Dye Tests
Dermanet New Zealand — Allergy to Paraphenylenediamine