Women who have an allergy to PPD — a colouring agent used in permanent hair dye — are more likely to be allergic to methylisothiazolinone (MI), 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 deaths.
Permanent hair dye kits typically consist of several items:
* 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 its resulting partially oxidised state which can trigger allergic reactions. (Once fully oxidised it is considered safe, which means wigs and synthetic furs dyed with PPD usually pose no risk.)
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) contain PPD, and contain MI / MCI in the conditioner and in many of the activators.
The following contain PPD, but are MI-Free:
* Naturtint Permanent Hair Colours (known as NaturStyle in Australia);
* Tints of Nature Permanent Colours (US / UK) (these use a lower level of PPD than some other brands)
* Herbatint Permanent Hair Colours.
Permanent Alternatives to PPD
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 contain TDS, and are PPD-Free and MI-Free:
* NaturVital ColourSafe (US / UK / New Zealand)
* Madison Reed Permanent Hair Color (US)
One way to sidestep the problem of PPD and the various similar alternatives 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 check for MI or MCI.
These are PPD-Free, TD/TDS-Free and MI-Free:
Naturtint Reflex (UK) — this is Naturtint’s non-permanent line, which contains artificial colorants; make sure you choose Reflex-named products if you want this option.
Tints of Nature Semi-Permanent (US / UK) — contains artificial colorants; make sure you don’t confuse this range with their PPD-containing permanent range.
Surya Henna Cream — combines artificial colours with henna and other natural botanical dyes.
Scott Cornwall Colour Restore (UK / Australia) — recently reformulated to be free of MI (check labels in case of old stock, however).
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.
Lush Colour / Caca (US / UK / Canada / Australia) — all natural solid hair colouring bars of henna / indigo / coffee with cocoa butter and other botanicals / essential oils.
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.
Sante (US / UK) — Powders and creams made with indigo, henna, coffee, walnut, plus 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 now 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. There’s more info on their website and many have reported good results with it.
* 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 / The Allergy Gentle Molecule / PPD-Free Beard Dye
Dermanet New Zealand — Allergy to Paraphenylenediamine
FDA — Henna / Mehndi / Black Tattoos Factsheet
NHS — Dangers of Black Henna
L’Oreal hair colours seem free from methylisothiazolinone in the UK. I’ve never found it in any of their products though I know some shades can contain different ingredients.
Garnier Nutrisse was also OK last time I looked in the shop, though Garnier Belle Color I think had it in the conditioner that comes with it.
Schwarzkopf semi-permanent ones I think are OK, though some colours in the permanent range (maybe the blonde ones) do contain MI.
Thanks for writing about this subject. I wish they’d put ingredients on websites.
Thanks – I’ll check those out if I can to confirm – and yes, ingredients on web pages would be very useful! While I was researching this piece I came across a security sticker in one of the stores obscuring the list of ingredients on a product – also not good!
Not mentioned in your article but I just looked at Arctic Fox vegan hair dyes and found both MCI AND MI in the ingredients!
Thanks kim. Always useful to be aware of those which definitely are NOT safe for those with MI / MCI allergy.
Hi there, has anyone heard of MI IN bleach….im thinking foils/ highlights.
I heard of ekoeh brasil from a friend and since I’m high sensitive even with natural formulas I gave their “hair food color cream” a try and it worked really well actually, no scalp burning and great gray coverage. It might be a product you should consider adding to your list.
Thanks Samantha – and good to hear. Can you share anything about its availability / in which country it’s sold etc?
I would like to know about safety of purple conditioning products. To remove the brassy tones in blonde hair and grey hair eg; Lush luminous blonde Marc Daniels Professionals. Im allergic to MI and MIC. I have used these products in the past but not ever noticed an issue on my scalp however I get swelling of the face and neck from MI/MIC in paint.
I am looking for a shampoo for fine hair that is MI & MCI free, I had a really severe reaction to something and the dermatologist tested me.
Most of the ones I see have coconut oil and such which I can’t use on my hair.
Try the hair listings: https://mi-free.com/cosmetics/hair-products/