Most of us use some sort of hair product on a daily basis, and allergies to many of their ingredients are common.
While hair color is the biggest offender, other products like hairspray, conditioners and extension glue can cause redness, itching and even swelling in those with allergies. The problem is, many women and men experience these symptoms without knowing the exact cause.
As a dermatologist, I can effectively treat the allergy, but it often takes a while to determine the source of the reaction. Here are the most common hair products that cause reactions—and a few allergy-free alternatives.
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Whether you use hair color to cover grays or for highlights, if you’re allergic, you know it.
The main ingredient responsible for hair color allergies is paraphenyldiamine (PPD) and it can cause redness and swelling wherever the product touches the skin. Another offender is toluene (which can also be found in nail polish but most major brands have omitted it from their formulas).
I see many patients with hair color allergies, but there are alternatives that provide the benefits without the side effects. Vegetable dyes like henna cover grays on darker hair, and if you prefer highlights, the trendy ombre look is achieved by placing color just at the ends so it doesn’t come in contact with the skin.
In the case of hairspray, fragrance is most often responsible for allergic reactions like redness, irritation and swelling. Other ingredients that cause reactions include propylene glycol (which is often used to “seal in” moisture) and acrylates, which are used to form a film on the hair.
Though I wish I could recommend a hairspray that’s unlikely to cause a reaction, a better approach is to make a note when you have a problem and consider what products you used in the previous 24 hours. Then read those labels and see if you can identify the culprit. If you still can’t figure it out, see your dermatologist for patch testing so you can avoid the offender in the future.
Perms and straighteners
Treatments such as keratin straightening have been getting bad press due to side effects from the professionals who spend a lot of time around the fumes, but these treatments can cause allergic reactions when they come in contact with the skin — even if it’s only every few moments.
The main problematic ingredient in these treatments is formaldehyde, and it leads to itching, skin cracking and irritation in those with sensitivity. The problem with a formaldehyde allergy is that this ingredient can be listed many ways on product labels, so it’s best to consult your dermatologist if you react to these types of hair treatments.
Something as simple (and common) as conditioner can have side effects on the skin.
A very common ingredient like isopropyl myristate can aggravate acne, and it often comes in contact with the face, back and chest when used in the shower. If you have persistent body acne, check your labels, and be sure to wash your back and chest with a salicylic acid cleanser after washing and conditioning your hair.
Hair extension glue
Think about it … anything that’s designed to attach hair to your head (and withstand washing and tugging) might have some detrimental side effects on the skin. The main ingredient in hair glue that causes reactions is ethyl cyanoacrylate, so if you experience adverse effects, consider another hair extension technique.
Other options include thermal bonding and sewn-in extensions, and these eliminate the possibility of skin reaction.
When a patient is unable to isolate the ingredient causing their skin allergies, I often ask them to bring in their skincare and hair care products so I can take a look at what they’re using. In most cases, reading the labels and taking a thorough history is enough to pinpoint the source of the reaction and eliminate the product from one’s beauty routine.
Dr. Leslie Baumann is a board-certified dermatologist, New York Times best-selling author and CEO of Baumann Cosmetic & Research Institute in Miami.