Hair Dye Allergy From PPD (para-phenylenediamine): How to Avoid It and What to Use Instead
Updated: Dec 28, 2022
Allergy to PPD in hair dyes is becoming more common, but there are PPD free hair dyes that you can use
I'm a dermatologist who specializes in allergic skin reactions, and I'm seeing more and more allergic reactions to hair dye. What is the most common cause of allergy to hair dye? The most common cause is a chemical called p-phenylenediamine, also known as PPD.
Although we're not entirely sure why hair dye allergy rates are increasing, I suspect that it's because both men and women are starting to color their hair at younger ages, and continuing for longer. With more exposure, there's more potential to become allergic.
In fact, PPD is now one of the most common causes of allergic skin reactions in the United States.
What is PPD?
PPD, also known as PPDA, is a chemical, and it's the main coloring agent in hair dyes.
The chemical name is para-phenylenediamine.
The chemical is also known as p-phenylenediamine
PPD or PPDA are the commonly used abbreviations.
Other names and abbreviations include 4-para-phenylenediamine and 4-PPDA
PPD is found in almost all currently available permanent hair dyes, and in many demipermanent and semipermanent hair dyes. It's found in both salon dyes and in drugstore dyes. It's found in expensive products as well as less expensive products.
Although it's used widely, PPD is the most common cause of allergic reactions to hair-coloring products.
What brands of hair dyes contain PPD?
Almost all of the major hair color brands contain PPD, because it works so well at covering gray hair. Even brands that use the word "natural" often contain PPD. Popular brands such as Clairol Natural Instincts, Clairol Nice 'n Easy, Revlon Color Silk, and Naturtint all contain PPD.
Even salon hair color typically contains PPD. Price does not matter. Because PPD works so well at covering gray or changing your hair color, it's used at every price point.
Salons are also starting to see more severe reactions to hair dyes, which is why some salons now have signs asking their clients to inform them of any potential allergic reactions.
What does allergy to PPD look like?
This is a medical journal article we wrote about allergy to PPD in hair dyes. One of the most important points to remember is that allergy to hair dye typically doesn't cause any symptoms at all at first. In fact, it classically takes anywhere from 2-7 days following application of the hair dye before the rash even starts. And once it's there, it can take weeks and weeks before it goes away. This type of allergy is known as a delayed allergy, also known as allergic contact dermatitis.
PPD allergy can also develop at any age. In fact, I've had patients who have been coloring their hair for 40 years who suddenly become allergic.
One other point about hair dye allergy. It's usually not seen in the scalp first. In fact, most of my patients have noticed rashes on their eyelids or on their forehead or neck at the hairline.
If you suspect you may be allergic to hair dye, patch testing can be used to confirm the allergy.
How long does an allergic reaction to hair dye last?
If you have developed an allergic reaction to hair dye, it can be very uncomfortable. Most people develop a red, itchy rash. This can sometimes cause swelling or blisters and be painful.
It varies from person to person, but reactions typically last anywhere from a few days to as long as eight weeks. It is important to speak with your physician about treating the reaction so that it does not last as long.
Why would an allergic reaction to hair dye last eight weeks?
Allergic contact dermatitis of any type can last as long as eight weeks, even if you have not been exposed to that allergen again.
For example, if you were hiking and exposed to poison ivy, you might develop a severe rash that lasts two months long--even though you completely stayed away from poison ivy after that initial exposure. As I like to explain to my patients, your skin is angry, and it can stay angry for up to eight weeks. In the case of hair dye allergy, the hair dye chemicals undergo a process that “neutralizes“ them. There might be a few active chemicals hanging around for a few days after you color your hair. But after that, there are no active hair dye chemicals in your hair. (That's why there's no need to "get rid of the hair dye" in your colored hair if you develop an allergy.) The reason the rash keeps going is because your skin is still angry. That’s one of the reasons we emphasize seeking treatment for any severe allergic skin reactions. Treatment with medicated ointments is used to calm down that angry skin.
How can I find a PPD free hair dye?
As a dermatologist, I have treated so many patients with allergy to PPD. While it can take a little detective work on your part, it's actually not that hard to find hair dye options that are free of PPD.
To find other hair dye options, you need to start by reading labels, or just choose one of the options listed in this post. Just be aware that you may need patch testing prior to using one of these other hair dye options, because some of these alternate chemicals can also cause allergic skin reactions.
What do I look for on labels?
On labels, this chemical dye will be listed as p-phenylenediamine.
HOWEVER, it can be hard to locate in the ingredient list.
It’s often listed in small print.
Most hair dyes do not highlight its presence in any way
It may just be one chemical name in the middle of a long list of chemicals (see this photo of a hair dye box below and notice just how hard it is to spot the chemical name).
If I'm allergic to PPD, can I just use natural or ammonia-free products instead?
If you have experienced allergic reactions to hair dyes, or if you have sensitive skin, be careful!
It might be easy to assume that looking for labels such as "natural" or "ammonia-free" might help you identify products that are less likely to trigger allergic reactions. Unfortunately, this is NOT the case. Products with these types of labels may still contain PPDA and may still trigger allergic skin reactions.
Labels stating “all-natural” DO NOT MEAN THESE PRODUCTS ARE NECESSARILY SAFE TO USE.
Labels stating “ammonia-free” DO NOT MEAN THESE PRODUCTS ARE NECESSARILY SAFE TO USE.
Labels stating “hydrogen peroxide free” DO NOT MEAN THESE PRODUCTS ARE NECESSARILY SAFE TO USE.
Labels stating “henna” DO NOT MEAN THESE PRODUCTS ARE NECESSARILY SAFE TO USE.
All of these products may still contain PPDA
You will still need to read the ingredient list.
What hair dyes can I use if I'm allergic to PPD?
For those who still wish to color their hair, there are some options. These products usually do not cover gray as well, and do not last as long. I've listed some of these products below. HOWEVER, as always, purchase products with caution, as we cannot certify any of these manufacturers/salons and cannot confirm their business practices.
If I am allergic to hair dye what can I use to cover grey?
If you're allergic to PPD, these hair dyes are potential options for hair color
1. Highlights: these are bleaching agents and usually do not contain PPDA. [Note that “lowlights” should be avoided because they often contain PPDA]
2. Temporary hair color rinses, which wash out after shampooing. Some of the newer temporary hair color washes make use of FD&C and D&C dyes, which are different than PPDA.
3. Some salon dyes may be okay. One example is Elumen hair dye made by Goldwell.
4. Pure henna, which comes from a plant, gives a reddish tint to hair. Make sure that you are buying pure henna, as some newer forms, sometimes known as “black henna”, add PPDA to the henna. Pure henna, however, will be fine.
Some companies sell hair dyes that contain henna in combination with indigo [also from a plant], and this combination can produce more of a black color. One example of a company that sells henna with indigo would be Light Mountain Naturals.
5. Temporary hair color sprays. These can temporarily help cover gray hair, and then can be washed out with shampoo. One option would be L'Oreal Magic Root Cover Up Spray.
If I'm allergic to PPD, can I use hair dyes such as Madison Reed that contain TDS instead of PPD?
What is toluene-diamine-sulfate?
Para-toulene-diamine sulfate (TDS) is a different hair dye ingredient. On labels, it will usually be listed as toluene-2,5-diamine sulfate. Keep reading for more information about this particular hair dye chemical.
Can I can use hair dyes that are labeled "PPD-free" and use toluene-diamine-sulfate instead?
The answer to this question is a big MAYBE. Unfortunately, some people who are allergic to PPDA will also be allergic to TDS.
Patch testing is recommended before using any product that contains TDS
Why is patch testing recommended first? Although we have little data, it is currently estimated that about half of persons allergic to PPDA will also have allergic reactions to TDS.
If you were patch tested to TDS, and were negative on testing, then you may be able to use several products that are sold at drugstores or are applied in salons.
What are some products that are PPD-free and use TDS instead?
Ion Color Brilliance PPD-free crème permanent hair color, available through Sally Beauty Supply
Wella Color Charm demipermanent dye, available through Sally Beauty Supply
John Frieda Precision Foam Colour hair dye, available at Target.
Madison Reed PPD-free hair color, available online
Again, as an important reminder, remember that some people who are allergic to PPDA will also be allergic to TDS. These options are not suitable for everyone with a PPDA allergy.
What other substances should I avoid?
When you’re allergic to PPD, you may react to other substances also. While not everyone will be allergic to these other, related chemicals, you should be aware that occasionally they may cause problems.
You should always avoid "black henna" tattoos, as these types of temporary tattoos may use PPDA
Azo dyes: these dyes may be used as clothing dyes, fur or leather dyes, and in some inks
PABA: this is an ingredient found in some sunscreens and some makeup that contains sunscreen
Benzocaine: this is a type of topical anesthetic [numbing cream]. It may be found in some OTC skin care products such as Solarcaine and Lanacaine
Medicated creams containing sulfonamides may sometimes cause problems in those allergic to PPDA
The Bottom Line
If you’ve developed rashes that you suspect may be due to hair dye, then allergy to PPDA in hair dyes may be a possible culprit. Since this type of allergic reaction can become more severe with time, it’s really important to either confirm the diagnosis with patch testing or look for alternative hair dyes. Although it can be challenging to find the right hair dye, there are a number of potential PPDA- free hair dye options available.