From my mid teens and through my adult life, I was an avid fan of hair colour, mostly blondes, a few times brunette, a couple of experiments with red, and then balayage and foils. I initially used box dyes, and then later hair stylists. On a whim, I could mix up my style and appearance, keep up with cutting edge trends, and just get creative with colour whenever I felt like a change.
In April 2020, one morning I felt itchy on my arms and legs. I then noticed a couple of tattoos felt itchy. I’d been to the beach and also waded in lake water the day before and thought I may have been experiencing some pelican or sea lice itch. I moisturised and went to to bed that night not thinking much else about it. The next day, I woke up still itchy and noticed small red welts on my legs. Over the next couple of days, the red welts appeared and disappeared over my body randomly.
I checked all sorts of things…Was it the washing liquid? Was it food? Was it my pets? Was it saltwater?… I spoke to a Dr who seemed confused, she prescribed prednisone and suggested allergy tests. As it was during the start of Covid, trying to get on site for tests was time consuming, and in the meantime, I had several days of on again/off again rashes and itches. Long story short, blood tests returned negative results to grass, pets, dust, pollen.
One evening a few days later, we had Italian for dinner, after eating I broke out in a rash from head to toe, bright red hives everywhere, and I ended up in the emergency department. They prescribed double dose prednisone and anti-histamines, which eventually calmed down the hives.
A few days later, I was sitting at work and felt light headed, dizzy, and had a raspy throat causing a temporary loss of speech. This was followed by my lips swelling to double in size. More prednisone relieved the symptoms, but this continued on and off for a week or more. The following week, my eyes started to swell up and water, and were particularly swollen upon waking.
At this point, I realised the hives seemed to be worse after a shower, and were appearing on my back, sides, and down my legs. I finally made a connection of a balayage hair dye I had the day before I started itching. The stylist used a darker than normal dye on the roots to reduce fading, and left it on longer than normal. The hives were flaring up when I washed my hair and the water was washing the chemical PPD (Paraphenylenediamine) over my body. It was in my bloodstream from my scalp. PPD is the main culprit when it comes to hair dye allergies, and is a study in itself.
All of the symptoms described above can be symptoms of a hair dye allergy! They can also include more severe anaphylactic responses, sores, bleeding, and even death. As I had never had any allergy issues (except a mild rash to too much orange/vitamin C) I didn’t make the connection between the hair dye and the onset of strange symptoms. I must admit the swelling and the loss of speech was very scary!
During all this time, I had started eliminating products with chemicals I used, trying to work out what I was reacting to! I also stopped buying any foods with chemicals, additives, colours etc. This led to only buying and eating organic fresh foods, meats, fruit, vegetables. All condiments with chemicals were tossed out in favour of preservative free options. Favourite chocolate snacks were discarded. Soaps and beauty products were swapped for natural and chemical free options. Laundry and cleaning products were scrutinsed and reviewed for their problem ingredients and eliminated where necessary, again replaced with more natural options. I became scared of anything I thought may possibly cause extreme hives, breathing issues, and facial swelling! Which is potentially everything when you don’t know what you’re reacting to!
I had made a food diary trying to make links to food types and reactions, and after much scrutiny, I realised the facial swelling was a cross reaction from the PPD with aspirin and ibuprofen. On the ocassions I had severe hives and lip swelling together, I had consumed high concentrate fresh citrus drink with Italian food on one occassion, and orange rind on a cake on another occassion (this relates back to my allergy to orange/citric acid as a child, which I had no problems with ever since, until this cross reaction)
I further discovered that using some purple toner shampoos and conditioners were causing hives and a raspy throat. When you delve into researching PPD and the possible symptoms and cross reactions, they are all reactions I experienced. The itchy tattoos, eye swelling, hives, cross reactions to medications. This allergy can cause reactions to dental pain relief, anesthetic, certain fruits and nuts, and due to it being concerned with mostly dark dyes, many people then react to things like rubber, seatbelts, black clothes, and a range of household products. I even broke out in hives around my ribs in a 2 inch band, exactly where a gym crop top had sat, it turns out the black thick elastic in the top had PPD in it! A $100 gym top became an enemy 😕
As far as I’m concerned, PPD should be banned. Period. The case studies are horrible, people should not be put in a life or death situation for hair dye! The ongoing issues faced by victims and survivors are awful. I tried another ‘allergy free’ dye but reacted to a similar chemical used in place of PPD. I can now only have bleach foils and dark blonde lowlights where the chemical does not touch my skin or scalp. I still take medication before an appointment just in case.
The ongoing quest to identify the reaction triggers actually changed my life for the better. Fresh foods only, no caffeine, no refined sugars, lots of water, natural soaps and beauty products, eco friendly cleaning products, and I eliminated take away foods… This led to a healthier diet, improved heart health, better skin quality, more energy, improved digestion and internal health, less environmental impact, less use of products tested on animals, and an overall feeling of improved well-being. Very quickly I discovered I did not miss any of the eliminated products, and nor did I want to return to using them. Eliminating as many chemicals as possible from your body makes you realise just how heavy and ‘blergh’ they make you feel!
I don’t think I would have eliminated so much all at once if not for the experience of trying to identify this allergy. Being healthy and fit, and having a ‘good’ diet, I thought I was fine. If you use hair dye, be aware one day your system may just ‘have enough’ of the chemical top ups and react severely. I beg you, don’t wait for a reaction to start detoxifying your system and eliminating chemicals from your lifestyle.
I can’t recommend a safe hair dye as individual reactions differ between the ‘safer’ alternatives, but you can learn more for ‘you’ specifically with this brilliant investment True Roots: What Quitting Hair Dye Taught Me about Health and Beauty A must have read for hair dye fans!
For help with eliminating toxic products, this is a handy resource Living Allergy Free: How to Create and Maintain an Allergen- and Irritant-Free Environment It is always worth educating yourself.