The most common allergic reaction to hair care products is allergic contact dermatitis. This reaction is a red, itchy and scaly rash at skin sites that touched the allergen. The skin can even develop small blisters when the reaction is really bad. This rash, also called type 4 delayed hypersensitivity reaction, is different than hives (or welts), which many people associate with allergic reactions. Think of poison oak or poison ivy, which produce the classic and severe form of allergic contact dermatitis in many people.
Allergic contact dermatitis is at first a slow type of allergy that builds into a rash. It can take days or weeks, and often happens after a person has successfully tolerated an ingredient or product in the past. Hair care products are full of allergens that can cause allergic contact dermatitis.
The most notorious allergens in hair care products for allergic reactions include the fragrances and preservatives. Even ‘natural’ fragrances can cause trouble, citrus being one of those. Trouble develops because these taunting allergens remain on the skin due to:
- Sprays, which send airborne droplets onto facial skin, including the delicate eyelid skin. Eyelid skin is often the ‘canary in the coal mine’ that reacts to allergens first.
- Product that rinses over the skin such as the facial skin, behind the ears, and down the neck. This would include shampoos and conditioners (again eyelid skin reacts promptly because it is thin). It is common for us to forget to fully wash product residue off our skin. In this instance the rash often shows up behind the ears and in the nape of the neck, as well as the eyelids.
- Product on the hair shafts themselves, such as mousse, gels and even hair dyes absorbed into the hairs can cause allergic contact dermatitis as the hair touches skin over the course of the day.
How do you tell if you have an allergic reaction to your hair product?
Look for the rash in areas of the skin where the product touched and/or remained. With spray products you often get the rash first on the eyelids. Your eyelids may become very puffy, swollen, itchy, dry and wrinkled from an allergic reaction. Rinse-off products will react here too, and will also leave a rash behind the ears and nape of the neck. Of course the scalp skin may itch as well.
What are the most common chemical allergens in hair care products that cause allergic reactions?
Chemical ingredients to watch out for include formaldehyde releasing preservatives such as DMDM hydantoin, imidazolidinyl urea, diazolidinyl urea and quaternium 15 (the leading preservative allergen in the US).
Permanent hair dyes contain para-phenylenediamine, which is a potent allergen. Metallic hair dyes may contain nickel and other metals that can be allergens for people allergic to metal. When these are applied to hair the hair itself becomes an allergen. For real!
Hair sprays contain an abundance of potential allergens including shellac, synthetic resins, lanolin and fragrances.
What do you do if you suspect you are allergic to your hair care products?
If you suspect an allergic reaction to your hair care product you need to stop using it for at least 2 to 4 weeks. In this trial period you must use a hypoallergenic product designed without the most notorious allergens. My go-to recommendation for this is the Vanicream line of products (Free & Clear Shampoo and Free & Clear Conditioner). You will see why allergens are added when you use these products! Yes, your hair will feel and look different… Understand, this is an elimination test. If your rash heals then the next step is to add back one product at a time over 2 to 4 week intervals until you find your allergen ingredient or product culprit.
If you must use hairspray, be sure to cover your face with a towel, spray and then walk forward out of the spray droplets before lowering the towel.
The bottom line is that hair care products are a rich source of dermatologic misadventure – and job security for those of us who like to sleuth out allergic reactions for our patients. Hypoallergenic products are available. However, patients almost never like the way their hair feels and looks when they use them. That’s why all those allergens are packed into the popular hair care products – which we use at our own risk!
Want to learn more? See these related posts:
- Common Skin Problems for Moms and Families with Sensitive Skin
- Retinol For Your Skin: What’s So Great About It?
- How to Treat Your Eczema
- How to Get Dermatologist-Approved Natural Skin Care