Hair dyes awash with health hazards

The itchiness was unbearable and Lisa Coleman felt as though she had the chicken pox for the second time in her life. The entire area broke out in blisters and unable to control herself, she scratched. Soon the blisters began to bleed.

All of a sudden her head began to throb and she felt her face get hot. After a few minutes of lying down, she realized that she couldn’t move her head. When she checked herself in the mirror, she was “horrified” to see that her neck had swelled.

Luckily, not everyone experiences the same reaction that Coleman, 19, had when she dyed her hair, but that chance is determined by whether or not one is allergic to the dyes’ chemicals in commercial hair products.

Dr. Joel DeKoven, a dermatologist with Sunnybrook Hospital, said that many of the reactions are caused by Para-phenylenediamine or PPD, a very common ingredient found in many hair dyes.

“When (patients) present the rash there’s no particular problem with the scalp … the reaction mainly occurs only along the hair line, the neck and face,” Dr. DeKoven said.

People with back henna tattoos should also be careful if they’re also thinking about dying their hair according to Dr. DeKoven. Last year he published a report in the Canadian Medical Association Journal that found people with black henna tattoos more prone to a worst reaction when exposed to hair dye with PPD.

Pretest for allergies

“Pure henna is not really a problem … but black henna has a high concentration of PPD and that increases the chances of a reaction,” Dr. DeKoven said.

The problem is that many people don’t know that they’re allergic. Shirley Nelman, a former hairstylist, believes that salons should be more responsible in conducting patch tests to see how custumers respond to the dyes.

The patch is normally placed on the customer’s wrist and they’re to keep it on for 48 hours . If there are no abnormalities on the body during that time, there is no allergy.

“Just asking if the customer has ever had a reaction before isn’t good enough,” Nelman said. “Every product has some different ingredients and you’ve got to know how that specific product is going to react with the customer’s skin and you’ll only know that if you’ve had a patch test.”

Coleman was in sixth grade when she began dying her hair and did it because of how good it looked on people in the media. Although her natural colour is a light brown she was always drawn to other colours.

“I’ve never gotten an allergy test done … I guess it’s because of the long process, and I just can’t be bothered,” Coleman said. “First you have to get the patch, wait two days and then book another appointment for your hair and it’s just to much.”

It’s also not in the best interest for the salon to offer the test to every customer who walks in, according to Nelman. She said that if one salon were to offer the patch test and the cutomer doesn’t want to take one, there’s no guarantee that they’ll go somewhere else where they don’t offer the test.

“When a client walks in and you give them a 48 hour test … that’s money walking out the door,” Nelman said. “(The reason) is partly greed and a fear of losing clients, plus the customers don’t normally have time to come in two days before to do a test, they’ll want things done right away.”

Once the dye is on, allergy symptoms can be as mild as an itchy scalp or as severe as anaphylaxis or difficulty breathing, according to Dr. DeKoven. But he warns that these symptoms might not show up the first time one is exposed to the dye because it takes the bodies lymph nodes a few times to realize one is allergic.

Coleman had been dying her hair for about five years before having a more severe reaction.

When looking at the ingredients of dyes available to customers and salons, most of the ingredients have warnings of being very hazardous. They could even cause blindness if exposed near the eye area.

Wearing gloves to avoid burns

PPD is not only hazardous, but a second ingredient, ammonium, is as well. Although there are other ingredients which help stabalize these chemicals, stylists still have to wear gloves in order to avoid burns on their skin.

“Once I was bleaching a client’s hair and my hair was getting in my eyes so I moved it with my hand … some product got on my eye and went to rinse it. The next few days three quarters of my eyelashes had just fallen out,” Nelman said.

Although findings in the past have been inconclusive, there have been studies conducted to see if hair dyes are linked to some diseases such as cancer.

According to the Canadian Cancer Society’s website, the cancer risks depend on certain factors such as the hair dye product, saying “some research shows that dark coloured dyes with a base of coal tar may be more carcinogenic (cancer causing) than lighter colours.”

In 1994 Nelman was diagnosed with breast cancer. Although she stopped dying her hair before she was diagnosed, she never ruled out the possibility that it could have been caused by hair dye.

“I truly believe all these dyes are going into your roots and eventually into your blood. When I was younger I bleached and dyed my hair and ended up with breast cancer and I’ve never had cancer in my family,” Nelman said.

There are alternatives to permanent hair dyes, such as semi permanent and all natural dyes but Dr. DeKoven maintains that people take allergy tests since other ingredients could cause reactions.

Despite her reaction Coleman has no intention to stop dying her hair. She did let her hair stylist know about what had happened and the next time she went in for her colour she got a milder reaction.

Nelman still maintains that dyes should not be applied after a reaction, but admits that the media does play a role in influencing women even though she’d like natural beauty to make a comeback.

“Everybody wants to be beautiful because the pretty girl gets everything,” Nelman said. “But if I knew that something was not good for me it’d make me stop and think about what’s best for my health.”