hair colouring

A number of recent incidents involving women in the U.K. who developed suspected severe allergic reactions to hair dye are raising concerns about the safety of an ingredient that’s also used in hair colour sold in Canada.

A 38-year-old woman is in a coma and on life support after developing a reaction while trying to colour her hair at home. That follows the sudden death last month of a 17-year-old who died within an hour of attempting to dye her hair, according to U.K. media reports. Autopsy results are still pending on that incident. And then earlier this month, two teen girls are said to have developed bad reactions days after using semi-permanent colouring.

All appeared to have allergic reaction to a common hair dye ingredient called paraphenylenediamine, or PPD.

The chemical is not new and is present in a number of brands of dark hair colour, acting to help adhere the dye to the hair so that it doesn’t wash out. It’s well-known to be a cause of serious allergic reactions — including something called contact dermatitis which can lead to rashes, blisters, and open sores.

The ingredient is one of the reasons that there is a warning on the side of most boxes of hair colour that advises customers do a “patch test” before colouring, placing a small amount of the product on a patch of skin, to check for any reactions.

In Canada, PPD is banned in the use of any cosmetics that are meant to be applied directly to the skin. But it is permitted in hair colour, as long as there’s a warning on the label about the possibility of allergic reactions.

“PPD is an acceptable ingredient for use in hair dyes that are rinsed off after a maximum of 30 minutes. When used correctly, hair dye does not come directly into contact with skin for prolonged periods of time,” Health Canada says on its website.

The agency says that adverse reactions to PPD in hair dyes are rare when used as directed. “This is because the oils on the scalp give some protection from the dye, and the product is rinsed off after no more than 30 minutes of use,” it says.

The agency has also warned that PPD is sometimes added to black henna tattoos and that using them is not safe.

One bad reaction can lead to sensitivities to other products such as hair dye, sunblock and some types of clothing dyes. Oftentimes, it’s using the product a second or third time

A petition has been begun in the U.K., calling for a ban on PPD.

“Other European countries have banned this chemical from sale due to the risk it poses to consumers. We call on the government to ban/restrict the sale of products containing PPD (para-phenylenediamine),” the petition reads.

The 38-year-old woman on life support had reportedly used L’Oreal product. The company released a statement to say it was “extremely concerned to hear about this serious situation. They added:

“We are unable to comment further, however, we will do everything we can to assist this lady’s family and medical team with information they might need to establish what happened.”

In an interview with Ireland’s Independent newspaper, Iain Sallis, a trichologist who specializes in scalp conditions offers these tips:

Always do a patch test before using a new colour on your scalp, but remember it’s not a fool-proof way of avoiding an allergic reaction

Always follow manufacturer’s guidelines

Consider swapping a permanent colour for a semi-permanent colour that washes out in six weeks

Consider using light-coloured dyes, which contain significantly less PPD

Use a natural hair colour which is free of PPD and other chemicals

Try highlights or lowlights, which are applied on foils, so don’t touch the scalp.