Going PPD Free: Changing the Hair Color Game

I have seen a trend behind my chair in recent years that has caused me to study a common chemical in hair color. As an experienced hairdresser, I’ve done my fair share of coloring and highlighting and rarely have I seen a reaction. Usually if something doesn’t go as planned, it’s due to increased hormones from pregnancy or a change in medication and any problems can be traced back to that by the doctor… and those problems have really been about color not taking or taking in a different color than it should. But recently, I know a few people (none of whom I’ve seen in my chair) who have developed severe reactions after using hair color. Those reactions resulted in redness, inflammation, itching and burning on the scalp, fever and in one case, a scary trip to the ER. All cases ended with a diagnosis of allergy and the harsh realization that suddenly, gray would be the way to go. No more hair color for the rest of their lives, they’ve been told.

The culprit? PPD or paraphenylenediamine, an ingredient in permanent hair color. It’s an essential and active ingredient as its main function is providing the permanent state of the color. Every other possible color available either fades over time or rinses out slowly with each shampoo, simply just coating or only slightly penetrating the cuticle of the hair strand. Whereas permanent hair color actually penetrates the innermost layers to permanently stain the entire hair strand, which is the most attractive reason to go for the harsher, more damaging color choice. It’s basically essential for anyone with gray hair or for changing your color level by more than a few shades without having it wash out in a week, if it takes at all.

PPD is also common in black henna dye, giving the dark paint its deep pigment. Though the henna color is not mixed with a developer (which can enhance reactions in hair color), it can still cause a reaction from the amounts of PPD in it.

The scary thing about this allergy is that it can just happen out of nowhere. It can develop after several years of coloring your hair on-scalp problem free. Because of this, it’s crucial to pay attention to your body when you’re at the salon and directly after. There’s no reason to get paranoid for every trip to your hairdresser because thankfully, seeking treatment early can easily and quickly eliminate any risk. However, don’t ignore any warning signs and if you feel any itchiness or tightness while color is processing or directly after you leave the salon, consult a doctor right away. I’ve had a couple clients over the years who have complained of itchiness while their color is on (one of which I rinsed off immediately because she was quite nervous), but even then, the itchiness is usually mild and only a discomfort. Because it’s not painful, most women would rather just deal with some itchiness than not have their color done. But it’s not just that; it’s also a warning sign of a major allergic reaction that could really do some damage to your body.

During an outbreak, swelling of the head will occur, which usually starts with a feeling of tightness on the scalp. Usually, there will also be lots of redness directly where all the color was applied. Once the allergy has developed further, fever, headache and just a general aching are common. The worst case of this I’ve heard of was from a woman who let her symptoms go for a few days and ended up in the hospital. While this allergy can become severe and require more maintenance to treat if it goes for too long, it rarely is if you listen to your body and contact your doctor as soon as things don’t feel right.

The best way to help prevent an allergic reaction is to be safe with your hair color choices. The first rule of that is to only receive your color treatments from a professional salon and/or stylist. Box colors from the grocery store (even if bought at Whole Foods and labeled as “natural”) are much harsher and higher in this ingredient than salon professional color lines. And because demi-permanent color lines are usually PPD-free or very low in PPD, your stylist can transition you into one of those color choices very safely and efficiently. It’s also important to stay away from black henna dyes, whether used on your hands or with hair color. Most women assume that once they can’t use permanent color anymore, henna is the next best option. But with black henna (as opposed to pure henna), you have PPD in the actual dye, so it’s just as bad. If you do want to try that option, be 100% sure the henna is pure. I also just believe that being in the salon at the time of coloring is safer because your hairdresser can watch your scalp and head as you process and determine any necessary steps. Your hairdresser is also trained in how and when to do a “patch test” before applying any color and can perform this on you and watch your skin for the next two days to see if there is in fact a reaction or if it’s safe to proceed. Part of our job is to take care of you and follow up with any concerns, so I know when I even hear about itchiness or if I see a lot of redness, I can take your color off, soothe your scalp and send you to a recommended doctor to be seen.

Another great option for women with PPD allergies is to transition to highlights. Because the color doesn’t sit directly on the scalp and the toners are very low in PPD (should they need to sit on the head for a few minutes to eliminate brassiness), this is by far the safest choice. I know for women who have lots of gray, it can be really scary to think about moving to just highlights. However, if you are 60% gray or less, it’s actually fairly easy to cover most of the gray with highlights and tone out the rest so that it blends really naturally. I suggest this option to all women who want to step away from on-scalp color whatever the reason.

By far, the best option is to transition to a color line that is completely PPD free. Thanks to Kevin.Murphy, who recently launched an entire line of PPD free, ammonia free and cruelty free hair color, that's now a valid option. You can find a salon that uses the color line by visiting their website and typing in your zip code. And of course if you're in Austin, I'm your girl! 

In today’s world, we own almost every part of our lives. And I’m making the claim that your hair, your health and your beauty are also worthy of being owned, understood and taken care of.Share this information with a friend and mention it to your hairdresser. The more women who understand the serious risk that can arise from something that most women do on a regular basis, the better we all will be.