Okay, that image might be a tad bit of an exaggeration, but yes, your hair products really can hurt your health and take years off of your life. And, in some rare cases, at-home or salon hair products have actually caused immediate, even deadly hazards. Not since Michael Jackson’s hair caught fire during the ill-fated filming of a 1984 Pepsi commercial, leaving him with second-degree burns on his scalp, has hairstyling attracted so much attention not for beauty, but for safety risks.
It’s pretty much common knowledge that hair can be damaged by color treatments, harsh chemicals, and everyday heat styling. Nearly every major shampoo brand – including the companies that sell at-home hair dye kits – has products on the shelf advertised to “repair damaged hair” for just this reason. It’s a brilliant business strategy, really: sell you a product that hurts your hair so they can then sell you even more products to fix the damage.
So for many women, when television star January Jones told reporters that her hair was “falling out in clumps” as a result of her frequent dye jobs, the real shock wasn’t the extent of the Mad Men actress’s hair damage but instead the excessive media hype. While major news sources like ABC News and USA Today broadcasted the celebrity gossip, real, down-to-earth news consumers expressed the sentiment that Jones, whose hair underwent five color transformations in the past year, should have known better. There’s no sympathy for serial hair dyers like Jones in the public eye, but even casual hair dye users should pay attention to unintentional hair changes.
Like beauty, the injury is only skin-deep when hair starts to fall out. If your dye job leaves you with burning, itching, or irritated scalp, though, you could have more severe problems. Hair dye allergies can range from the inconvenient to the downright dangerous.
Warning: Irritation Death May Result
A bee sting allergy can be deadly. A peanut butter allergy can be deadly. Yet, for some reason, people believe so strongly that a hair dye allergy is either so minor or so rare that they typically disregard manufacturer’s instructions to perform a “patch test” on a small area of skin before dyeing their hair. Even worse, a successful patch test doesn’t guarantee that you can color your hair safely.
In October 2011, a severe allergic reaction to at-home hair dye killed Tabatha McCourt, a 17-year-old from Lanarkshire, England. ABC News reported that McCourt “screamed in agony and collapsed moments after” using the hair product. Not even a month later, 38-year-old Julie McCabe, also of the United Kingdom, was rushed to the hospital after a catastrophically bad allergic reaction. McCabe “collapsed and stopped breathing minutes after applying a home hair dye,” reported UK newspaper The Daily Mail. For a year after the event, McCabe remained in a coma, on life support, with severe brain and heart damage and only an eight percent chance of surviving. Sadly, McCabe passed away in November 2012.
If you believe that dangerous allergic reactions to hair dye are only happening on the other side of the Atlantic, Vicki Kneeland’s story may hit a little too close to home. Compared to McCourt and McCabe, the Montgomery County, Pennsylvania, resident was fortunate that the allergic reaction wasn’t worse. Still, the salon-quality dye applied by professionals resulted in a violent allergic reaction that Kneeland called feeling “like bugs were all over [her] scalp crawling inside,” according to CBS News.
The Dangers of PPD and Allergic Reactions
The chemical that causes all of these problems is called para-phenylenediamine, better known as PPD. Telltale signs of an allergic reaction to hair dye containing PPD include burning, rash, itching or swelling on the scalp or face, including near the ears and eyes, according to Natural News. As with all allergens, allergic reactions have the potential to lead to anaphylaxis, especially if not treated immediately. Anaphylaxis is characterized by:
- Itching of the eyes or face
- Difficulty breathing
- Difficulty swallowing
- Abdominal pain and cramps
- Hives and swelling
- Increased heart rate
- Decreased blood pressure
- Shock and loss of consciousness
When a victim of an allergic reaction goes into anaphylactic shock, the condition may be life-threatening.
You know your body best, and if you have colored your hair in the past, then you know what to expect and what symptoms are out of place. All of the victims discussed above noticed soon after using the potentially dangerous product that something wasn’t right. If you experience these or any other unusual symptoms after using hair dye, do not wait to get medical care.
Though allergic reactions have historically been rare, affecting only one person out of 250,000, according to The Daily Mail, that may be changing. Even as early as 2007, WebMD Medical News reported that the number of hair dye allergic reactions had increased internationally. In the U.S., lawsuits against hair dye manufacturers, salons, and even drugstores are pending as a result of allergic reactions to PPD.
If you think that you definitely do not have an allergy to PPD because you’ve dyed your hair once, twice, or even dozens of times without an incident, think again. Both McCourt and McCabe had successfully dyed their hair numerous times in the past, but experts believe that the effects of PPD may be cumulative. The more frequently you color your hair with dyes containing PPD, the more likely you are to develop a negative reaction to the chemical.
You May Not Even Know Your Hair Dye is Killing You
Just because you go an hour, a month, or even a year without experiencing any noticeable reaction to hair dye doesn’t mean that you’re in the clear. Experts are divided on the subject of a possible link between hair dye and cancer. Some research has indicated that the use of hair dyes, especially permanent dyes of a dark color, may be linked to an increased risk of developing lymphoma or leukemia, according to WebMD. As early as 2001, researched published in the International Journal of Cancer showed evidence that dyeing hair as frequently as once a month was associated with an increased risk of bladder cancer, USA Today reported. The women who colored their hair at home for even as little as one year had twice the number of incidents of bladder cancer. For women who dyed their hair for 15 years, the impact was even greater, increasing the likelihood of developing cancer to three times the average risk.
Not all studies corroborate these findings, and as of now, health professionals cannot conclusively say whether or not exposure to the chemicals in hair dyes may play a part in causing cancer.
Get Your Hair Straight (To a Hospital)
While hair dyes have long been a mainstay of salon-goers, another potential risk is relatively new. Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the last few years, you’ve probably heard of keratin treatments, better known by the name brand Brazilian Blowout. These treatments claim to offer the holy grail of hairstyling. Whether you want long hair or short, blonde, brunette, or red, everyone wants frizz-free hair. The question is, what are you willing to pay?
I’m not talking about the hundreds of dollars you will pay out per treatment. I’m talking about your health.
Keratin smoothing treatments involve a chemical gas called formaldehyde. Though you can’t see formaldehyde, hairstylists and clients can smell it during the keratin straightening process. The strong odor indicates substantial dangers. “Formaldehyde is a health hazard, whether in a product or in the air,” advised the United States Department of Labor Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).
While the effects on your hair may be beautiful, the overall impact on your body isn’t. As with PPD, allergic reactions can occur, most commonly causing itches, rashes and breathing difficulties. While you know better than to intentionally put any hair care product in your eyes, even a small accidental exposure can hurt your eyes or even lead to blindness. If that doesn’t scare you, this might: the chemical is a known carcinogen. While any increase in the risk of getting cancer from PPD is debatable, the association between formaldehyde and cancer is not.
Your Straightening Product May Not Be as Safe as You Think
Manufacturers are aware of this danger, but in many cases, consumers and even salons are not. That’s because sneaky marketing ploys give keratin users a false sense of safety. Though it’s easy to find treatments labeled as “formaldehyde-free,” these labels are often misleading. The Oregon chapter of OSHA found that more than half of these treatments that purported to be formaldehyde-free exposed salon workers and clients to formaldehyde, according to WebMD. If the chemical wasn’t part of the package itself, it was released once heat was applied during the straightening process. In fact, Women’s Voices for the Earth lists 26 keratin treatments that involve formaldehyde exposure according to laboratory tests, and only three that don’t (Pravana Naturceuticals Keratin Fusion, JKs Smoothing Treatment, and Bio Ionic Kera Smooth anti frizz).
What makes it even more difficult to know for sure what’s in your straightening product, ABC News reported, is that formaldehyde exposure can be indicated by an additional 10 other names:
- Methylene glycol
- Methylene oxide
- Formic aldehyde
- Timonacic acid
- Thiazolidinecarboxylic acid
Getting Silky, Smooth, and Smoky at Home
If expense or health concerns deter you from having a keratin treatment in a salon, you can always just use a cheap product off the shelf of your local drugstore to get similar results at home. Just make sure you always have a fire extinguisher handy.
While at-home products seem like a safer bet and a better buy, St. Louis news source KSDK News found that consumers should have second thoughts. The popular Garnier Fructis Sleek and Shine Anti-Frizz Serum sells for around $6, but can put your hair, which is already flammable, at an increased risk for catching on fire. You don’t even have to be near an open flame for a problem to occur. The heat from styling your hair with a curling iron or straightening iron can be enough to start a fire, according to the report.
To protect yourself from hair care dangers, you need to know not only what the risks are, but how you can style safely. Remember that dyeing or straightening your hair can affect your overall health, so make responsible decisions. Do your research, only visit salons that you trust, and play an active role in your hair health. Consider alternatives to chemical hair process, like styling manually with a straight iron or using vegetable-based dyes (though be warned that these dyes, too, are not always as pure as their manufacturers claim they are).
If you choose to get your hair dyed or chemically straightened, either at a salon or at home, examine the label so you have some idea what products you’re about to expose your body to and what risks are involved. Keep in mind the importance of moderation. Since long-term exposure to formaldehyde is more likely to cause cancer than occasional exposure, limit your use of these chemicals. Above all, if you ever believe that something is wrong after using a hair care product, get medical help immediately. It’s better to waste a couple hours of your time and learn that nothing is amiss than hope that there are no significant problems and be disastrously wrong.