So most have you have read my bio or something where you have learned I had a severe anaphylactic reaction to a chemical in hair color.  I wanted to expand a little more on it and raise a little awareness about this topic. I am a true believer that knowledge is power and if it helps one person identify that this could happen to them, it’s well worth taking the time to chat about it.  

In the US, we do not regulate chemicals and or ingredients in our beauty and hair products as diligently as other countries do.  In fact, I was watching a Detox Class on Food Matters and there was a slide that really shook me even though I’m all too familiar with this reality: Per the NRDC,  “While there are over 80,000 approved chemicals in the US, none of these chemicals have been adequately tested for safety or toxicity in humans.”  Read it again . . .

It’s a testament that we should all take some responsibility in taking a few moments to evaluate what we are putting in and on our bodies.  At the end of the day, we are responsible for our own health.

I started coloring my hair at 18.  I have some Irish blood and the grey hairs were starting to pop up. By 25, I was coloring it every 4 weeks.  My hair is a darker brown so the grey hairs were noticeable and I was not ready to accept them as a permanent fixture on my head.  Coloring my hair was a very mindless action for me.  I didn’t think twice about it for over a decade.

Until late summer of 2016, I started to sense something was wrong. After a trip to the salon, my feet and hands became uncontrollably itchy.  It lasted for hours and I felt a little nutty because there was no visible rash or hives.  I was uncomfortable and a little nervous so I took some Benadryl and it went away.

However it happened again. After the next appointment, the itching began immediately on the  drive home. Only now,  it had spread to my mid-section and back.  Clearly, I knew this was not a coincidence and started researching hair color reactions.  I stumbled upon the chemical known as PPD (para-phenylenediamine).  PPD is the chemical that covers the grey hair but also was known to have caused severe allergic reactions.

My dear friend is my stylist and she found a brand that had significantly less PPD.  We gave it a try BUT it was too late.  My body had had enough. I was sitting in her chair after she rinsed me when the itching started.  Then came the severe abdominal pain which, unaware to me, was a sign of anaphylactic reaction. It took me about 10 minutes before my throat started to get tight that I realized I had to grab my Benadryl and EpiPen.  I had never, in almost 20 years, had to use my EpiPen.  Luckily, I carried one for my bee allergy and was religious about always having it on me.  However, I panicked a little, administered the EpiPen, forgot how long to hold it in my leg for. The panic was real. Then the adrenaline rush hit and I was off to the ER. 

Fortunately, the PA that treated me in the ER was familiar with the reaction and knew that hair color could cause it. The next course of action was to see an allergist. Meanwhile, I started to have troubles with my eyes.  My body was recovering from the trauma of the reaction and I felt like I had constant hairs in my eyes.  ‘Filaments’ is what I would learn they were called. They plagued me for over 6 months.  Steroids did not have a long-lasting effect.  The minute I stopped them, the filaments came back    Insurance didn’t cover the steroids and it was several hundred dollars a month. I was beyond frustrated. 

Meanwhile, I was seeing an allergist who was adamant that I shouldn’t color my hair anymore.  I really was not able to accept that quite yet and still am not.  I enjoy my hair color and there is no shame in that.  However, my health was number one priority so I started researching hair color lines, ingredients and what options were out there.  My gracious friend entertained my request and ordered an organic line that was PPD-free.  I’m pretty sure I was on the “do not touch her head” list at the salon until I had a convincing argument and plan for future colors.  No one wants clients keeling over with a EpiPen in their leg while getting  their hair colored.  Can’t say I blame them. *Note to my friend- sorry for that scene and leaving my EpiPen laying on your floor, and scaring everyone in the process.

I went back to the allergist for a patch test to make sure it was safe for my body.  I walked in with a big box of old and new hair color so we could confirm the old color was the culprit, a test for certain chemicals and the new color line.  I still remember the surprised looks on the staff’s faces. The doctor couldn’t believe I was so hell-bent on figuring this out.  I really had to push to get this accomplished.  I had to ask and plead for options.  I remember saying ‘I picked you because you looked young and innovative! Please help me with this!’ 

It’s just hair, right? Well, yes and no.  It is just hair and if I had to be grey or risk my health, there would be no debate.  However, if I could find a solution or another option, why wouldn’t I? Why not try? Why not support quality products and companies out there trying to offer us alternatives?

Well, good news!  That Monday, after not showering all weekend with patches taped all over my back, I was told the color line was determined safe. I was ecstatic.  This hair was back in business! The staff chuckled at my excitement.  The other side of the test results showed the old color line and the straight PPD clearly showed severe reactions.  In fact, it scarred my back for over a year. I had little raised red squares where the test was on my back.  It was a reminder to me of the journey and the severity of these harsh chemicals.  And of how grateful I am to have had the Benadryl and EpiPen on me that day….


The moral of this story is three things. 

  1. Follow your gut and your intuition.  When your body is alarming you to something, pay attention! Listen to your body, it has a lot to say.
  2. Take the time to look at your products and make sure you are comfortable with what you are exposing yourself to.  Our skin is our biggest organ. I know we all color our hair (or whatever the equivalent is for you) and that’s fine!  The majority of the population will not have my experience.  But the more we overload our bodies, the higher the risk of illness, disease and poor health. 
  3. When you feel like there has to be a possible solution out there, go try and find it!

Actually one more quick tidbit.  You should see a theme in my story.  I’m encouraging you to be your own health advocate. Get your hands dirty, ask questions, educate yourself and dig in!  

PS – My eyes cleared up on their own when I cleaned out all the chemicals in my products, foods and started supporting it with healing foods and supplements. 

If you have nothing left to lose, you have everything left to gain. . .