Medically reviewed by Dr. John Harris, dermatologist and Director of the UMass Vitiligo Clinic and Research Center.
Vitiligo is most commonly known as a skin condition, but it can also affect hair – turning eyelashes, eyebrows and even tufts of head strands snowy white. While some people with vitiligo embrace the change, others turn to hair dye and other beauty products to cover the difference in color.
But can hair dye cause vitiligo – or make it worse? Here’s what research has to say.
Yes, hair dye can cause vitiligo – or make it worse
Recent research confirms a link between hair dye and vitiligo – if the hair dye is permanent. A 2015 study published in the Pigment Cell & Melanoma Research journal found an increase in vitiligo occuring in those who have used permanent hair dyes, especially if the first use of permanent dye was before the age of 30 and if the permanent dye was used for five years or longer.
How can permanent hair dyes cause vitiligo? Glad you asked. The answer lies in the chemical makeup of these products.
How permanent hair dyes cause vitiligo
Phenols and paraphenylenediamine (PPD), some of the chemicals in permanent hair dyes, help the color last, but can also exacerbate vitiligo by increasing pigmentation loss or cause vitiligo by triggering its existence.
Although toxic in high doses, phenol is often used in hair dyes because it undergoes a chemical reaction that allows it to become a coloring agent. PPD is used to help the color last, but it is also toxic in high amounts. Both of these chemicals can cause inflammation which can lead to the damage of melanocytes, the cells that give your hair and skin pigment. Because of the potentially damaging effects of phenols and PPD, permanent hair dyes have been documented as a common trigger for vitiligo.
Will I get vitiligo if I’ve used permanent hair dyes?
Does this mean that you’ll get vitiligo or make an existing condition worse if you’ve used permanent dyes? Not necessarily. This study shows that permanent hair dyes that contain chemicals like phenols and Paraphenylenediamine (PPD) can cause vitiligo or make it worse – but that doesn’t mean that it will. These findings are pertinent for anyone who regularly uses permanent dyes or those who started using it at a young age.
Not everyone who uses permanent hair dyes will develop vitiligo or exacerbate their vitiligo if they already have it. Because of the genetic component of vitiligo, every person’s reaction can be different. Some people may be more susceptible to melanocyte damage – damage to the cells that produce pigment in hair and skin – increasing their risk for chemical-induced vitiligo.
Should I use permanent hair dyes?
Because permanent hair dyes can be a trigger for vitiligo, you might want to choose not to use them if you currently have vitiligo or have a family history that includes vitiligo or other autoimmune disorders. Even if you are careful not to get the hair dye on your skin or scalp during application, the chemicals and fumes can still affect melanocytes in other areas of your body. Studies have found that chemical contact in one area can cause loss of pigmentation in additional areas of the body, even if it’s not physically neighboring the place of contact.
What ingredients should I look out for?
Since hair dyes are applied in multiple steps, the ingredient’s list for hair dyes is often split into sections for the colorant, conditioner and developer. If a product contains phenols or PPD, they will usually be listed in the ingredient’s section for the colorant or color developer.
Common terms for phenols are P-Aminophenol and M-Aminophenol. PPD is often listed as P-Phenylenediamine. Most hair dye brands also publish their ingredients list online so you can conveniently look through it before you buy.
Are there safer alternatives to dying hair?
If you want safer alternatives for coloring your hair, consider semi-permanent hair dyes, demi-permanent hair dyes and temporary hair coloring systems.
There are currently no research studies available about the effects of semi-permanent and demi-permanent hair dyes and vitiligo, but semi-permanent hair dyes tend to have smaller amounts of PPDs and phenols.
Temporary hair coloring systems like hair chalk, wax, or hair rinses often contain less abrasive chemicals. Although these alternatives will not last as long and can be messier, they are much safer for the body in terms of ingredients. If you do choose to cover up the white strands, you can still do so safely without compromising your health.
Ogechukwu (Oge) Opaigbeogu is a second-year medical student originally from P.G. County, Maryland. She has an interest in pigmentation disorders, clinical dermatology and all things hair. In her spare time, she loves to watch old movies and dance. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.