Allergy to paraphenylenediamine or p-phenylenediamine — better known as PPD — in permanent hair dye can be severe. In the worst cases, it causes swelling around the face and neck, with difficulty breathing. Angry red rashes around the hair line, ears and eyes caused by PPD can also be serious and unpleasant.
What alternatives to PPD are there?
With a few interesting exceptions (see bottom), most options fall into one of three main categories.
1. Natural plant-based colors
The safest options are natural botanicals, which use henna, cassia, beetroot, coffee, indigo and other plant extracts to impart color. These are unlikely to trigger allergies in their pure forms, although a few contain added essential oils which some people may react to.
100% natural ‘dyes’ such as these can’t change you from dark to light or vice versa, but they can help to conceal partial grey hair quite well, and add a deeper red or brown tone to your hair. The results may only last a few washes, but they do not damage hair, as they do not penetrate the hair shaft.
The following are all free from PPD, as well as ammonia, peroxide and synthetic colours, additives or preservatives. Powders should be mixed with water before application.
It’s Pure Organics (UK)
Straightforward and pure powders containing only henna, cassia, amla, indigo and neem.
Light Mountain Natural Hair Colors (US)
Very attractive looking kits, with only the purest of powders — indigo, henna and senna.
100% natural brand from Germany. Some are powders, but most are cream blends containing henna, jojoba, walnut, rhubarb, beetroot, with added algin, wheat protein and essential oils.
Rainbow Research Henna Powders (US)
Another pure powder brand, featuring various hennas (neutral, red, black), plus flowers of marigold and camomile.
Sante Herbal Hair Color (US) / Sante Herbal Hair Colour (UK)
Powders and creams. The powders contain henna, indigo, curcuma, beet, ratania and other extracts, with wheat protein and alginates. The creams additionally contain water, alcohol, glycerin and a few other ingredients — including essential oils.
Surya Brasil Powder (Worldwide)
Henna, indigo, amla, arnica, acai, Brazil nut and other ingredients originating from Brazil and India.
2. Semi permanent / semi natural dyes
An ‘intermediate’ option. Despite brand names or product descriptions which often suggest the opposite, these kits typically use artificial coloring agents — with perhaps a few natural ingredients. They are usually a bit more effective than 100% natural options — especially in darkening or highlighting dark hair, and covering greys — but the synthetic dyes in them can trigger allergies in a few women.
The following are free from PPD, peroxide and ammonia, but contain some petrochemical derivatives / artificial preservatives.
CoSaMo (US / Canada)
Solely synthetic colorants. Also contain a silicone and artificial fragrance.
Naturtint Reflex (UK)
Liquid formula of artificial coloring agents. NB Naturtint also produce a permanent line which contains PPD. Ensure you choose from the Reflex range.
Surya Henna Cream (Worldwide)
Primarily artificial colors with small proportions of henna and botanical extracts derived from walnut, carrot, camomile, guarana and others. Free from artificial fragrance.
Tints of Nature Semi-Permanent (UK) / Tints of Nature (USA) / Tints of Nature (Aus)
Blend of artificial colors and a few natural botanicals. NB Tints of Nature also produce a permanent line which contains PPD. Ensure you choose from the Semi-Permanent range of henna creams.
3. Permanent hair dye
In place of PPD, a few products contain similar chemicals called PTD / PTDS or TD / TDS to impart permanent color, but these aren’t always as effective as PPD, and perhaps a third or so of people who react to PPD also react — sometimes severely — to these alternatives. Any product declaring itself both ‘PPD free’ and ‘permanent’ will probably contain PTD or TD. Proceed with particular caution if you have confirmed PPD allergy.
The ingredients may appear as para-toluenediamine, p-toluenediamine, toluene-2,5-diamine sulphate and similar variations.
These contain PTD / TDS instead of PPD:
Is there anything else out there?
Here are some other unique options offering more permanent solutions through natural means:
Hairprint (US / International)
Entirely natural and innovative product — the Color Restorer (right) — billing itself as ‘the only product in the world that restores grey hair to its true color’. It is not a dye. It uses peroxide to oxidise plant and mineral ingredients to recreate the lost natural and original pigment in your hair shafts, in the pattern (or ‘hair print’) that is unique to each of us. It is free of PPD, PTD, ammonia, artificial colours, synthetic preservatives (such as parabens), sulphates, gluten and silicones, and is vegan. The manufacturers say that they have not been notified of any confirmed allergic reaction to their product. Suitable for black and brown untreated hair.
Palette by Nature (US)
Two creams, applied one after the other to the hair, to which heat must then be applied. There are very long lists of ingredients in each of the products — which means those with allergies may have a lot to check — but completely natural, free of any oxidising agents, and uses only botanical and mineral-based colorants, that work using a patented method.
A final reminder
- Always perform a patch test at least two days before dyeing your hair, even with a more natural option, even if it’s a product you have safely used before (see also comment from Joolz, below).
- Carefully follow instructions, and always double check ingredients, as these occasionally change.
- No hair dye can be guaranteed 100% safe, but remember that extreme reactions are very rare.
- If you have reacted to hair dyes before, consult a dermatologist for patch testing and a formal diagnosis.
- Strictly avoid PPD / PTD if you have ever had a black henna temporary tattoo, as this can sensitise you.
- Don’t expect miracle results with the more natural options, and understand carefully the limitations that some of them have in dyeing your hair with respect to certain shades, colors and coverage. Some will require experimentation, and you may find you need to try a few products before finding the ideal one for you.
- If you’re looking for nickel tested / nickel allergy safe hair dye or color, try my article here.