A person colors their hair with store-bought hair dye.
Self-applied hair coloring could get messy pretty quickly, upping your odds of exposure to irritating chemicals. (For Spectrum Health Beat)

You needn’t look far to see how the COVID-19 pandemic has uprooted modern living.

A quick peek in the mirror will do.

Those gray roots are nothing but the frayed offshoot of a life sequestered, given the temporary shuttering of businesses such as hair salons.

If you’re among those lamenting the painfully steady emergence of your natural hair color, you’re not alone.

You’ve probably even tossed around the idea of an at-home hair coloring, if you haven’t already applied some five-star mane magic off Amazon.

But do you know the risks of a DIY dye job?

Allergic reactions are the immediate concern with DIY hair products and there are also other concerns, unrelated to allergies.

The thing to remember? Not all allergic reactions are created equal, said Jackie Eastman, MD, a physician at Spectrum Health Allergy and Immunology.

There’s a difference between severe allergic reactions—such as allergic contact dermatitis—and other reactions.

“A big difference,” Dr. Eastman said.

Here’s what to know before you slather that dye into your do.

Allergic contact dermatitis

Allergic contact dermatitis occurs when your body’s immune system reacts severely to a substance such as poison ivy, metals or fragrances, Dr. Eastman said. This can include hair dyes, especially dark ones containing high concentrations of the ingredient para-phenylenediamine.

Your body may tolerate a product for years, only to one day log it as a foreign substance.

“Over time you can become allergic,” Dr. Eastman said. This happens to about 1 in 100 people.

“I saw a terrible case this past winter where a patient’s lips and eyes swelled shut,” she said. “It’s one of the worst I had ever seen.”

Allergic contact dermatitis is characterized by red skin, flaking, itching and severe swelling.

“It starts about 48 hours after you dye your hair,” Dr. Eastman said. It lasts up to three weeks or more, although it doesn’t hit peak until about a week in.

Over-the-counter medicines aren’t likely to help because the reaction is immune-related, the doctor said. Severe cases call for a course of steroids.

Irritant contact dermatitis

Irritant contact dermatitis can happen with just about any hair product at any time, regardless of chemical content.

The main difference? It doesn’t involve an immune response and it doesn’t last as long, Dr. Eastman said.

It tends to present itself quickly, usually within a day of using a hair product. It can last up to seven days and it’s characterized by red, dry, irritated skin.

This is the more common reaction to at-home use of hair products. A product’s chemicals can irritate the skin depending on ingredients, potency and duration of exposure.

When you apply a new product at home, for example, there’s no saying how messy it can get.

This may be why at-home dye jobs can result in weird reactions—on your skin or from colleagues on Zoom questioning your choice of purple and orange hair.

Salons, meanwhile, have professionals who can apply a product with minimal exposure, Dr. Eastman said.

While those hallowed grounds remain off limits, Dr. Eastman offered a couple tips for coloring your hair at home:

  • Moisturize your exposed skin with Vaseline before applying a hair dye. The moisturizer acts as a protective barrier. Rinse away the moisturizer and the dye when you’re done.
  • If you have an allergic reaction that doesn’t disappear in about a week, it may be an immune-based response. In that case, seek care from a doctor.
  • Natural rarely means natural. “Just because it says it’s natural doesn’t mean your body isn’t allergic to it,” Dr. Eastman said.