DYES: Allergen or Not An Allergen?

Allergen…and Photo-Allergen!


While some are safer than others, dyes are definitely on the published lists of most common contact allergens. These include disperse blue dyes (used in a variety of textiles and clothing), which were chosen as the very first Allergen of the Year by the American Contact Dermatitis Society in 2000, and paraphenylenediamine or PPD (found in hair dye, cosmetics, and other black substances), which was 2006’s Allergen of the Year.

Carmine made it to the allergen list a few years ago, but is a pigment, not a dye. Dyes and pigments differ primarily in particle size, with dyes having much smaller particles than pigments — pro tip: this should already give you a hint as to their relative hypoallergenicity. A rule of thumb in hypoallergenic skincare is the larger the particle size, the more hypoallergenic. So while you might be allergic to certain dyes, you might not be allergic to all dyes, all types of dyes, or to pigments.

There are several types of dyes — azo, direct, vat, sulphur, acid, basic, disperse, reactive — but azo dyes are the most allergenic (and toxic).

If your doctor suspects a textile allergy, they may do a specialized patch test because textile dyes are not always included in the standard series of patch test trays.

If you have patch tested positive to dyes, choose natural fabrics like cotton and linen in light colors or in the natural color of the fabric. To remove unbound dyes, when you buy clothing or linens, remember to wash the items with an allergen-free wash at least 3 times before wearing or using them.

If you are allergic to dyes and want to have a tattoo, ask the tattoo artist what dye they use. Some use azo dyes that may give you problems. Pure henna hair colorant powder is not allergenic but when it is “henna brown or black” (dark colors), azo dyes and PPD may be added to cancel out the natural red of henna in order to achieve the black or dark colors . Lastly, azo dyes may cross react with drugs and other products that have the same or similar “azo” part in its chemical signature. If a dye sensitivity is suspected, be sure to tell your doctor what medications and supplements you take, including birth control pills, pain relievers, natural supplements, liquid supplements, etc., especially if they are colored. Azo dyes used to color food and medicines may cross react with azo dyes. For example, FD&C Yellow#5 is approved as a food-coloring additive and is used to color tablets, capsules, vitamins, and antacids to give these products a bright yellow color.

Three final notes of caution:

  1. As photo-allergens, dyes can react with light to cause hyperpigmentations (dark spots and blotches).
  2. Even light-colored or natural fabrics can have hidden allergens or irritants. Your safest bet is pure, natural, organic cotton that has not been bleached, preserved, or otherwise treated.
  3. If you’re not allergic to dyes you might still react to certain clothing that is synthetic, or dark or brightly colored. This is because mordants (metals) are sometimes used to help these pigments bind to the material better. If you are not allergic to dyes, but are to nickel or certain metals, you may still experience a reaction.

If you have a history of sensitive skin, don’t guess: random trial and error can cause more damage. Ask your dermatologist about a patch test.

To shop our selection of hypoallergenic products, visit vmvhypoallergenics.com. Need help? Ask us in the comments section below, or for more privacy (such as when asking us to customize recommendations for you based on your patch test results) contact us by email, or drop us a private message on Facebook

For more:

On the prevalence of skin allergies, see Skin Allergies Are More Common Than Ever and One In Four Is Allergic to Common Skin Care And Cosmetic Ingredients.

To learn more about the VH-Rating System and hypoallergenicity, click here.

Main References: 

Regularly published reports on the most common allergens by the North American Contact Dermatitis Group and European Surveillance System on Contact Allergies (based on over 28,000 patch test results, combined), plus other studies. Remember, we are all individuals — just because an ingredient is not on the most common allergen lists does not mean you cannot be sensitive to it, or that it will not become an allergen. These references, being based on so many patch test results, are a good basis but it is always best to get a patch test yourself.

1. Warshaw, E.M., Maibach, H.I., Taylor, J.S., et al. North American contact dermatitis group patch test results: 2011-2012. Dermatitis. 2015; 26: 49-59

2. W Uter et al. The European Baseline Series in 10 European Countries, 2005/2006–Results of the European Surveillance System on Contact Allergies (ESSCA). Contact Dermatitis 61 (1), 31-38.7 2009

3. Wetter, DA et al. Results of patch testing to personal care product allergens in a standard series and a supplemental cosmetic series: An analysis of 945 patients from the Mayo Clinic Contact Dermatitis Group, 2000-2007. J Am Acad Dermatol. 2010 Nov;63(5):789-98.

4. Verallo-Rowell VM. The validated hypoallergenic cosmetics rating system: its 30-year evolution and effect on the prevalence of cosmetic reactions. Dermatitis 2011 Apr; 22(2):80-97

5. Ruby Pawankar et al. World Health Organization. White Book on Allergy 2011-2012 Executive Summary.

6. Misery L et al. Sensitive skin in the American population: prevalence, clinical data, and role of the dermatologist. Int J Dermatol. 2011 Aug;50(8):961-7.

7. Warshaw EM1, Maibach HI, Taylor JS, Sasseville D, DeKoven JG, Zirwas MJ, Fransway AF, Mathias CG, Zug KA, DeLeo VA, Fowler JF Jr, Marks JG, Pratt MD, Storrs FJ, Belsito DV. North American contact dermatitis group patch test results: 2011-2012.Dermatitis. 2015 Jan-Feb;26(1):49-59.

8. Warshaw, E et al. Allergic patch test reactions associated with cosmetics: Retrospective analysis of cross-sectional data from the North American Contact Dermatitis Group, 2001-2004. J AmAcadDermatol 2009;60:23-38. 

9. Foliaki S et al. Antibiotic use in infancy and symptoms of asthma, rhinoconjunctivitis, and eczema in children 6 and 7 years old: International Study of Asthma and Allergies in Childhood Phase III. J Allergy Clin Immunol. 2009 Nov;124(5):982-9.

10. Kei EF et al. Role of the gut microbiota in defining human health. Expert Rev Anti Infect Ther. 2010 Apr; 8(4): 435–454.

11. Thavagnanam S et al. A meta-analysis of the association between Caesarean section and childhood asthma. Clin Exp Allergy. 2008;38(4):629–633.

12. Marks JG, Belsito DV, DeLeo VA, et al. North American Contact Dermatitis Group patch-test results, 1998 to 2000. Am J Contact Dermat. 2003;14(2):59-62.

13. Warshaw EM, Belsito DV, Taylor JS, et al. North American Contact Dermatitis Group patch test results: 2009 to 2010. Dermatitis. 2013;24(2):50-99.

Want more great information on contact dermatitis? Check out the American Contact Dermatitis SocietyDermnet New Zealand, and your country’s contact dermatitis association.


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