Hair dying close up. Brush applying hair color.
Hair dying close up. Brush applying hair color.

Chemical burn from hair dye? Here’s how to treat chemical burns on the scalp

June 24, 2022

Chemical burns can happen anywhere, from things as simple as misusing hair products and household cleaners to more malicious instances of assault. At Burn and Reconstructive Centers of America (BRCA), our nationwide healthcare teams provide comprehensive chemical burn treatment, from acute care of the burn injury to reconstruction of the affected area/s.  

What is a chemical burn?

A chemical burn occurs when a corrosive agent causes irritation or damage to the skin and soft tissue. Chemical burns are commonly caused by substances that are either strong acids, like hydrochloric acid, or strong bases (alkalines), like sodium hydroxide.

How can hair dye cause a chemical burn to the scalp?

The scalp skin is just as sensitive as facial skin and may be easily irritated by some of the contents in hair dyes. You may notice a tingling, itching or burning sensation when you dye or bleach your hair. These are mild symptoms of a chemical irritation that, if prolonged, may progress into a chemical burn that has the potential to damage the hair, hair follicles and the skin. So, what is it about hair dye that can cause such extreme injury? Like all other chemical burn agents, it is the ingredients that cause the harm.

What are some of the harmful ingredients found in hair dye?

Some harmful chemicals common in hair dyes that have the potential to cause irritations or burns include:

Ammonia: When you’re dying your hair, you might notice a strong chemical smell. What you’re smelling is most likely the ammonia in the hair dye. Ammonia is an alkaline agent used to open the hair cuticle allowing the hair to absorb the dyes. Ammonia is often used in fertilizers and can cause scalp irritation, including itching.

Hydrogen peroxide: This is a base substance that is commonly diluted and used as a mild antiseptic. However, hydrogen peroxide in this form is used to strip the hair to prepare it for the dye application. More concentrated hydrogen peroxide is often used industrially as a strong oxidizer that can cause explosions when heated.

Lead acetate: Typically found in low concentrations, lead acetate is one of the main active ingredients in hair dyes, especially dark colors. You wouldn’t want lead in the paint in your house, you do not want lead in your hair dye as it can lead to lead poisoning and long-term health issues such as anemia and neurological conditions.

Resorcinol (used as a disinfectant, benzene): Often found in permanent hair dyes, resorcinol reacts with hydrogen peroxide to develop the color. It is a toxic chemical known to cause allergic reactions and skin and eye irritation.

P-phenylenediamine: In permanent hair dyes, this organic compound is used as an oxidizing agent. This agent belongs to a group of chemicals often found as plastic and chemical byproducts. It is known to cause skin sensitivity, cancer, cell mutations and lethal toxicity if ingested.

DMDM hydantoin: This chemical is a preservative found in skin and hair care products. In recent years, there have been studies and lawsuits that may suggest this chemical can cause allergic reactions and hair loss.

Lye: Lye is used in many hair relaxers, which react with the proteins in your hair allowing curly or kinky hair to be temporarily straightened. Lye or sodium hydroxide is a strong alkali substance that can cause burns and irritation. Lye burns are fairly common injuries across our system, so be sure to check ingredients on hair products and proper use directions.

Is hair dye supposed to burn? Here are the signs and symptoms of chemical burn from hair dye

Due to the ingredients listed above, hair dye is likely to cause temporary irritation such as burning, itching or tingling, and prolonged use can make it worse. However, there are some long-term effects of hair dye that can be concerning. Regular use of hair dye can:

  • Change the structure of your hair, making it brittle and straw-like
  • Cause a chemical burn
  • Damage the hair and hair follicles causing hair loss
  • Lead to a higher risk of cancer, especially if using darker hair dyes that may include coal tar or lead bioproducts as an ingredient
  • Alter your natural hair color over time

A burning scalp after hair dye application is a reaction many people feel in mild degrees. Though this temporary scalp irritation is normal during the dying process, quickly wash out the hair product with water for ten minutes if you begin to experience excruciating pain or signs of an allergic reaction during the dying, bleaching or perming process. Ensure you wash all areas that may have come into contact with the chemical agent. If the chemical agent is accidentally left on, it may continue to burn the area until it is cleaned off. Once the product has been rinsed out, inspect your scalp for redness, discoloration, scabbing or open wounds. If you notice any of these signs, these may be indications of a chemical burn from hair dye, and it is recommended to seek medical attention to ensure the burning process is stopped, the chemical is neutralized correctly and the area is treated.

You should never attempt to neutralize chemicals at home, as this could lead to further chemical reactions and injury. If some of the product is ingested, please call poison control at 800-222-1222.

How can you help prevent complications from hair dye?

While there is no guarantee that the following won’t cause unwanted side effects, they are known to be healthier alternatives for changing your look. When dyeing, bleaching or perming your hair:

  • Consider ammonia-free products
  • Consider a no-lye relaxer
  • Consider trading out permanent hair dye for semi-permanent hair dye
  • Apply conditioner regularly
  • Use a deep conditioning hair mask before dyeing, bleaching or perming
  • Read the ingredients, warning and direction label on the product before using
  • Wear gloves when applying the products
  • Apply the products in a well-ventilated space

Further Information

For more information about chemical burns, please visit our website at or click here. If you are suffering from a chemical burn, please don’t wait to seek help. Call our experts 24/7 at (855) 863-9595 for all your non-emergent needs. For emergencies, please call 911 or, if a toxic chemical has been ingested, call the Poison Control Hotline at (800) 222-1222.

For information on battery acid burns, please click here.