Can shampoo cause an allergic reaction?

Finding the best shampoo for your hair type and scalp can be as difficult as finding the best cleanser and moisturizer for your skin.

For many people, the fragrances and chemicals in some shampoos can cause an allergic reaction, with symptoms ranging from sneezing to touching dermatitis (dry, itchy and irritated scalp).

This article will explore the specific causes of an allergic reaction to shampoo, the signs and symptoms, and how to treat it.

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What is an allergic reaction?

When an allergen (an outside element) such as pollen or dust enters the body, it causes the immune system to react. This sets off a chain reaction producing immunoglobulin Antibody E (IgE) specific to an allergen.

These antibodies act as “cleaners” and remove allergens from your system, resulting in the release of histamine, a chemical created in the body that is released by white blood cells into the bloodstream when the immune system thinks he is attacked. An allergic reaction is triggered when histamine is released.


Signs of an allergic reaction can be mild, moderate or severe:

  • Mild reactions may affect certain areas of your body, such as your skin (with a rash or hives), your eyes (which may become red and watery) or your nose (which may runny). These symptoms are common for an allergy such as dust mites or hay fever. Mild reactions remain local and do not spread to other parts of the body.
  • Moderate symptoms tend to spread to other parts of the body. They include hives, itching, swelling, and even difficulty breathing.
  • Severe reactionswhich are rare but potentially fatal, are known as anaphylaxis, which can start with extreme itching of the eyes and face, then progress to swelling of the throat. This can cause swallowing and breathing problems. Other symptoms include abdominal pain and cramps, vomiting, diarrhea, hives, mental confusion, dizziness, and a sharp drop in blood pressure.

Shampoo and Allergies

Although shampoo does not have long contact with the scalp and surrounding skin areas due to rinsing, an allergy to shampoo is one of the main causes of scalp dermatitis.

It can be difficult to diagnose because it involves many areas where shampoo comes in contact, including:

  • Scalp
  • Ears
  • behind the neck
  • Hands
  • Torso

Changing shampoos may not relieve or improve symptoms because many products contain the same ingredients. To determine a shampoo allergy, a skin test with personal items can help identify the allergen. However, there is a high rate of false positive patch test results.


Shampoo allergy symptoms can depend on the chemicals listed in the ingredients. The most common symptoms, which may appear within 24 to 48 hours, include:

  • Red skin on the neck, face, upper torso, and hands
  • Scaly patches on the scalp, face, ears, and backs of the hands
  • Seeping blisters
  • Intense burning and itching
  • Swelling of the face and eyes
  • Urticaria
  • Sun sensitivity

If you experience any of these symptoms, contact your healthcare provider and ask for a referral to see an allergist, a doctor who specializes in allergies and asthma.

What to do

If symptoms appear within 24-48 hours, stop using the shampoo. Don’t wait for the symptoms to go away. Instead, call your health care provider, especially if symptoms last longer than one to two weeks.

Most likely, your healthcare provider will refer you to an allergist who will determine the allergen using a skin test. Bring the shampoo with you to help the specialist locate the main chemical that may be causing the allergy.

If the patch test cannot be completed, a blood panel may be taken. Note that the blood test is not as sensitive as a patch test, but it will determine the number of antibodies produced by your immune system.


The best way to prevent the allergic reaction is to stop using the shampoo. Ask your health care provider or allergist for recommendations.

Look for alternatives that will help keep your scalp and hair clean and won’t dry out your skin. Your stylist may also be able to recommend a milder product.


For many of us, our hair is a source of pride. We take great steps to keep it clean, soft, healthy and shiny. But when our shampoo is causing an allergic reaction, whether mild or severe, it’s time to consider removing it.

If the allergic symptoms persist (burning, itching, red skin, hives, etc.), don’t wait to see if they go away on their own. Make an appointment with your healthcare provider or allergist to determine the allergen causing the discomfort.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • What does an allergic reaction look like?

    An allergic reaction can be mild, moderate or severe. Symptoms include:

    • To sneeze
    • Red, itchy, eyes
    • Urticaria
    • Shortness of breath or wheezing
    • Swelling

  • How long does an allergic reaction last?

    The duration of allergic reactions varies. Some reactions occur within seconds or after several hours. Depending on the symptoms, some allergic reactions may disappear within hours of treatment while others may last for several weeks.

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