You May Be Allergic To Your Natural Hair Products

by Yesha Callahan

natural-hairI’ve been natural since 1994, way before there were 50 billion blogs and YouTube tutorials dissecting the natural hair “movement”.  Everything I learned about my hair was done through trial and error. Plenty of errors, as a matter of fact. Up until this past year, I rarely made a visit to the hair salon, unless I was too lazy to do my own wash and sets, and even then I always brought my own products that I knew would work on my hair. I’m particular about the products I use in my hair because of allergies. As a kid, I discovered I was allergic to plenty of fresh fruits and was labeled with having oral allergies. Till this day, there are fruits and nuts that I know I can’t eat fresh, or I’ll go into anaphylactic shock.

Two weeks ago I paid a visit to a natural hair specialist to have my hair washed and retwisted. I actually forgot to bring my own shampoo and conditioner, but was familiar with the products she used. After I sat under the dryer for a about  30 minutes, she rubbed oil on my scalp. I was happy with my hair when I left the salon.

About 24 hours later, I was covered in hives.

When I started  seeing my stylist, I made mention of the various “natural” products I could not use because of my allergies. Shea butter, lemongrass, and tea tree oil are all on that list. Unfortunately, the oil she used that day had tea tree oil in it. It wasn’t anything benadryl couldn’t handle, but it could have been prevented. I would advise anyone to test out a product before they use it to make sure they’re not allergic to it. In countless hair forums, I’ve seen women complain about rashes, hives, swelling, only to find out it’s an allergic to reaction to their new favorite natural hair product.

Below are a list of common symptoms to a few popular ingredients in natural hair products:

Tea Tree Oil:

One common side effect of tea tree oil is skin irritation, especially if applied to broken or dry areas of the skin. Skin irritation can include stinging, burning redness itching or inflammation. In some cases, full strength tea tree oil can also cause mild to severe rashes to develop on the treated skin. Performing a skin patch test is recommended before applying. Tea tree oil can also cause a mild to severe allergic reaction to those who are allergic to the plant. If you are allergic to ingredients from the same family as tea tree oil, such as cloves, guava, eucalyptus, or allspice, you may be at a greater risk for having an allergic reaction to tea tree oil, states the American Cancer Society. The longer tea tree oil is allowed to sit and age, the more it also has a chance to break down into components that are more likely to cause an allergic reaction. Signs of a mild allergic reaction may include hives, rashes, itching, or congestion. More serious allergic reactions can include the same signs as a mild reaction plus possible cramps, diarrhea, light-headedness, flushing, vomiting, swelling, or life-threatening anaphylaxis.

Shea Butter:

The problem is that no one seems to recognize shea butter as an allergen or sensitizing agent. Shea is sourced from the nut of a tree that is closely related to the rubber tree, which yields latex, a common allergen. If you have a latex allergy, you’re likely to become allergic to shea. Ironically, shea butter is heralded as a cure for chapped skin, rashes, chapped lips, eczema and psoriasis, but will actually cause these conditions in one who has become cross-sensitized to it. Unfortunately, I know this all too well from personal experience. It is important to note that latex sensitization (a similar condition to latex allergy) worsens with cumulative exposures to latex and chemically similar products. Individuals who become severely sensitized can progress beyond contact dermatitis, developing many food allergies and even suffering anaphylactic shock upon exposure.

Coconut Oil:

Allergies to coconuts and coconut oil are considered rare. They can take two forms: a food allergy or a contact allergy. A tree nut allergy isn’t necessarily related to a coconut allergy. Chances are higher of developing an allergy to touching things that contain coconut oil than developing an allergy to eating things with coconut oil in them. In both cases, your body is reacting to certain proteins it thinks are harmful. Your immune system responds by releasing an antibody called immunoglobulin E, and it tries to fight off the “dangerous” coconut invaders. When it comes to a food allergy to coconut oil, your likely symptoms are itching, hives, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, trouble breathing and swelling in your lips and tongue. A contact allergy to coconut oil — which is often found in moisturizers, shampoo and other cosmetics — can result in an itchy rash or blisters that develop within a day or two of touching the allergen.


  • Keshia

    Omgg!!! I was just dealing with a hives breakout this morning. I washed my hair and noticed all these little breakout on my face especially my forehead. Great article I need to find out what exactly it is I’m allergic to

  • ChaCha1

    Wow, I didn’t know that about shea butter. I know someone who has a major latex allergy, but uses shea butter with no known problems. I think I’m going to share this info with her, though.

  • kay

    I have a pretty serious coconut allergy so its great to see that there is someone else out there that knows my pain. I have to read everything I put on my body. When searching for natural products, always check the label. A great alternative I’ve found to coconut oil is grape seed oil. I love how it smells and no allergic reactions.

  • MsTBennett

    OMG. Finally someone else has written an article about this! I have oral allergy syndrome and I am allergic to a ton of fresh fruits and veggies (plus every tree known to man, basically). *deep, long sigh* I can eat the veggies and fruits that I’m allergic to if they’re cooked (YAY), but there is one a I CAN’T cook, and that’s avocado. And yep – you guessed it. Avocado is one of the top ingredients for natural hair products.

    As a woman with 4C natural hair I struggle DAILY with keeping my hair moisturized. And low and behold – one of the top oils that DOES penetrate my hair shaft and makes my hair soft and manageable is Avocado Oil. Ain’t that about a &*^$!. If I do use a product with avocado as an ingredient, no matter how high or low it is on the ingredient list, within 12 hours or so my scalp is a itchy hot mess. *another deep sigh*

    So, as all of my friends rave about all the new natural hair products and lines that have been popping up like mad I’M scouring Target, Walgreens, CVS, Beauty Supply stores, and the internet hoping to find a product that works to moisturize my hair that doesn’t include avocado as an ingredient.

    So far, no luck. I’ll admit that I’ve been tempted to just deal with the itchiness, but I know from experience it’s never a good idea to test the fates with allergies.

    The first time I ate guacamole? No bueno.

    So, the hunt continues :(

    Sorry for writing a book, but this touches really close to home and it makes me frustrated on a nearly weekly basis. I’m a natural hair blogger and constantly get product recommendations that I can NEVER use. But the main point is that I struggle with the health of my hair as a result of this allergy.

  • jeni

    Good article. I have an allergy to beeswax in hair products, and I recently experienced an allergy attack due to ingredients (unsure which ones) in the hair gel I used for two-strand twists.

  • Danica

    When it comes to hair products, you have to be selective when treating your hair with these products. You can try reading eindianhair reviews if you want to be updated on the latest products in the market.

  • Lauren

    This article was VERY helpful. My aunt (who is a nurse) noted that I had severe contact dermatitis about a month ago, but we’d assumed it was the result of an allergic reaction to the synthetic hair in my braids. It still didn’t seem right to me; I wore braids for six months last year and *never* had a problem with my scalp.

    I actually started exclusively using natural products with shea butter last summer, and started using shea butter raw in the fall. By the time I noticed my scalp becoming irritated, winter was starting, and I assumed it was just a result of the changing seasons.

    This is where alarm bells really should have started going off–I had wondered vaguely if I might be allergic to the raw shea butter around September, when I noticed my scalp had suddenly developed flaky patches, but I dismissed the thought. Big mistake, especially considering that I’ve had eczema all my life, and have very sensitive skin.

    I’ve done a bit of reading, and shea nut allergies trigger in people who, like me, have a latex allergy, because the shea and rubber (latex’s origin) trees are very closely related. I wish I’d been warned of the risk earlier, but I’m glad that I actually know what’s causing my scalp issues now.

    Unfortunately, most natural hair care products contain shea butter, which means I have to give up my Carol’s Daughter addiction. Qhemet Biologics is shea free, however, and I suggest it as an alternative for anyone else suffering from the same condition. Thankfully, I’ve already tried their products and am happy with them. The only issue is that I can only order them online, and they are a little pricey.

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  • Gina

    I can relate to this. I am allergic to mango butter and oil. most economical products have that ingredient.It caused my hair to fall out in the back. Thankfully it is growing back.

  • lolagetslife

    The older I get, the more I develop allergic reactions to things. This winter, I realized that the skin on my neck was becoming red and irritated when exposed to my natural hair care products. I havent figured out which specific ingredients I have problems with, I just try to leep as much of my product off my neck as possible.

  • Thom1977

    Thanks for giving an alternative product. I had NO idea shea would affect me the same as latex. My latex allergy is, in one word, bad. I would rather pay extra than take a trip to a doctor’s office.

  • Lauren

    I’m still dealing with the aftermath of finding out exactly what was wrong with my scalp, and I might just end up going to see my own doctor. I’ve also found Curls Unleashed Moisturizing Conditioner, but I haven’t tried it yet. You have to be pretty careful with the Curls Unleashed products, though; some contain shea, while others don’t. Your best bet is to always read through EVERY ingredient on the label.

  • Moni

    This article should really say you may be allergic to your hair products (period). All products, whether natural or “artificial”, can cause contact dermatitis. If you are sensitive, you should spot test all new products before using them or proceed at your own risk.

  • Brownbelle

    I feel your pain. I developed a nut allergy a couple of years ago, so I have to be really careful with natural hair products. I can’t eat coconut oil but I haven’t had any trouble with products that contain it, although I try to make sure it’s not listed in the first 4 or 5 ingredients. Almond oil definitely makes my scalp itch, and so does something in Shea Moisture curl smoothie (which devastated me because it made my hair look SO FANTASTIC).

  • kj

    Same here and my mom says “what is your prob you never had these allergic reactions or the fact she doesn’t” I have to remind her as you get older you are more and more allergic to diff things. Its always been sulfur for me and I notice now on my natural hair journey it may be coconut products.

  • kj

    That is what I heard if the ingredient is later on in the list you are good…Coconut oil makes my scalp itch..

  • Lisa

    What shampoos do you use without coconut oils? Finding it hard to find one w/o one.

  • Lisa

    What do you use as shampoo?

  • Yup

    I too am allergic to many natural products. I’ve yet to break out in hive, however, my scalp begins to itch and my hair starts shedding. I don’t use Shea Moisture hair products. I do use their soaps. I use nothing containing jojoba, wheat grass, grape seed oil, nettle( did I spell that correctly) and I’m leery about shea butters. What can I do? Many “regular” products stunt natural hair growth. Right now I’m using a mild dandruff shampoo, store purchased Tea Tree oil, Curel lotion to moister my hair, and a hair growth shampoo which is pretty mild.

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