hair loss from hair dyeA really good actor is like a chameleon – you can hardly recognise the real person from one production to the next. They become the character. This has been actor Gillian Anderson’s dilemma as she transitions from red-haired X-Files protagonist Agent Scully to the blonde lead for the return of DSI Stella Gibson in The Fall. She must become two entirely different characters within very short periods of each other.

But rather than risk losing all her hair by dyeing it red for Scully then strait back to blonde for Gibson, Anderson decided that wearing a red wig was a safer option. The trauma to the hair caused by repeated exposure to chemicals over a short period of time, with little opportunity for recovery, might be too much, causing hair to break easily and fall out in large amounts. Not a great result for an actor, who makes her living in front of the camera.

How likely is hair loss through repeated dyeing?

In reality, the likelihood that Gillian Anderson’s hair would have fallen out noticeably was quite small. Certainly repeated hair dyeing will lead to the weakening and breakage of hair shafts if the practice is continued over a number of years, but as a one-off turnaround of hair colouring, such as in Anderson’s case, the impact would be minimal. It is understandable, given her circumstances, however, that she wasn’t prepared to take the chance.

How does hair dye cause hair loss, then?

The two most common causes of hair loss when using hair dye are allergic reactions and irritation to the scalp.
An allergic reaction can occur the first time you use a hair dye, or you can develop the allergy after many years of use. Symptoms typically include inflammation of the scalp – redness, itchiness, and a scaly rash. This can be limited to the scalp or extend to the face and neck. In rare cases, blistering and symptoms on the body, arms, or legs can appear. However, symptoms are temporary and will cease when you stop using the dye. The allergy is usually triggered by the p-phenylenediamine ingredient in the dye. Where the scalp has been affected by the chemical, there is a risk of hair loss.

The hydrogen peroxide and ammonia, which are key components of any hair dye, can irritate the scalp or any other skin that it comes into contact with, causing itchiness and red rashes. Again, the hair might become weak at the shaft, and break off.

Neither of these situations will lead to permanent damage of the hair follicle, and while the hair itself may be permanently damaged – growing in frizzy, weak, and breakable – it will nevertheless continue to grow.

Gillian Anderson was probably right to be concerned – it is advisable to wait until your natural roots grow in, and dye those, rather than go from very dark to very light hair colour in one session. Such a practice would certainly weaken her hair. However, the suggestion that her hair would have all fallen out was possibly just too good a story-line to pass up.

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By Ian Watson

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