Walking out of a salon with fresh highlights and a burning scalp is, unfortunately, more common than you’d think. And for those of us blessed with hair that’s quick to grow back, this every-six-week two-for-one deal can become more painful than blissful. However, it doesn’t have to be. We tapped Stephanie Brown, master hair colorist at IGK Soho, for her top tips to prevent and treat a scalp that’s easily irritated by hair dye.
Embrace the oil
According to Brown, if you’re heading to the salon for a single process, the easiest way to avoid mild scalp irritation couldn’t be easier, and starts before you leave the house. “Don’t wash your hair before getting it colored,” she advises. “The hair’s natural oils can help to protect your scalp and hair.”
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Be honest with your colorist
Having a conversation with your colorist and letting him or her know about your sensitivity to hair color is key—then they can dig into their toolkit. Brown says she usually adds Care & Comfort or Sweet’n Low when she’s mixing color for a client who’s sensitive to dye. “These have pH buffers to help neutralize some of the ammonia to cause less irritation to the scalp,” she explains.
Side note: Does Sweet’n Low even work?
According to cosmetic chemist Kelly Dobos, “cream of tartar, aka potassium bitartrate, is one of the ingredients in Sweet’N Low. It has a low pH buffer, while saccharin [another main ingredient in it] also has an acidic pH. Because of these properties, it is believed that the addition of artificial sweeteners helps neutralize some of the ammonia used in hair color and mitigate irritation.”
Ask for a patch test
“If you get very irritated, you may have an allergy and should do a patch test first,” says Brown. “I will sometimes suggest taking a Benadryl before getting color if a client is irritated by color, especially those with platinum hair.”
Do your salon research
If you know you’re allergic to these artificial hair dyes, look for salons near you that use organic hair color—Brown says these are usually gentler on the scalp.
Be picky about your shampoo and conditioner
The work doesn’t stop after your appointment is over; what you use in the shower makes just as big of a difference in your scalp’s health and irritation. Brown says we should be using pH balanced shampoos and moisturizing conditioners.
Her favorites: Davines Rebalancing Shampoo ($32), Foligain Triple Action Shampoo ($41), and Now Foods Berry Full Shampoo ($8). “For conditioners I like Joico Moisture Recovery Conditioner ($32), Expensive by IGK ($29), Foligain Triple Action Conditioner ($32), and Verb Ghost Conditioner ($16).
Treat your scalp at home
Thanks to the recent influx of scalp-centric products, sensitive scalps around the world have so many options at their disposal. A tried-and-true favorite? IGK Trust Issues ($29), a formula Brown relies on for her own scalp. Aside from using patented hydrogel time-release technology to moisturize both while you use it and over time, it’s also infused with natural astringents like apple cider vinegar to rebalance the scalp.
Go au naturale
If you’re after a cleaner approach, Brown says ingredients you likely have in your pantry can help soothe, too. “An apple cider vinegar or chamomile tea rinse works well,” she says, advising to leave it on for a few minutes before rinsing out. “You can also do an oil, like coconut, avocado or hemp seed, and leave it on for 10-30 minutes, then shampoo out.”
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