Do I Have a Shampoo Allergy?

Published: March 6, 2007
Could I Have a Shampoo Allergy?Photo: Getty

Q. I recently used a new shampoo and it caused my scalp to go bright red, itchy and flaky. My doctor said this was a reaction to sulfates in the shampoo called contact dermatitis. Is this a shampoo allergy? Can you tell me more about what happened?

Dr. Skotnicki: Most shampoos today contain fragrance, and fragrance that includes botanical ingredients is the number one cause of allergic contact dermatitis for all cosmetics and toiletry products.

On the scalp, allergic contact dermatitis can manifest as itchy and dry, red patches. You may also experience irritation rather than true allergy, with immediate burning on the scalp, itching or redness.

Troublesome shampoo allergy ingredients are:

  1. Fragrances
  2. Botanicals such as mint, rosemary, lavender, ylang-ylang, tea tree oil and chamomile.
  3. Surfactants, which create foam or lather.

The most important one to avoid is cocamidopropyl betaine, derived from coconut. Dermatologists are seeing many cases of allergic contact to this ingredient. Patients don’t always react to it on the scalp, but get dry patches on the eyelids, face, ears and neck.

There are only a few shampoos on the market that do not contain fragrance or cocamidopropyl betaine, such as Exederm.

My advice to patients who may be getting irritation rather than allergy is to avoid the shampoos that have the extras like ylang-ylang or lavender. Plain but mildly fragrant shampoos are a good start. Sulfates are not an issue and remember, botanicals are not safer.

Related: How Over-washing and Beauty Products are Wrecking Sensitive Skin

Send your sensitive skin questions to: [email protected]. For more information see


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