Why I’ve Decided to Go Gray

Have you ever had a rash from poison oak or poison ivy? Red, raised, fiery, welted patches of pure agonizing itch that spread… if you’ve had it, you remember it well. It’s called contact dermatitis, and it happens when sensitive skin is exposed to an allergen.

Common hair coloring dyes can have the same effect in some people. Unfortunately “some people” includes me. When I was young and didn’t have any gray hair to cover, any old dye would do. I had some fun experimenting with exotic sounding colors like “Warm Golden Sable Brown,” which looked a lot like brown, and “Honey Champagne Rosewood Sable,” which also looked a lot like brown.

Now that I’m approaching 50 and really need the helpful coverage that little box of Clairol can render to my aging brunette locks, I can’t use it. The slightest touch of any dye with p-Phenylenediamine (PPD) will send the nearest patch of skin into an itchy hell. And I don’t use that word lightly. I had a reaction so bad once that I had to go to the emergency room and get a steroid shot to get me back to normal. It took a week.

I looked online for a hypoallergenic alternative and found Herbatint. Yes, it still has PPD, says the hype, but so little that “most allergic people don’t react.” I bought a box of “Honey Warm Sable Ash,” or something like that, at the local health food store. Following the directions for once, I did what’s called a patch test. I mixed some of the chemicals, smeared the mixture inside my left elbow, and didn’t wash it off. “Leave for 48 hours,” said the directions, “and if no reaction is seen, proceed with coloring hair.”

Oh my, it didn’t take 48 hours. It didn’t take 24 hours. It took six hours for the inside of said elbow to become inflamed, well beyond the two-inch spot where I dabbed the dye. Because I have friends who read this blog who have an averse reaction to any mention of “swelling,” I’ll leave it at that.

Three days later, I am in a daily regimen of swathing my poor arm in burn gel – it’s the only thing that helps – covered by sterile gauze and wrapped in that stretchy athletic wrap stuff. This was my last try at covering up my encroaching age. I give up. And so I will go gentle into that dark, er, gray night, and I’ll go proudly.