As long as people have had hair they have had a hankering to colour it. And what began as a safe partner dance using an incredible range of roots, herbs, leaves, infusions, spices, dried leeches, beetles, fats and oils became a dangerous tango with poisonous metallic salts and fabric dyes. Whether for vanity, fashion, social status or just because they could, people have safely used plants but also endured the most outrageous insults and toxicity in the search of coloured tresses.
In the treasure of Tutankhamen’s tomb evidence was found of wigs and beards (worn by both men AND women) dyed with henna. As far back as 3200 BCE evidence shows a dye made with wild indigo indigofera tinctoria and henna Lawsonia inermis was successfully dying hair a fine blue black. Woad, a member of the mustard family, was grown in the British Isles and was used mixed with henna to give a dark brown.
In ancient Greece it was simply fashionable to be blonde, while in Rome it was associated with prostitution and looked down on by respectable people. Clement of Alexandria had the temerity to state that women who achieved the desired yellow became lazy and useless in the home. Yet respectable women of Rome pursued the fashion to divert their men from the Scandinavian slaves that captured their attention. Because Romans had such naturally dark hair, flaxen blonde was difficult to achieve and lyes (strong alkalis) made of beechwood ash and goat fat were used. Afterwards a toner of saffron gave the golden hue. Yet such Scandinavian recipes were exceedingly potent and to bring about the desired effect was left on dark hair for lengthy periods often resulting in burns or the total loss of the hair.
White hair was also coloured. Pliny in AD29 described a formula containing leeches and vinegar which were fermented in a lead pot, applied in sunlight and left on the hair. He advised holding oil in the mouth to prevent black staining of teeth. Unfortunately lead poisoning would often result causing abdominal pain, short attention span and anaemia amongst other things.
2700 years ago ancient Assyrians dyed their hair and beards black with unknown substances or red with henna and dusted their heads and beards with gold dust. The ancient Greeks happily dyed their hair, eyebrows and in the case of men their moustaches and beards. During the same period Germanic warriors used henna to tint their golden hair red to make them seem fearsome in battle. The Gauls and Anglo-Saxons continued this practise and exaggerated it with bright orange and blue dyes.
In the first century CE the Christian church banned hair dye. In homage to St Peter, many Christians shaved their beards and heads but as the centuries wore on the desire to manipulate appearance continued. In his book Herbal Hair Colouring Mark Constantine states that in 1500s
A leading lady of venetian fashion would have a wooden turret built on the roof of her palazzo and having at night carefully rubbed her hair with dried cauls*, egg yolk and honey, retired to bed with the mixture covered in a scarf. She would then rise early in the morning, wash her hair in olive oil, dress in a white gown and climb up into the turret, no doubt taking some lace work embroidery to help pass the time. Once there, she would put on a solanna or crownless wicker straw brim, and spread her hair on the top.
The unfortunate fashionista would sit with her uncovered head in the sun for hours which could result in headaches, fainting nose bleeds and of course heat stroke.
Toward the late 1600s a chestnut colour was obtained with the use of lead sulphur and quicklime. The lime was used as a mordant or softener to prepare the hair and bind the colour. The use of such caustics was often poisonous and led to alkali burns. Such burns might lead to hair loss or complete baldness and subsequently a fashion for huge powdered wigs ensued. The fashion spread throughout Italy and France finally arriving in England where the mess of powdering caused the wealthy to designate a special closet for the purpose leading to our now euphemistic term “The Powder Room”
Little changed until the late 18th century when industrial discoveries lead to fantastic, if toxic advances in textile dying. This became the foundation of modern hair dying practises. Broux and Floresca dyes which were made with silver and other nitrates combined with ammonia and pyrogallol, another poisonous alkali, mixed with compound henna (henna mixed with copper or iron salts) then in 1883 “Monnet et Cie” of Paris patented paraphenylenediamine a frank carcinogen and “Possibly the most dangerous substance ever used for the dying of hair” says Mark Constantine. It is a hugely reactive organic compound often used in engineering polymers and composites.
Paraphenylenediamine was succeeded by other diamines, none of which are particularly savoury. Following hot on their heels were metallic salts or progressive dyes. These mixtures of cobalt, nickel and iron gradually change hair colour over successive applications giving the appearance of regained youth.
Metallic salts are also used in the pyrotechnics industry to give fireworks their wonderful explosive colours and when exposed to other chemical dyes or perming solutions they can result in smoking, burning, crackling and ultimately to destruction of the hair. Such salts were and are unfortunately still added to some henna box dyes to give different colours. When we see stories on the news of people permanently scarred by their henna tattoos it is not the henna that did the damage.
Health warnings were added to box hair dyes in the 1930s and you are still encouraged to do a patch test for allergies or reactions as many irritants still persist today. Lush henna bricks are made with beautiful natural ingredients blended with cocoa butter, indigo and other herbs The only effect you will get is beautiful lustrous conditioned hair in a range of lovely reds, browns and blacks.
*Caul is another word for a membrane covering the heads of a small number of babies at birth.