The urge to colour hair has been explored for thousands of years. But while ancient civilisations may have shared our desire to dye, their methods were generally more anti-social, if not downright dangerous, than today’s.
Blonde hair was favoured in Ancient Greece, while in Rome it had a more complex reputation thanks to associations with prostitution. Both cultures used hazardous lye concoctions for the purpose, the Greeks also utilising an mixture of ashes and vinegar. To add colour to grey hair, the Romans opted for a paste of crushed walnut shells and worms, while a favourite darkening dye of the Greeks was produced by fermenting leeches in a lead pot for two months. Ancient Egyptians also used a formula including lead to darken hair.
There’s evidence that the Egyptians used henna to dye hair and wigs. Henna was also a favourite of ancient warriors across Europe who in battle enjoyed the fearsome appearance afforded to them by tinting their hair and beards. Warriors of Kenya’s Maasai would mix animal fats with volcanic deposits to achieve a similar effect.
Later cultures didn’t adopt much more of a ‘safety first’ approach to colouring their hair. During the Renaissance, sulphuric acid (or as it was rather more poetically known, ‘oil of vitriol’) was used to lighten hair. Queen Elizabeth’s red hair inspired women of her era to follow up the acid with the application of saffron to emulate the monarch’s appearance. Bleaches of the period, meanwhile, might incorporate delights ranging from eggs to calf kidneys or horse urine.
In the late 1700s, following the era of the powdered wig, advances in chemical science led to the development of new (if still potentially toxic) formulations of hair dye. Into the following century, the use of hydrogen peroxide as a bleaching agent was discovered, and in 1883, some twenty years after its discovery, para-phenylenediamine - or PPD - was patented in Paris as a textile dye.
The modern era of hair colourant arguably began in 1907 when Eugène Schuller, a young French chemist, incorporated PPD into a hair dye formula. He called the product L’Auréale and to allay safety fears named his company the Société Française de Teintures Inoffensives pour Cheveux (The Harmless Hair Dye Company of France). In 1910 the company name was changed to the slightly more shopping-bag friendly L’Oréal.
The Technicolor cinema age and emergence of stars like Marilyn Monroe and Rita Hayworth heralded a new appetite for hair colouring and by the 40s and 50s companies such as Schwarzkopf and Clairol were pioneering dyes that could be applied at home.
There had been, until this era, a certain stigma around dyeing hair, a sense that is was something to be done privately and discretely. But the mood changed during the subsequent decades and, aided by celebrity hair endorsements and an ever-widening variety of available shades, hair colouring both in-salon and at home has exploded in popularity.