Hair Dye Brand circa 1843Credit: photo courtesy of the Library of Congress

Hair dyeing has been around for a very long time.  There are many reasons people choose to dye their hair.  Some abhor gray hair while others embrace it; brunettes want blonde and blondes want auburn hair.  There are many colors to choose from for coloring hair or using color for hair highlights to create the illusion of thickness and luster. In ancient days it was considered an art and the dyes were obtained from various plants.  The most common plants used include henna, indigo, black walnut shells and leeks.  Henna created a lighter color while indigo and walnut shells provided the darker browns and blacks.  With the invention of synthetic hair dye, just about any color imaginable can be obtained, from purple to blue and green.

 How Hair Dyeing Started

 In ancient times, it is known Egyptians used henna to color gray hair.  As early as the second century, Romans were using a mixture to change their gray hair to black.  The Roman docHenna Used for Hair DyeingCredit: photo by Andrey "A.I." Sitniktor Claudius Galen is credited with mixing lead oxide with slaked lime to accomplish this.  Egyptians also used a lead compound in their dyes.  Henna was used to dye the hair red and at times gold powder was sprinkled in as well.  This was most common in Greece, but other regions practiced this as well.

 In the first century there is evidence of walnuts and leeks being boiled to use for darkening the locks.   Men went into battle with their tresses colored blue or green or even orange.  Queen Elizabeth made red hair fashionable in England.  Blending color was accomplished by combining wine, spices and herbs.  Eventually natural dyes were bottled and sold with claims to turn grey hair to brilliant reds and browns.

 The first chemical hair dye was introduced in 1907 by Eugene Schueller.  Originally called Aureole, it was later changed to L’Oreal.  The double-process blonding technique was introduced in 1917.  But it was a scientificHair Dye Product from mid-19th CenturyCredit: photo by Joe Mabel discovery that led the way to coloring hair.  Dr. August Wilhelm von Hofmann, a chemist, first reported the dye properties of para-phenylenediamine (PPD) in the late 1800s which led to the development of synthetic hair dyes. 

 A chemist in London, E.H. Thiellay and Leon Hugot, a hairdresser from Paris introduced hydrogen peroxide as a better chemical than alkaline solutions to lighten hair.  The discovery quickly became recognized across the globe and oxidizing products continue to be the basis of many bleaching preparations of today.

 In the mid-1920s oxidation dyes improved and more salons sprang up as well as the introduction of home dyes.   Lawrence M. Gelb, the founder of Clairol, is considered a pioneer in hair dye.  He introduced coloring hair into his salons in 1931 to great reception from American women.  In 1950 Miss Clairol Hair Color Bath afforded women to lighten, tint, condition and shampoo their hair in one easy step without the complication of using bleach.  Shortly after, home dyes were made available and the industry for hair dyeing soared to new heights.

 Different Types of Hair Dye

 There are four classifications of hair dye.  The first is the permanent dye.   This form of color is most often achieved through an oxidation process.  The agents used for this process are usually hydrogen peroxide and ammonia.  The combination allows the strands to be lightened and provide a clean slate for the dye.  The ammonia opens the shaft of the hair to allow the dye to bond and then speeds up the reaction between the dye and the hair.

 Bleaching is the second classification of dyeing hair.  This is a process which removes some or all of the color, either natural or synthetic from the strands.  Hydrogen peroxide and ammonium hydroxide are often used for this purpose.  Hair that is being changed to a lighter color requires bleaching.  Bleaching makes the hair more porous by raising the cuticle.

 The third classification is semi-permanent dye.  This dye has the ability to partially penetrate  the hair shaft allowing the color to remain during washings for several weeks. This process uses low or no levels of peroxide or ammonia and is safer for more fragile or damaged locks.  The porosity nature and the original color of each strand of hair determine the overall final result; there will be slight variations in shade throughout the head of hair.  This will give natural looking hair highlights.

 The final classification of hair coloring dyes is the demi-permanent color.  This dye is permanent but does not use ammonia as the alkaline agent and maybe a lower concentration of hydrogen peroxide.  These dyes cannot lighten the hair to a shade lighter than before dyeing.  This process gives a more natural look than permanent dyes, is less damaging to the hair, and washes out over time.

 For those wanting to dye their hair for a special occasion only, temporary dyes are available.  These dyes come in sprays, foams, gels, shampoos and various other forms. Typically, the colors are bolder and brighter than permanent or semi-permanent dyes.  Because the pigment molecules are too big to enter the cuticle layer of the hair shaft, these dyes are easily washed from hair, though damaged or super dry hair may allow some penetration and keep the color for a bit longer.

 Salons run a huge business in coloring hair and hair highlights.  Many women around the world today choose to use natural dyes such as henna, but there is a large industry for synthetic hair dye   with retail store shelves filled with brands touting the quality and ease of use of their dyes.  






  The copyright of the article “The Evolution of Coloring Hair” is owned by Cheryl Weldon and permission to republish in print or online must be granted by the author in writing.