Hair color has long affected humans’ social perception of each other, so it’s no surprise that people have gone to great lengths to alter their hair color throughout history – from putting red earth in their hair to risking scalp burns from peroxide.
Natural Hair Colors
Two pigments give hair its natural color – eumelanin and pheomelanin. Eumelanin can be black or brown, and determines the darkness of hair color. Blonds have low concentrations of brown eumelanin, while brunettes have a high concentration of the pigment. Black hair contains more black eumelanin, while a low concentration of black eumelanin results in gray hair. The second type of pigment, pheomelanin, is red. Redheads, of course, have hair containing more pheomelanin than those with other hair colors; however, all human hair contains pheomelanin in varying concentrations.
By far the most common natural hair color, black hair occurs in people of all backgrounds and ethnicities.
Brown hair is also found all over the world, and is popularly associated with intelligence, trustworthiness, and success.
Natural blond hair is relatively rare, due to its association with recessive genes. It can range in color from pale platinum to a dark golden shade, and occurs in approximately 2% of the world population, with the majority of natural blonds being of European descent. Since early Christian times, blond hair has been associated with being angelic and youth. Today, it is also associated with glamour.
Red hair, ranging from bright strawberry shades to dark auburn, is the least common hair color. It is most commonly associated with Celtic heritage. Throughout history, redheads have been thought of as everything from unlucky to brave to fun-loving.
As people age, their hair naturally turns gray and often white. As the body stops producing melanin in the hair root there is a gradual decrease in pigmentation as new hair grows without color.
A History of Hair Dye
Most early hair dyes could only darken hair, and included ingredients such as henna, indigo, sage and camomile. Roman women would dye their hair with a mixture of boiled walnuts and leeks to give their locks a shiny, dark sheen.
Perhaps because of its rarity in nature, however, men and women throughout history have long sought to achieve blond tresses, sometimes with famously poor results. When Caesar brought Gallic captives to Rome, their blond hair sparked a new rage among the brunette Romans. At first, they fashioned wigs made of the captives’ hair. Later, women used Gallic pomades made of crocodile or goat fat and beech ashes to lighten their hair.
In the Western world through the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, many types of solutions were painted onto both men’s and women’s hair and left to lighten hair in the sun, creating the blond color that was popular at the time for its angelic connotations. These mixtures included ingredients as varied as black sulphur, alum, and honey, or saffron and onion skin.
Near the end of the sixteenth century, Venetians ladies would put on crownless hats, apply a caustic soda solution to their hair, and sit in the sun during the hottest hours of the day in order to achieve the famous shades of blond seen in Titian paintings.
Nineteenth-century Parisian ladies drenched their hair in harsh potassium lye solutions. Around 1860, hydrogen peroxide first came into use as a hair bleaching agent. Sometimes combined with ammonia and soap flakes, hydrogen peroxide was commonly used as blond dye through the 1930s. The process was quite harsh on hair, and it was not uncommon for hair to break off during the bleaching procedure. Headaches and scalp burns were also a common side effect.
Hair Coloring in the Twentieth Century and Beyond
Two of today’s most well-known hair dye products got their start in the early twentieth century. In 1907, French chemist Eugene Schueller developed the first safe commercial hair dye, a synthetic formalation based on the chemical paraphenylenediamine. Schueller originally called his product Aureole, but it was later renamed L’Oreal. Later, in 1932, New York chemist Lawrence Gelb developed a hair color product that penetrated the hair shaft, and started a company called Clairol. In 1950, he introduced the first one-step hair coloring product, Miss Clairol Hair Color Bath.
In the mid-20th century, Clairol copywriter Shirley Polykoff helped bring hair coloring into mainstream American culture by coining the tagline, “Does she or doesn’t she? Only her hairdresser knows for sure.” At the time, “painting” one’s hair still carried a stigma that made this phrase resonate with American women of the era – it seemed to say that respectable wives and mothers had the right to color their hair, and to do it with discretion in their own homes. Between the 50s and 70s, when Polykoff gave up the Clairol account, the number of American women dyeing their hair rose from 7% to more than 40%.
In the 1970s, the young ad executive Ilon Specht immortalized the L’Oreal brand when she wrote the slogan, “Because I’m worth it”. Unlike the Clairol campaign, L’Oreal’s appealed to a strong woman who wanted to use hair color to reinvent herself – a sentiment that has carried through to today.
Hair Coloring Today
Today, there are four main types (or “commitment levels”) of hair dye available.
Temporary hair color usually contains only tint, and comes in the form of paints or hair “mascaras”. They are typically made in exotic, bright hues designed to be washed out of the hair after a few shampoos.
Semi-permanent products coat hair with color that washes out after 6-12 shampoos. Unlike most temporary color, semi-permanent dyes bond to the hair. However, the pigment molecules in temporary hair color are too large to penetrate the hair shaft, so that hair is still “coated” with color rather than fundamentally changed. Since the dye sits at the surface of the hair, this type of hair color is generally used to achieve brighter, more vibrant shades that may be difficult to achieve with permanent hair color. However, since semi-permanent products don’t contain any ammonia or peroxide, they cannot lighten hair, only change the tone of the existing shade by adding color. They are also called “stains” or “washes”.
Demi-permanent dyes last about twice as long as semi-permanent color. These dyes have smaller molecules than those of semi-permanent tinting formulas, so are able to penetrate the hair shaft to a slightly greater degree. Like semi-permanent dyes, however, this type of color contains no ammonia and thus cannot lighten hair, only add color to it.
The longest-lasting of hair dyes, permanent color cannot be washed out. It contains both ammonia and peroxide, which raise the cuticle of the hair in order to allow the tint to penetrate to the cortex and lighten the hair by breaking up the melanin that gives hair its natural color, fundamentally changing the shade of the hair. Since the color is (true to its name) permanent, bringing hair back to its original color requires a new dye job.
About the Author, Parsiri Audcharevorakul
Parsiri is a marketing consultant from Boston, Massachusetts. She shares her own work and writes on design, illustration, and more at parsiri | blog, and likes to hear from indie artists and up-and-coming design businesses. She is also a COLOURlover, of course.