What is hair dye, and how is it made?

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Jamie Wheeler eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Hair dye is one of the oldest known beauty preparations, and was used by ancient cultures in many parts of the world. Records of ancient Egyptians, Greeks, Hebrews, Persians, Chinese, and early Hindu peoples all mention the use of hair colorings. Early hair dyes were made from plants, metallic compounds, or a mixture of the two. Rock alum, quicklime, and wood ash were used for bleaching hair in Roman times, and herbal preparations included mullein, birch bark, saffron, myrrh, and turmeric. Henna was known in many parts of the world; it produces a reddish dye.

Long before you could go to your local grocery store, grab a box of “L’Oreal” and transform from a blonde to a brunette in thirty minutes, women (mostly) have been dyeing their hair; it is one of the oldest and most common beauty products. There is evidence that ancient peoples (Egyptians, Greeks, Hebrews, Persians, Chinese, and Hindus) all used hair coloring products. Romans bleached their hair with rock alum, wood ash, and quicklime. Other herbs, such as mullein, birch bark, saffron, and turmeric, were used too. Henna, a dye that produces a reddish hue, was, and still is, popular in India.

Plants provided the majority of the extracts needed to create dye. These plants extracts were used across Europe and Asia before modern dyes were available. For example, extracts of the flowering plant chamomile was used to lighten the hair. Bark from trees, or shells from nuts, were used to darken hair. Some of these extracts were also mixed with copper or iron in order to produce longer lasting and deeper colors. In biblical times, golden powder was sprinkled into the hair. The gorgeous reds that so enthralled many renaissance painters was often artificial. Women would combine rock alum, black sulfur, and honey and apply to wet hair; then, they would sit in the sun to allow it to penetrate and dry.

Men too used products to change the color of their hair. Among the aristocracy of the sixteenth century, a white powder was created from wheat or potato starch and mixed with plaster of paris, flour, chalk, or, sometimes, burnt alabaster. The mixture was then applied to a wig or to the actual hair. The gold sprinkles popular in biblical times became faddish again with the wealthy in the late-nineteenth century. By this time, crayon-like tubes of dye could be rubbed in the hair or dabbed with a wet brush and painted onto the follicles.

By the late 19th century, hydrogen peroxide (discovered in 1818) became commercially available. The discovery was exhibited at the 1867 Paris Exposition; it was marketed by a chemist from London and a hairdresser from Paris. At the Expo, the pair called their product the “eau de fontaine de jouvence golden”(“golden fountain of youth water”). This was the first time a commercially-made hair dye was on the market.

More hair dyes, and more sophisticated ones, soon followed. “Pyrogallol” was the first synthetic dye. It had the advantage of being organic, as the dye was made from walnut shells; it was frequently combined with henna. The first non-organic, “p-phenylenediamine” dye was developed and sold in Europe in the late 1880s. The chemical dye was patented by the German inventor E. Erdman in 1888. This chemical dye was use on hair, fur, and feathers.

Dyes continued to improve and become more versatile in color. A French hairdresser, Gaston Boudou, was the first to market a range of dyes in 1910. Boudou’s dyes, unlike the ones that had to be mixed as-needed at the salon, were pre-mixed and had predictable results. They were soon popular all over Europe and the United States. Unfortunately, many people experienced allergic reactions to the chemical combinations found in the commercially-produced dyes. A less toxic mixture was developed in 1950 by the Clarirol company, who also produced the first one-step hair dye. The ease of use combined with the reduced chance of a bad reaction made sales leap. By 1973, half of the women in the United States used hair dye. Today, a whopping 75% of women use hair color.

zumba96 | Student

Hair dye has been used for centuries even though now it is mainly used with 'professional' dye, it has been going on for ages. The synthetic version of hair dye was founded in 1907. It is used to color your hair, but nowadays people have been using hair dye for no reason, which is turn ruins your hair from too much usage. But hair dye isn't just for teenagers. A good portion of middle age and older folk use hair dye to cover up their graying hairs. 

amysor | Student

Hair dye is a very common beauty product people from all over the world use today! Forms of hair dye have been traced back all the way to ancient Egypt, but it synthetic hair dye was invented in 1907. 

Hair dye is used to change the color of your hair. Its actual use was to cover gray hairs, but now today, people use hair color as a form of expression. Dying crazy hues from red to rainbow, the possibilties are truly endless! Mostly women use it, but men also use it to cover gray hairs, or also to experiment in expressing themselves.

In general, hair dyes include dyes, modifiers, antioxidents, alkalizers, soaps, ammonia, wetting agents, fragrance, and a variety of other chemicals used in small amounts that impart special qualities to hair (such as softening the texture) or give a desired action to the dye (such as making it more or less permanent).