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The History of Hair Color

By Wendy Rodewald-Sulz / January 2, 2015

Photo: Getty Images

We love a good beauty history lesson around here, and today The Atlantic has an in-depth look at the past, present and future of hair color that includes a few fascinating nuggets. Did you know the Ancient Egyptians were really into wigs?
“Ancient Egyptians dyed their hair, but rarely did so while it was on their heads. They shaved it off, then curled and braided it to fashion wigs to protect their bald heads from the sun. Black was the most popular color until around the 12th century BCE, when plant material was used to color the wigs red, blue, or green, and gold powder was used to create yellow.”
But ladies like Cleopatra weren’t the only ancient people to shun their natural hair hues. The Greeks and Romans colored their hair, too. At first they used a lead-based black dye, which you can imagine wouldn’t be the best substance to let soak into your scalp. But, the article’s author writes, “When the direct application of lead proved too toxic, the Romans changed their black dye formula to one made by fermenting leeches for two months in a lead vessel.” Sounds like something we saw on Pinterest one time.
Hair color was also used to designate ladies of a certain social group:
“Prostitutes during the early years of the Roman Empire were required to have yellow hair to indicate their profession. Most wore wigs, but some soaked their hair in a solution made from the ashes of burnt plants or nuts to achieve the color chemically.”
And just in case you thought the Sun-In that turned your hair orange in the ‘90s was a historical low point for hair color, consider the 18th century Venetian women, “who would recline in the sun on specially built terraces with their hair drenched in corrosive solutions of lye to achieve golden locks.”
The article features plenty more historical gems, plus a discussion of why hair color technology essentially hasn’t changed since the mid-1800s. It’s definitely worth a read.