Since ancient times, natural and formulated substances have been used to care for and style hair. Products were designed as cleansers, treatments to regrow or remove hair, styling elements like stiffening agents, or beautifiers imparting shine, curl, or color. From shredded vegetables, to bear grease, to Dippity-do, hair care products run the gamut through shampoos, conditioners, stylers, and colorizers.
The hair product with the longest history is likely henna. Made from a flowering plant native to warm regions, its leaves are dried, ground, and mixed with an acidic substance, producing a natural dye. When used on hair, it imparts shine and a warm brown/auburn color. Believed to have been first used in ancient Egypt, henna has experienced a resurgence over the years and remains in wide use today. Other natural and ancient hair products include ancient Egyptians’ use of shredded lettuce placed on the head to encourage hair growth or regrowth. Also recorded is Cleopatra’s use of a gel made from bear grease to control her hair, while her contemporaries, besides using henna, also used cow’s blood, oil, and crushed tadpoles to recolor graying hair. In ancient Rome, people used a mixture of natural materials to cover gray hair that included ashes, boiled walnut shells, and earthworms.
Today, the hair product industry is a multibillion-dollar worldwide industry. Because the products are used on humans, they are also widely regulated for safety. In the United States, products are monitored by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
The name for a product to wash out the buildup of natural oils from the hair, the word shampoo actually comes from the Indian word cha-mpo (or Hindu champoo), which means “massage.” The word was brought into English use in the mid-to late 1800s, when colonial India introduced the practice of therapeutic scalp massage to Great Britain.
Ancient Egyptians, Native Americans, and Native Latin Americans record some of the earliest substances used to cleanse the hair, made by accessing the substance saponin from soapwort and soapberry plants. Those cultures without plants containing saponin found other similar substances to formulate a soaplike product; in Africa, mixtures of clay and fragrant oils were used, while Ancient Romans combined animal fat with ashes to cleanse their hair.
In the Western world, soap was generally used to wash both the hair and the entire body. British hairdressers at the turn of the 20th century developed a mixture of soap, water, and fragrant herbs that was less harsh than straight soap, and applied it to their clients’ hair in a massaging technique. Soon both the mixture and the process became known as a shampoo. The first commercially available cleansing shampoo was created in Germany in the 1890s. In the United States, by the early 1900s, shampoo was available in several name brands. Some of the earliest to be mass marketed came out in the 1930s and included Wella (established 1880) and Breck (established 1930).
While these early shampoos contained soap, modern shampoos often use a synthetic surfactant as a base for their formulas. Chemistry continues to evolve and shampoo manufacturers continue to research new ways for shampoos to impart shine and improve hair condition. In fact, one product, Neutrogena, specializes in the removal of residue left by other hair products, and advertisers use a slogan advising customers to use Neutrogena once a month so that their regular hair product choices work better. New markets have emerged in recent years with renewed interest in natural or organic ingredients, and expanded into a variety of hair textures, including products specifically formulated for African Americans’ needs.
Shampoo comes in many product forms, including solid (usually a bar), liquid, gel, or powder. A very wide variety of shampoo products exists today, from those available at grocery and drug stores, to beauty supply stores catering to professional hair dressers, and through salons. Paul Mitchell’s products, originally available only through salons, still carry the warning label that their guarantee is only valid if bought via a salon professional.
Shampoo products are formulated for a wide variety of hair types, including the Short and Sassy, and Long and Silky brands, as well as for fine, coarse, oily, dry, or damaged, all with their special ingredients to cleanse and improve hair. Touted as medicated shampoos, Head and Shoulders (owned by Procter and Gamble) and Selsun Blue (owned by Abbott Laboratories) are widely available shampoos for dry, itchy, and flaking scalp conditions, also known as dandruff.
Shampoos and their product identifications have made their way into popular culture references. Clairol products have long capitalized on pop culture trends, with Long and Silky drawing on the culture of jeans and long hair trends of the 1970s; recent advertising campaigns for their Herbal Essence Organics line referenced the “yes, Yes, YES” lines from the film When Harry Met Sally (1989) as a “Totally Organic Experience” to boost their sales.
Conditioner is a hair product that is generally used to restore moisture and shine following a shampoo. It is also called cream rinse. Conditioners first appeared commercially in the 1950s as a way to reduce tangles and dryness after shampooing hair. Older home recipes range from oils, such as olive oil—a historical favorite—through organic mayonnaise combining both oils and eggs, to the beer/raw egg concoction. Commercial products range from deep conditioners specially formulated for occasional use and to restore damaged or dry hair, such as Wella’s Kolestral, and hot oil treatments, to daily treatments often referred to as crème rinse, and the leave-in variety of conditioners, which blur the lines between conditioners and styling agents. In addition, herbal oils have also become a recent consumer favorite, often mixed with daily conditioners to impart both their essential oils and their scent.
Conditioners are marketed in tandem with specific shampoo and styling products, to create a line where they are touted as working best. They are advertised as being formulated to work together, thus also ensuring that when one in the line runs out, the customer will buy more of the same in order to remain in line.
Products that change the color of the hair have been used for centuries, both to cover gray hair and appear to restore a previous natural color or to completely change the color of a person’s hair. Early experimentation with human-made concoctions and procedures for hair coloring were sometimes toxic to the user. In ancient Rome, when lighter hair became fashionable, women who experimented with harsh bleaching mixtures experienced partial or total hair loss. In the second century, Claudius Galen, renowned physician and researcher in the Roman Empire, described the use of a combination of lead oxide and slaked lime to color hair black. The chemical reaction that occurred when these elements combined with human hair formed sulfur and allowed the lead to penetrate the shaft of the hair. This process is what some hair color products are still based on today. In Elizabethan England, in order to mimic their queen, men and women used a red coloring agent for the hair that contained sulfur and caused physical illness. Although they were successful in attaining color change in the hair, early hair coloring attempts involved chemicals that were toxic to human health and life. In 1907 a French chemist, Eugene Schuller, is credited with developing the first commercial hair color product that was safe for human use. The company he founded became L’Oréal.
Temporary colors that fade or wash out over time can be found in various forms, including rinses, shampoos, gels, sprays, and foams. Temporary hair color does not penetrate the shaft of the hair and thus can generally be removed with repeated shampoos. If the hair shaft is damaged in any way from over-dryness or previous permanent color, temporary color can permanently penetrate the hair shaft and become semipermanent or permanent. Henna hair coloring is still used today as a temporary colorizer, available both in pure powder form and in natural product mixtures. Other temporary dyes are widely marketed as less damaging to hair than permanent coloring, and are even lauded as conditioning agents.
There are various levels of temporary coloring. Most dyeing agents fade over time, and therefore even those marketed as permanent are not really permanent. Clairol’s products have been categorized into four levels that exemplify the differences: permanent—those which retain their color beyond 28 shampoos; demi-permanent—through 28 shampoos; semipermanent, the natural coloring agents; and touch-up and highlighting products. The temporary categories of coloring agents might best be described as blending dyes, as they are meant to blend away the appearance of gray hair, enhance natural color, or disguise graying through highlighting and touch-up products. These dyes have to be regularly reapplied in order to maintain coverage.
Permanent hair color does penetrate the hair shaft through a chemical reaction with the hair. During this reaction, which generally occurs simultaneously, ammonia is used to open the hair shaft, peroxide to remove existing color, and a pigment is deposited on the open shaft. The chemical process is then neutralized, and a conditioning agent is applied to restore the appearance of health and shine. Hair bleach is generally hydrogen peroxide, which is used to lighten or remove all pigment from the hair, and is frequently used prior to changing dark hair to very light hair color, such as black to blonde.
The products extensively marketed as permanent are simply those that change the existing hair color, and must be reapplied as hair grows or as the dye fades. Both temporary and permanent hair color, in reality, have about the same staying power in terms of numbers of shampoos or weeks of wear; they differ mainly in the harshness of the chemical process used. Permanent coloring cannot wash out; it must be allowed to grow out or be covered with another dye job. Permanent coloring agents are developed for a wide variety of hair color ranges and highlighting combinations, as well as for men and for ethnic hair types, to which Clairol’s Textures and Tones is targeted. Included in the permanent category are also mustache and beard-dyeing products.
In an uncertain category of hair coloring is the recent use of home recipes such as Kool-Aid and food coloring to achieve startling colorations in modern punk styles, spike formations, and vivid streaks. The Kool-Aid trend has led to some mainstream commercial products that have been willing to invest in developing the hot colors sought by current consumers. Use of these products often requires the removal of prior hair color through bleaching in order to attain the most heightened final color. Hair salon professionals have also pursued this new market through their offerings of highlighting streaks and more vivid and made-to-order color combinations.
Methods of dyeing or bleaching hair have been demonstrated in popular released films for decades. Ginger Rogers demonstrated touching up roots for her bleached blond hair in the 1930s, while many recent films and TV shows, such as The Fugitive and NCIS, have included the changing of hair color as part of a disguise. Hair color has also been extensively used, as well as style, to define a person’s character or grouping in society.
Styling products fall into three main categories: fixatives (hairspray and gels), smoothers (pomades and gels), and texture agents (relaxers, straighteners, and curlers).
Hairspray is a fixative product that is sprayed in a mist on a completed hairstyle to hold it in place or is used during the styling process. The first hairspray became available commercially in the United States in the 1920s, but the product was not widely commercially successful until aerosol technology was used with it in the 1940s. Styles then came to rely on the mixture of lacquer and alcohol to achieve new dimensions. The popular bouffant styles of the 1950s and 1960s relied on liberal use of hairspray and many were held in place for a week and then washed, restyled, and sprayed for the following week. In the 1970s, when hairstyles became more soft and supple, hairspray use declined, though smoothing agents like gels and conditioners replaced them. The industry was regulated in the 1970s when it was determined that aerosol hairspray released environmentally toxic chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) into the atmosphere. Manufacturers found alternate mechanisms for the spray function, including manual pumps and alternative propellants, although CFCs are still used in hairspray production in some countries.
Hair gel is a jelly-like fixative product that is used on wet or dry hair to help create a style and thereafter to hold a style in place. Mousse is a very similar product in a foam delivery form. Hair gels vary in delivery systems, from spray form to jelly consistency and everything in between. Sometimes referred to as setting gels, products like Dippity-do, by Gillette and now owned by White Rain, were very popular in the 1950s and 1960s and were applied to wet hair, before rolling the hair on curlers, and their setting quality would hold the style in place after the hair dried. Still extensively used in various forms today, gel and mousse products are often used as alternatives to hair spray by both men and women. Products like L.A. Look are unisex, while those that target curling may be considered more gender specific. Various weights of hair gel are available, from light style to hold down flyaways, to curl sets like Shirley Temple ringlets, to heavy sets that often contain added wax like ingredients capable of stiffening hairstyles such as Mohawks.
Pomades are those products that give a wet look to hair and are most frequently used to relax or smooth down coarse or very curly hair. Marketed often to Latin men or African Americans, products such as Brylcreem (1928), “a little dab will do ya,” Murray’s Hair Dressing Pomade (1925), and Royal Crown are still available at some consumer locations, but also have found a continuing market through Internet sales. Many of these types of products contain petrolatum and mineral oil as their primary ingredients. Highly reminiscent of ancient hair oiling techniques, these types of products easily reference the continuity of hair grooming interests and product ingredients that people have used over millennia.
Straighteners/ relaxers are chemicals applied to the hair to make the texture or appearance of curly hair smoother. Pomades (usually derived from grease) were the earliest forms of this and offered a temporary smooth appearance by slicking the hair to the head. More permanent straightening solutions came when oil was applied to the hair followed by an iron or hot comb; this created a straight look until the hair came in contact with water or high humidity. In the mid 1800s, chemical straighteners were released that frequently contained very harsh chemicals, including lye, and offered a more permanently smooth result. Around the turn of the 20th century, Madam C. J. Walker became a well-known entrepreneur who formulated, advertised, and sold a variety of hair straightening products for African Americans. Scientific advances have resulted in today’s hair straightening products, which are much less harsh and more effective at achieving permanently smooth hair.
A permanent wave is a combination of curlers and chemicals applied to the hair to change the texture but instead of changing curly hair to straight, it makes straight hair curly. Available at hair salons, as well as through home products like Ogilvie’s Home Perm, permanents have frequently been the butt of jokes when their results don’t match the intent. Quite damaging to hair, both straightening and waving products today attempt to mitigate their damage by conditioning the hair with separate procedures after the curling or straightening agents have been washed away. Many of the conditioners mentioned in various shampoo/crème rinse combinations target hair that is damaged or dry due to permanents and straighteners.