Hair dying has a long history. So long, in fact, that it lead the prominent archaeologist Harry Shapiro to believe that our desire to alter our natural appearance is somewhat biologically inherent.
“So universal is this urge to improve on nature,” he wrote, “that one is almost tempted to regard it as an instinct.”
Why is it that we’re so dead-set on changing our appearance that we go to such great lengths—often exposing ourselves to harmful chemicals in the process—in order to do it? How did the phenomenon of hair dying begin in the first place, and what does the process look like today?
Ancient Hair Dyeing
According to The Atlantic, archaeologists have uncovered evidence that people altered their hair color as far back as the paleolithic period. Paleolithic people generally smeared iron oxide on their heads, which helped them achieve a red color.
Blonde hair dyes date back to the ancient Romans, who designated that all prostitutes should color their hair yellow in order to signify their profession. Meanwhile, people in Egypt and other regions used plant materials to color their hair black, blue, red, green and gold. They often colored their hair after it had been cut off and then used it to fashion elaborate braids and headdresses.
Modern Hair Dyeing
Nowadays, our hair-dyeing techniques are both more permanent and arguably more hazardous. Para-phenylenediamine, or PPD, is the active ingredient in most chemical hair dyes. Discovered roughly 125 years ago, the molecule is derived from coal tar (nowadays, petroleum) and producing a color-changing effect when it’s exposed to air.
However, in order for hair strands to accept the color-changing molecule, you must also add ammonia and hydrogen peroxide. These chemicals remove protective layers and allow the dye to access melanin, the underlying pigment in hair cells, while also providing a bleaching effect.
Safety and Regulation
If you think this all sounds kind of gross, that’s because it is.
PPD and other components of hair dye (such as 4-methoxy-m-phenylenediamine or 4-MMPD, which is similar to PPD and also often used in hair dyes) have been linked to cancer. In fact, women who work in hair salons and women who frequently dye their hair are twice as likely to get bladder cancer as women who aren’t regularly exposed to hair-dyeing chemicals.
Even if we eliminated the cancer-risk factor, hair dye chemicals are extremely sensitizing (meaning that even if you don’t have a sensitivity to the chemicals on first use, they can damage your DNA, leading to sensitivity over time).
Some governments have begun the process of delving into which chemicals are safe for use and which are not. The European Union, which is known to have pretty high safety standards for beauty products and as well as for other industries, has currently categorized 27 common hair-dye ingredients as sensitizers.
Here in the U.S., there is little regulation imposed on the beauty industry. So long as an ingredient isn’t considered hazardous, it can be used without issue, as cosmetic products are not regulated by the FDA. In other words, an ingredient is considered safe until it’s proven harmful—not a very reassuring policy.
Of course, there are more natural ways to dye one’s hair. The most popular choice is henna, which has an indigo-red color and permanently alters the hair color. Pure henna doesn’t fade over time, though, so if you decide to try a henna dye, you won’t be able to go back (until your hair grows out, of course).
There are some toned-down henna products, but of course, they aren’t pure henna. If you come across a henna dye in a brown or black color, that’s also not a pure henna dye (it’s usually mixed with indigo coloring).
Looking to go lighter? You don’t have very effective options if you want to stick with natural, non-bleaching methods, but your best bet is to expose your hair to sunlight. Applying lemon juice can also help lighten your tresses, but you’re likely to simply see brighter, lighter hair than any kind of specific hair-color change.
Still, probably a better option than the chemical alternative, don’t you think?