The Horrifying History of Hair Dye

Hair dye is by no means a new invention. In fact since early recorded history, people (particularly women) have been transforming their locks, just not in a way we – or anyone with even an ounce of sanity – would guess!

Rome: DIY Bleach and Horror  

In early Rome, it wasn’t uncommon for ladies to attempt to colour greying hair with a root touch up, because apparently women aging has never been ok.

Anyway for this grey be gone, a concuction of boiled walnut shells, ashes and, er, earthworms, would be ground together to form a lovely dark paste.

But it wasn’t just dark haired ladies getting in on the gross dying action, blondes were also having fun (groan)

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Trust me, you’re not gonna wanna touch that hair when you find out how the Romans dyed it.

In this era, blonde hair was used to mark sex workers.

This was done either by using blonde wigs (taken from Germanic folk the Romans had handily invaded) OR by dying the hair.

Now if you thought earthworms were bad, then you’re going to want to strap in for the next bit, because all kinds of no.

To achieve blonde hair, a woman’s hair was slathered with anything from ashes to pigeon shit and then pissed on.

I know. I’m sorry.

BUT, this grimness does actually have some science behind it! See pee contains ammonia which acts as a bleach, which in turn, helps dye hair blonde.

Isn’t history the best?!? 

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I’m sorry…it only gets worse from here

Elizabethan Pain and Price-tags 

Elizabeth I bought lip liner to the world, as well as using lead to lighten your skin (you win some you lose some) but it wasn’t just makeup that Lizzy was pioneering; she was also waaay ahead in the hair game!

A queen of iconic hair, it’s perhaps unsurprising that a lot of women in her court wanted in on Lizzys legendary locks.

And so ladies would pluck back their hairlines to achieve that trademark high Elizabethan forehead (ouch!)

Elizabeth 1
But just look at that forehead, totes worth it

Colouring was also a big thing, with red and blonde both the beauty ideals of the day.


Blonde was achieved with a seriously expensive mix of cumin seeds, saffron, oil and celadine, effectively pricing anyone but noble borns from the faux blonde hair racket.

Still, you can’t knock a good false blonde down and women once again resorted to pissing on their heads to bleach the fuck out of their hair.

britney crying gif
I’m sorry blondes, I promise this is probably the last mention of pee bleach.

Luckily, going red was a much nicer process.

Elizabethan ladies opted for henna, a method that is still really popular today.

Note: I’ve been dying my hair red for over a decade; the success rate of a decent colour using henna is like 0.0001%, so don’t be trying no Elizabethan dye jobs at Home.

The 1600s: It get’s better. I guess… 

In 1602, Sir Hugh Platt published, Delightes for Ladies; a handy guide of hints, tips and recipes for women. Hugh even included some hair care know how that didn’t suggest dead insects or piss as hair dye ingredients!

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awwww, look how happy the blondes are!

But, don’t applaud just yet! 


Yeah. Turns out Hugh reeeally didn’t like women having hair; suggesting using sulphuric acid to dye their locks a fetching blonde.

Don’t worry though, Hugh makes it clear you shouldn’t touch the acid, just rub it all over your scalp. 👍

Thankfully by the end of the 1600s, wigs took over from highly dangerous chemicals.

These wigs not only allowed women to turn thier hair into towering pieces of ornate artwork, but also play with colour.

Marie Antoinette was a huge fan of pastels, with her wig collection looking a lot like a very hairy sweet shop!

Marie Antoinette, pink hair gif
Pastel hair and a flower crown!! Girls basically ready for Coachella

Sadly all pastel haired dreams must come to an end and the French Revolution did away with the trend for spectacular coloured wigs.

In its place was the Titus.

A groundbreaking short hair cut that both acted as a protest to the French Revolution and meant women didn’t have to spend hours piling on pounds of hair.

But sadly the Titus was all about looking natural, meaning hair dye was out…

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Damn you the Titus’s simplistic natural beauty!!!

But then in 1856: Everything changed

A teenage science nerd called William Perkin was trying to synthesise quinine (a medicine now used to fight maleria) to impress his teacher. Because. Nerd.

Sadly, William totally failed.

BUT he did accidentally create a purple shade, which he dubbed Mauvine.

This was the first synthetic dye!

Mauvine went on to help medical research, build up the textile industry, create new types of food manufacturing and tons more!

But let’s be real, the real success here was opening up hair to a whole rainbow of chemical colours!

By the 1920s women were all over chemical hair dyes!

Sure you left the salon with a burning scalp, but your hair was really pretty, so fair trade right?


Messing around chemicals is a dangerous game. Then putting that mess on your head is basically asking to be maimed.

Nobody is a better testimont to this than Hollywood star, Jean Harlow

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Hair so good, it doesn’t even move

Jean Harlow’s nickname was, The Platinum Blonde.

This meant, that as well as acting, being the blondest blonde in Hollywood was basically Jeans number 1 priority.

But this was no easy feat. Nobody was naturally that blonde.

So Jean went to extreme lengths to reach her famed platinum hue.

According to Alfred Pagano, Jeans hairdresser:

“We used peroxide, ammonia, Clorox, and Lux flakes! Can you believe that?”

No Alfred I can’t believe that!

Mainly because mixing literal household bleach (Clorox) and ammonia creates a highly noxious gas which can ultimately lead to kidney failure.

Jeans hair was dyed using this deadly deadly mess ONCE A WEEK FOR YEARS.

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How is that shit even legal???!!!???

Thousands upon thousands of women attempted DIY versions of Jeans famous platinum dye recipe, with sales of bleach and ammonia sky rocketing

Thankfully the trend was short lived.

Jeans hair all fell out, which meant she stopped dying it and went to wigs.

But the deadly dyes effects remained.

Jean died of kidney failure aged 26. It was a slow and painful death: almost certainly down to her famed hair dye recipe.

Jean Harlow, still
Jean Harlow: Literally killed by marketing

Mercifully, Jean was one of hair dyes last casualties.

By the 1950s mainstream brands like L’Oréal were selling hair dye that dyed hair blonde by lightening, rather than replying on bleach, or you know…piss.

The following decades were defined by hair colour, from the bright colours of the 1980s to the highlights of the 1990s and early 00s (oh hey ‘The Rachel’!)

Now it’s estimated around 70% of women dye their hair , which is pretty unsurprising when you release what a historic love affair we’ve had with colour (and that we know longer need pee to be on trend!)

This was interesting, where can I find out more? Fashions in Hair, the first 5000 years, by Richard Colson is a cracking book. But its retail price is mighty expensive, so best bet for that one is checking out your local library!

Another great (and affordable…) read is Face Paint, The Story of Make Up, by Louise Eldridge, which looks at historic beauty trends.


Murder, megalomania and annoying little brothers: The life of Empress Lucilla 

The life of Lucilla is one that can be read a myriad of ways and history has had a crack at all of them! She’s been a scheming bitch, a jealous scheming bitch and also an innocent (and occasionally scheming) maternal type. But as with anything, life isn’t that black and white. In fact the life of Lucilla is more shades of grey. Was she an innocent? No. Was she a stone cold bitch? No. Was she a schemer extrodinare? Hell yes!

The daughter of acclaimed Emperor Marcus Aerilius, Lucilla was just one in a line of Roman political powerhouses. As such she was quickly married off; with Daddy Emperor picking a suitably auspicious spouse…his co-ruler Lucius Verus (who FYI happened to be twice his young brides age…)

And so overnight, teenage Lucilla became Empress Lucilla.

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Go get it Luci  via giphy

Going through puberty and finding your place at the helm of a global super power may not seem like a great pairing, but Lucilla blossomed in her new role.

Intelligent and charismatic she learned on the job. When her husband was away, she’d cover for him, picking up essential skills in diplomacy, negotiations and generally becoming a political badass in her own right. Soon Lucilla was one of the Roman Empires most powerful and influential women.

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via giphy

But then Lucius Verus died and sans husband, Lucilla was stripped of her role as Empress.

Overnight all Lucilla’s power and influence turned to dust …the same could not be said for her younger brother, Commodus, who was set to become the first emperor in Roman history chosen because of birth right (being Marcus Aerilius son) rather than actual aptitude!

Emperor Commodus
I know what your thinking, what a totally normal and sane looking future ruler!

This wasn’t a great plan – you see, Commodus had all the ingredients of a super dick; he was handsome (and veeery aware of it), easily influenced, with a  quick temper and a petty bloodlust to rival Joffrey…actually, thinking about it, in many ways he is proto real world Joffrey!

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This fucking prick though   via giphy

Unsurprisingly megalomaniac dicks without the smarts to back up their ass hattery do not make great rulers.

In the words of Roman historian and Com’s contemporary, Dio Cassius, Commodus reign saw Rome turn:

‘From a kingdom of gold to one of iron and rust’

Lucilla was not here for this.


By the time Commodus came into power, Lucilla was remarried to politician Tiberius Claudius Pompeianus Quintianus (who had the worlds longest name and was once more, twice Lucilla’s age!).

The marriage to Quintianus allowed Lucilla nowhere near the political influence she had once had (though to be fair, the only way she’d have got that back is if she’d married her brother…ick)

Without power or influence, the only choice Lucilla had was to helplessly watch as her brother slowly but surely fucked up the Roman Empire.

OR she could have her brother murdered…Lucilla went for option 2.

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Bold choice   via giphy

Working with the head of the Praetorian Guard (the Emperors Guard) and other politicians and family members (including Lucillas own daughter) who had all had it with Commodus, Lucilla hatched a plan to murder her little brother.

The nephew of Lucillas husband, Quintianus, was hired as assassin. During a series of games Commodus was holding, Junior Quintianus was to hide in the shadows of the Colloseum. Commodus would walk past unaccompanied and it would be then that Juinor Quintianus would dispatch him from behind.

Not exactly a groundbreaking assination plot, but one that would do the job.

The day of the games came. Junior Quintianus hid in the colloseum. A lone Commodus walked past and Junior Quintianus leapt out of his hiding place, dagger brandished, shouting:

‘This is what the senate has sent you!’ 

Commodus then tackled Junior Quintianus to the ground and the assination attempt was foiled.


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Also don’t ever hire some guys cousin             via giphy

Lucilla was quickly caught.

As it was his sister, Commodus chose not to execute Lucilla. But he couldn’t have her running around Rome anymore, so Lucilla and her daughter were exiled to Capri (a pretty nice exile vacay if you can get it!)

A year later and Lucilla was safely exiled…so naturally Commodus then ordered her execution. A soldier was sent to Capri, where both Lucilla and her daughter were quietly murdered.

Commodus was now free to be an ass-hat, which he did to the extent that he is now credited with the downfall of the Roman Empire!

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*cue all the sarcastic clapping*    via giphy

This was really interesting! Where can I find out more? Well, there aren’t really any books on just Lucilla. But there whilst researching this I found a really interesting book series: A woman and her master, by Sydney Morgan. Written in the Victorian era, the books examine the roles of woman from classical civilisation and the bible.

A woman and her master, volume 2, has a cracking chapter which looks at Lucilla as well as the other woman in Commodus life. You should totally go check it out!!

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