I have had a bad hair month – quite literally. I have been suffering from an extremely itchy scalp, covered in hives. Fortunately this is now calming down, but I am left wondering what caused such a severe allergic reaction. I do not dye my hair, so I am left with shampoos and conditioners as possible offenders.
As I was scratching my head while doing research for a new article, I came across the following epigram by Nicarchus (first century CE).
By dyeing his head, a man destroyed the hair itself,
And from being exceedingly hairy, his head became entirely like an egg.
The dyer (bapheus) managed the result that no barber can any longer cut
His hair, be it white or dyed black.
Nicarchus, Greek Anthology 11.398
Now, the word bapheus (dyer) usually refers to someone who dyes fabrics, rather than someone who dyes hair. For instance, Dioscorides writes that dyers use woad in their trade (Materia Medica 2.184). Perhaps the joke in Nicarchus’s epigram is that the man approached the wrong professional to get his hair dyed. Still, it remains that hair products could be very dangerous in the ancient world. For instance, the physician Galen (second century CE) claims that he had to include ‘safe’ cosmetics in his writings, not because he approved of them – he certainly didn’t – but because the alternative was just too dangerous:
For I have often seen women not only put themselves in danger, but actually die, from over-cooling their heads with such drugs.
Galen, On the Composition of Medicines according to Places 1.3, 12.442 Kühn
Even allowing for some exaggeration, this still sounds like very nasty stuff. So what did the ancients use to dye their hair? Various recipes have come down to us, including a list in pseudo-Galen’s Remedies Easily Procured. Here is an extract:
Ointments for the hair, so that grey hair becomes black: boil iron dross and lead in vinegar until a third is left; anoint, avoiding to touch the hair with oil.
Another: crush the root of caper-plant with ass’ milk; boil until a third is left; and use. Be careful as this thoroughly blackens the hair.
Another: dissolve the bile of sea turtle in oil and anoint the hair.
Another: boil walnuts; mix with wet bitumen; and anoint.
Galen, Remedies Easily Procured 2.1, 14.390-391 Kühn
Beside relatively harmless herbal ingredients (walnuts, root of caper-plant), and exotic animal ingredients (bile of sea turtle), ancient hair dyes very often included bitumen and lead. It is very easy to snigger at the ignorance of the ancients, who slowly poisoned themselves through vanity. But do pause a minute and ask yourself what exactly are methylisothiazolinone and cocamidopropyl betaine, two common ingredients in ancient cosmetics (which, as it happens, are present in the shampoo that most likely caused my allergic reaction). While I know that modern compounds are safe, tried and tested in labs, I also know that I am now facing a long struggle to discover what exactly turned my scalp into an angry sore. What is in your shampoo?