Back to Nature: Is Henna the Future of Commercial Hair Dye?


Commercial hair dye companies are slowly learning a painful secret: “Fast, easy, and cheap” has been beneficial for business for just over a century, but will not be sustainable in the coming decades.

              The majority of permanent and semi-permanent hair dyes available in stores and used in salons contain para-phenylenediamine (PPD). PPD, a coal-tar derivative dye, was first used as a commercial fur dye until consumers quickly realized that they could use it on their own hair [1]. PPD-based hair dyes entered the market at the turn of the 20th century. Oxidative hair dyes could be made in a range of colors. The products were easy to use and worked quickly. The color result was relatively permanent. These features made PPD dyes very attractive.

              Oscar Wilde was one of the first public figures believed to be sensitized to PPD. Repeated exposures, and/or exposures to high concentrations of PPD lead to sensitization and allergic reaction. This can happen to anyone. As with other allergens, a person can be born allergic to PPD, or that person can develop a sensitivity after exposure. Only about 1.5% of the population is born allergic to PPD. The rest are sensitized through exposure. Kligman’s study showed that 100% of subjects developed a sensitization to PPD after five or fewer patch tests of a 10% PPD mixture [2]. Although sensitization rates vary depending on demographics, country, and gender, conservative estimates say around the numbers are around 6.2% in North America, 4% in Europe, and 4.3% in Asia [3].

The PPD Era

 Prior to 1934, there was no restriction on the concentration of para-phenylenediamine allowed in beauty products. It was even in eyelash tints, which led to corneal ulcerations and conjunctivitis [4]. One such product, LashLure, ended up in an installation at the 1933 Chicago world’s fair called “The Chamber of Horrors.” This installation, set up by the FDA, exposed dangerous products. Although doctors, manufacturers, and some consumers were aware of the dangers of PPD hair dyes from the very beginning, they continue to be sold in the United States. While products containing higher than 6% PPD are now illegal, it is still easy enough to find highly concentrated, powdered PPD hair dye products online and in local ethnic grocery stores. Certain countries such as France, Germany, and Sweden have banned PPD products altogether [5].

An advertisement for hair dye from 1885.

              PPD sensitization rates have risen. It is projected that by 2030, about 16% of the western population will be sensitized [6]. This means that fewer people will be able to use oxidative hair dyes and other products containing PPD; hair dye companies will see a loss in their customer base. These companies will also see increased reports of injury, and increasing numbers of lawsuits.

              Commercial hair dye companies are now showing interest in returning to a practice that has existed for thousands of years: Dyeing hair with henna and other plant dye powders. For example, L’Oreal recently announced its plans to release a line called Botanea, an all-natural and vegan hair dye line based on henna, indigo, and cassia. Other companies have also produced and marketed henna and plant-based dye products to varying degrees of success.

              Whether this “new” return to plant dye powders will be successful to cosmetics corporations will depend highly on the ways they choose to produce and market the product, and how they plan to engage a population which has been dependent on oxidative dyes for so long. Not only will it require these companies to learn the science behind this completely different technique, but to also admit and come to terms with the danger of PPD which they have denied for over a hundred years. Finally, it will also call for the development of henna farms and mills in areas where henna crops will thrive, and the establishment of high standards for exported products.

PPD Sensitization as an Epidemic

              In the past decades, we have seen a rise in the rate of PPD sensitization. Not only are more people developing reactions to PPD, but their ages are getting younger. This is correlated with the popularity of “black henna” tattoos in tourist areas, as well as the increase of young people using hair dyes [7]. Catherine Cartwright-Jones, Ph.D. explores this epidemic in detail in her dissertation, “The Geographies of the Black Henna Meme Organism and the Epidemic of Para-phenylenediamine Sensitization: A Qualitative History.”

              “Black henna” is nothing but a concentrated PPD hair dye mixture, applied directly to the skin. Hair dyes in the United States contain up to 6% PPD. These “black henna” mixtures can contain 25% PPD concentration or higher, enough to sensitize a person within one application. The use of PPD on the skin is illegal in the United States, but “black henna” stalls are very common in tourist areas, and the law is not actively enforced.

              The practice of using concentrated hair dye to create designs on the skin began in North Africa in the 1970s, and by the 1990s it was popular in western tourist destinations such as resorts, amusement parks, and boardwalks. When a child or young adult gets a “black henna tattoo” while on vacation, then, years later, uses a commercial hair dye containing PPD, they can experience a reaction serious enough to land them in the hospital. To learn more about PPD sensitization, read What You Need to Know about Para-Phenylenediamine (PPD).

These powdered hair dyes contain concentrated PPD and are easily available online and in local stores despite restrictions.

              PPD is also used in printing, the manufacturing of black rubber, and many other industries and products. From the start, doctors and scientists were concerned about the negative effects of PPD and warned consumers of its dangers [8]. However, on November 2, 1934, the FDA struck up an agreement that hair dyes could contain up to a 6% concentration of PPD as long as the packaging contained adequate warning. Since then, the vast majority of permanent and semi-permanent hair dyes sold in stores and used in salons contain PPD.

Here is the exact wording from the FDA:

“What the Law Says About Coal-tar Hair Dyes

Under the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act (FD&C Act), a law passed by Congress, color additives must be approved by FDA for their intended use before they are used in FDA-regulated products, including cosmetics. Other cosmetic ingredients do not need FDA approval.  FDA can take action against a cosmetic on the market if it is harmful to consumers when used in the customary or expected way and used according to labeled directions.

How the law treats coal-tar hair dyes:

  • FDA cannot take action against a coal-tar hair dye, as long as the label includes a special caution statement and the product comes with adequate directions for consumers to do a skin test before they dye their hair. This is the caution statement:
    Caution – This product contains ingredients which may cause skin irritation on certain individuals and a preliminary test according to accompanying directions should first be made. This product must not be used for dyeing the eyelashes or eyebrows; to do so may cause blindness. (FD&C Act, 601(a))
  • Coal-tar hair dyes, unlike color additives in general, do not need FDA approval. (FD&C Act, 601(e)).”

              What this means is that companies producing hair dyes containing 6% PPD or less, as long as they provide adequate warning and instructions for patch testing, are relatively well protected from injury suits. Despite numerous serious reactions to hair dye, and despite it being well-documented that PPD is a highly sensitizing compound responsible for the vast majority of hair dye allergies, these companies are widely immune to legal repercussions.

Taking The Hair Dye Giants to Court

              There have been a number of attempts at lawsuits and class action suits against certain companies, such as several recent cases against Just For Men. Those involved in the class action suit against Just For Men believed that the company was intentionally targeting men of color in the marketing of their Jet Black dye, which contained a high level of PPD. Other cases posited that the patch test instructions were not sufficient for properly determining sensitivity prior to applying the dye.

              The problem with patch-testing is that PPD often causes a delayed hypersensitivity reaction whose onset may not occur until several days after the test. Most patch tests advise waiting 24 hours. Some people experience no reaction following their first application, but have been sensitized to future reactions. This lack of initial reaction leads to serious consequences when that person, unaware of their new allergy, is exposed to PPD again. Many people who experience severe reactions to hair dye had gotten a “black henna” tattoo earlier in their life. In the case of products sold to men for hair and beard use, a consumer may find that they do not react when conducting a patch test on the inner arm, but experience a reaction on their face, where the skin is thin, sensitive, and potentially abraded from grooming.

The required warning and patch test advisory on a package of Just For Men hair and beard dye.

              Lawyers defending hair dye companies have used PPD’s delayed reaction to their advantage, by insisting that there is no way to tell for sure whether the product caused the reaction, if the reaction did not appear until several days after the customer used the product.

              One of the first legal suits against a hair-dye company was that of hairdresser Pauline Karr against Inecto Notox Rapid in 1926. Notox was aggressively marketed as a safe and harmless dye which could be easily applied at home. Despite the fact that companies, consumers, and doctors were already aware of the dangers of PPD, Inecto and other companies did not disclose their products ingredients; at that time, they were not legally required to do so, as the formula was protected as a trade secret.

              The dye dripped onto Karr’s finger, staining it black, and she experienced a severe reaction twelve hours later. Karr lost the use of that finger, and sued Inecto. The company won on appeal. Inecto’s lawyers argued that there was no way to prove that the product itself caused the reaction that occurred twelve hours later, and that the company was so large and successful, with thousands of products sold, that there was no way that the dye could be unsafe. Because the company claimed that its formula was the reason for its success, they believed that they were under no obligation to divulge the dye’s ingredients.

              This reasoning was used time and time again in following suits. Hair dye companies claim that any injury cannot be reasonably linked to the use of the product itself, and that if any injury does come about from the product, it must be due to misuse on the consumer’s part. Now with the FDA’s stance, hair dye companies are safe from legal repercussion as long as the dye contains 6% or less PPD, and they have adequate warnings on their product labels.

              In some rare cases, the plaintiff wins against the company, such as Falk vs. Inecto in 1927. Falk’s lawyer claimed that Inecto Notox Rapid hair dye contained toxic and dangerous substances and that the company was negligent in marketing it as a safe, non-toxic product.

NOTOX “assures absolute naturalness” and claims to be “composed of mild organic ingredients.”

The End of the PPD Hair Dye Era

              What commercial hair dye companies are not immune to, however, is a loss in customer base. It is projected that by 2030, about 16% of the adult western population will be sensitized to PPD. 7% of the population will experience a reaction serious enough to require hospitalization [6]. People working in industries where they are regularly exposed to PPD, such as hair styling, fur-dyeing, black rubber manufacturing, and printing, are at higher risk of sensitization. Many hair stylists have had to quit after no longer being able to handle hair dyes. Those who develop a sensitization to PPD have it for life, and will experience reactions to products outside of hair dye, which contain PPD or ingredients involved in cross-reactions.

              These companies are not ignorant of the facts. They know that people experience reactions after using hair dye containing PPD. They know that sensitization to hair dye is related to “black henna” tattoos. PPD was named allergen of the year in 2006. Scientists and doctors have long studied the connection between hair dye and contact dermatitis, and delayed-reaction sensitization. Despite this, the beauty industry giants hire their own researchers to put out articles insisting that PPD is safe [9].

              Henna, Cassia, and Indigo plant dye powders have been used to naturally color the hair for thousands of years. When used in the right ratios, these three plant powders can produce an infinite range of natural hair colors, from blonde to jet black. Henna was particularly popular during La Belle Epoque– the end of the 1800s and the beginning of the 1900s. Artists like Toulouse Lautrec painted women with beautifully vivid red hair. Hennaed hair was seen as sensual and exotic.

              Henna was upstaged by PPD hair dyes during the mid-1900s, as PPD was cheap, easy to use, and provided fast results. Hair dye companies selling henna attempted to make the process easier for the western customer base by creating compound henna products. These products contained metallic salts and other additives meant to alter the color results and make up for low-quality plant powders. As henna powder imports decreased during WWI and WWII, compound henna products were a way to cheapen the product. These additives had nasty effects, especially when oxidative hair dyes or lighteners were applied over hair that was previously dyed with compound henna. Thus, henna’s reputation was sullied. Henna was associated with dirtiness, backwardness, and brassy, orange hair. Many stylists associate still these negative effects with henna itself, rather than the additives contained in compound henna. The use of pure plant powders as hair dye is not taught in cosmetology schools, while the negative bias toward henna is perpetuated. It is common for stylists to refuse to work on hair that has been hennaed. 

              But the customer base for commercial hair dyes is shrinking as PPD sensitization spreads. Companies have responded by creating and marketing hair dyes that are “PPD free.” These dyes, though they do not contain para-phenylenediamine, use a molecularly similar ingredient instead, such as para-toluenediamine. Para-toluenediamine is another coal-tar dye within the same molecular family. Is still sensitizing, though less so. Whether a person is sensitive to PPD or PTD, cross-sensitization will still occur. This means that many “PPD free” hair dyes are still unsafe, especially for those who have a PPD sensitivity. PPD sensitivities can also lead to cross-reactions with a number of other materials, such as certain fabric dyes, synthetic fragrances, anesthetics, 

              PPD also goes by a number of different names. Companies may list para-phenylenediamine under a lesser-known name to make their product appear safer. Here are alternative names for PPD:

  • PPDA
  • Phenylenediamine base
  • p-Phenylenediamine
  • 4-Phenylenediamine
  • 1,4-Phenylenediamine
  • 4-Benzenediamine
  • 1,4-Benzenediamine
  • para-Diaminobenzene (p-Diaminobenzene)
  • para-Aminoaniline (p-Aminoaniline) [10]

              Other consumers, whether or not they have a PPD allergy, are simply looking for more natural, or “chemical free” products. We are entering an era in which consumers are more health-conscious, more environmentally-conscious, and more wary of large corporations. People no longer want to blindly buy products, but instead choose to do research, read reviews, and read labels. Companies respond by altering their packaging, releasing new products that appear to be healthier, safer, or containing an exotic, natural ingredient. However, there is no regulation on words like, “natural,” or “pure.” Just because a product contains a natural ingredient does not make it any safer. In the same logic, one could add a plant extract to antifreeze and call it “natural.”

An old shampoo advertisement marketing new “exotic formulas.”

              Certain cosmetic companies are now looking into attempting what Ancient Sunrise® has done for years: providing pure plant powder hair dye. If done correctly, this change can be a win in the battle against PPD. But the emphasis is on correctly. We have already seen what happens when henna is manipulated with additives for the sake of “cheap and easy.” Henna does not work well with short-cuts. If these companies wish to be successful, they must take the time to understand the art, science, and culture of the natural hair dye world. Failing to do so will result in a waste of time and resources, and potentially an additional blow to the reputation of henna for hair.

What Must Happen For A Successful Transition

Here is what cosmetic companies will need to understand in order to bring henna for hair into the mainstream market:

1. Henna Has its Own Science That Cannot Be Messed With

              In their attempts to sell henna, the biggest mistake that commercial hair dye companies fall into time and time again is their attempt to make it quicker and easier to use. They assume that western consumers want simple, quick-fix solutions and are incapable of using a product that requires too many steps.

              We have seen the damage that compound henna products have done, both to the hair of the consumer, and to the reputation of henna. Adding metallic salts to henna will not work. “Henna” products that are sold as a liquid or cream are anything but henna. They may contain some henna (or henna extract, whatever that means), but it is unlikely that the plant dye is doing much of the work. Many of these products contain commercial dyes, either coal-tar derived, or azo-dyes. Any natural plant ingredient is there to make the product seem healthier, whether or not the ingredient is even necessary or useful in hair dye. All of the exotic oils, dried flowers, and cocoa powder in the world cannot fix a formula based on bad science.

               Because there is no regulation on what can or cannot be called “henna,” these products are extremely misleading to the uneducated consumer. To read more about products claiming to be henna, read Henna for Hair 101: Body Art Quality (BAQ) Henna, Compound Henna, and Hair Dye That Really Isn’t Henna.

              Other companies sell pre-mixed powders containing henna, indigo, cassia, and other plant ingredients all combined into one. These products may recommend mixing the powder with hot water. This will not work because henna and indigo require different dye-release processes to work effectively. Henna must be dye-released with a mildly acidic liquid and left at room temperature for several hours before application. Indigo must be mixed with a neutral or slightly alkaline liquid, and used right away. Thus, a pre-mixed product mixed with hot water will yield undesired results, and fade rapidly.

              Some companies offer oil-based “bars” that contain henna and other plant dyes, and are meant to be mixed with water and melted down. Again, these products are an example of bad science. Oil prevents the dye molecules from binding to the hair shaft. The result is, again, far from the desired color and quick to fade.

              Plant dye powders cannot be mixed. Extra ingredients, either “chemical” or “natural,” are not necessary. The process cannot be sped up. Cutting corners leads to inferior results. Companies must understand that if they want to bring henna and natural hair dye back to the market in an effective and successful way, they must accept that consumers are capable of and willing to learn the science. Ancient Sunrise® has been doing this for years. Its customer base continues to grow. By providing well-researched resources, attentive customer support, and pure, unadulterated plant dye powders, Ancient Sunrise® has built a community of educated consumers who enjoy healthy, PPD-free color.

2. Henna for Hair is Highly Individualized

It will not work to force henna for hair into a one-size-fits-all model. Henna, indigo, and cassia all create a translucent stain on the hair. Unlike oxidative dyes which can lift the hair color with ammonia and peroxide, plant dyes cannot cause the hair to be any lighter. Thus, the result is highly dependent on each person’s initial hair color.

              Other factors such as a person’s hair texture and condition, body chemistry, local water supply, and personal lifestyle may also affect color results. Therefore, it will not work to slap a color swatch onto a package and claim that that is the result a customer should expect. While many henna-users achieve their desired results within the first or second try, others will need to adjust their recipes and techniques until they find what works best for them.

              Henna is at the center of most natural hair dye mixes. Alone, it stains light hair red, copper, or auburn. Indigo is used alongside henna to create brunette shades. It can also be applied separately after henna to dye the hair black. Cassia adds golden tones and is the primary dye in blond mixes. To learn more about plant dyes for hair, read Ancient Sunrise® Chapter 5: Plants that Dye Hair.

              Off-the-shelf home hair dye kits normally contain two or more bottles containing liquids that are to be combined and then applied. The process does not require much thought on the part of the customer. Henna for hair, on the other hand, involves combining up to three types of plant dye powders in a specific ratio to achieve a certain color. These powders must be packaged individually. When companies try to create henna-based products that mimic the easy application process of commercial hair dyes, the results are inferior.

Ancient Sunrise® Henna for Hair kits provide individually packaged plant dye powders at the correct ratios to achieve a wide range of natural colors.

Because individual differences add so many variables to hennaing hair, both companies and consumers must be aware that it takes patience and communication to achieve the best results. If a customer simply picks up a henna for hair product off the shelf, tries it, and doesn’t like the results, they may never try henna again. They might never know why it didn’t work the way they wanted it to, and what they could have done differently to get the result they wanted. 

              This is why it essential to create a community of knowledgeable henna-users, and to have this community become part of the mainstream hair and beauty culture. Such communities exist for African-textured hair, for people who grow their hair long, for people who abstain from commercial shampoos, and so on. The Ancient Sunrise® Henna group on Facebook is very active and has over 3750 members. This number increases daily. In this group, members share before and after photos, ask questions, and guide each other. When a question is particularly specific or complex, the Ancient Sunrise® customer service representatives act as the “experts”. They are trained in the science of henna for hair in such a way that they can create individualized mix recipes and offer advice, based on an assessment of a customer’s desires, troubles, and hair history.

              Henna for hair is not possible without this kind of support system. Hennaing one’s hair was once common knowledge. Now, people may perm, bleach, and color their own hair at home using store-bought products, but they are largely unfamiliar with mixing and applying plant dye powders. Hair stylists have always functioned as ambassadors between the professional world of beauty, and the day-to-day consumer. If henna is to be successful, it will need to be taught to hair stylists in the same way oxidative dyes are taught. The bias against henna must end, and be replaced with more accurate information. If not, misinformation will spread and distrust will grow between stylists, and consumers who have chosen to switch to henna. The following section will suggest ways in which stylists can become leaders in the switch to plant dyes.

3. Changing the Culture Should Start with Stylists

Henna’s bad reputation continues to live on through the misinformation taught to and spread by hair stylists. This is not the stylists’ fault. Cosmetology texts contain the same out-of-date information in regards to henna that they have for decades. Cosmetologists come to know this misinformation as fact. The dangers associated with henna come from compound henna, where the culprits are metallic salts, not the henna itself. Compound henna products are, indeed, an absolute nightmare for the hair. Now, many stylists still believe that henna damages the hair, that it coats the hair and makes it brittle, and that the hair cannot be lightened once hennaed. In reality, henna is much safer and healthier for the hair. Oxidative dyes use chemicals to break past the keratin cuticle to deposit dye and to destroy melanin cells, thereby weakening both the internal and external structure of the hair strand [11, 12]. Henna, indigo, and cassia deposit dye that binds to the keratin at the outer layers of the strand, leaving the structure not only intact, but reinforced.

              Time and time again, Ancient Sunrise® henna for hair users report that their stylists react negatively upon hearing that they use henna. They will scold their clients and try to persuade them to stop. Some stylists will refuse to work on hair that has been dyed with henna. This is understandable; because of the lack of regulation on products labeled as “henna,” it is nearly impossible to determine if the product the client previously used was truly safe, or whether it would react with other chemicals. While Ancient Sunrise® plant dye powders are all subjected to rigorous lab tests to ensure purity and safety, the same cannot be guaranteed by other brands.

              Many stylists, however, see the wonderful color and condition of our clients’ hair and begin to develop an interest in henna. Several stylists are now offering Ancient Sunrise® henna for hair services in their own salons. Some have ceased using oxidative dyes altogether, and work exclusively with henna and other plant dyes. Ancient Sunrise® offers free resources and training, as well as a discount to salons and stylists who use our products in their work.

Lisa Marchesi-Hunter offers Ancient Sunrise® plant dye services in her salon in Sedona, Arizona. She and her client have given permission for the use of this image.

              PPD sensitization occurs at high rates in the cosmetology industry because stylists expose themselves to hair dye regularly [13]. Many develop such severe reactions that they are no longer able to work as stylists. Henna for hair offers a unique opportunity for stylists who have been sensitized to PPD to continue doing what they love without the risk of allergic reaction. By training stylists in the use of plant dyes, not only will salons be able to offer new services to maintain and build their clientele, but they will be able to employ talented individuals who might otherwise have been forced to find new work.

              Stylists have a special and unique relationship with their clients. They connect at a personal level, working with both the client’s appearance and emotions. The clients see them as friends, and also trust their knowledge of hair and beauty. Studies have been done on the use of salons and barbershops as venues for discussing other health issues, such as cardiovascular disease and prostate cancer [14, 15]. It is not absurd, then, to imagine that stylists can have discussions with their clients about switching from oxidative dyes to plant-based dyes, if the client is concerned about sensitization. Now, many doctors who are familiar with the benefits of henna recommend it to their patients who have hair dye allergies. However many of these patients have a hard time finding good products and solid information, and stylists who are willing to help them apply it. It will be of great benefit for more stylists to explore and embrace natural dyes.

4. Henna for Hair Will Require Education and A Shift in Culture

The world of beauty is fast-paced, and constantly innovating. Both professionals and customers are quick to pick up on new styles, products, and techniques. Social media helps to spread new trends quickly. While only a few years ago many people would have never heard of the terms, balayage, or ombré, these are now highly sought-after styles, illustrated by thousands of images on the internet and social media sites. Special communities share and discuss techniques for a variety of hair textures and needs. The same is happening now for henna, and must continue into the mainstream, if hair dye companies wish to be successful in selling henna, indigo, and cassia plant dye powders.

              This is because the process of dyeing hair with plant dye powders cannot easily fit into a small pamphlet that accompanies a product. The current model of the store-bought hair dye market sets the company as the “expert” of knowledge that is seemingly too complicated for the average customer. The company is trusted to “know what is best” for the consumer, so the consumer can simply buy a product and apply it without question. With henna, a company cannot sell a secret formula; it must provide individually packaged, pure plant powders, along with the correct resources to help the consumer learn how to use them. It is the difference between selling a can of soup, and selling the raw ingredients and a solid recipe.

              Henna for hair communities encourage consumers to take knowledge into their own hands. These customers want to know what they are putting on their bodies, and exactly how to create their desired look. They want to know not only how to do it, but how it works and why it works. This new model replaces the instructional pamphlet with active learning and interpersonal interactions. Henna users use resources and each other to perfect their techniques. Passive consumption is replaced with educated consumers making active decisions based on the information they share and seek out.

              Where henna was originally used, women spent entire days together at public bathhouses where they would gather to clean themselves, relax, chat, and henna their hair. These techniques were passed from person to person, and from mother to child. Now, as people bathe and groom alone, the internet takes the place as the 21st century bathhouse.

              If training is made available to stylists, either through elective additional programs, or within the cosmetology curriculum, stylists can then become trusted experts and ambassadors for plant dyes.  This will require that the outdated misconceptions about henna be replaced with up-to-date information. This information is already freely available through Ancient Sunrise®. We have recently designed a training program which can visit salons interested in using the brand, educating stylists on the science and technique over the course of a few days. This program is adaptable to the size and needs of each individual business. The price is dependent on instructors’ time, materials, and travel costs.

Gwyn presents to a salon company in Italy. Photo credit: Maria Moore

              As the more salons begin to offer natural, safe alternatives to PPD-based hair dyes, others will follow suit in order to compete in this new market. It is very likely that, if done correctly, plant-based hair dyeing will become commonplace in the hair styling industry. One day, the use of oxidative hair dyes may be an old-fashioned, backward practice.

5. Mainstreaming Henna Will Require a Reliable Source of High-Quality Product

If henna is to replace PPD dyes in the western market, there will need to be enough product to meet demands. Ideally, henna for hair should be regulated to ensure quality, consistency, and safety. The product should have to meet a standard for sift quality, as well as a standard for maximum allowable pesticides, added dyes, mineral content, and other chemical adulterants (ideally, this maximum should be close to zero). Quality regulation is essential because the reputation of henna has already been tainted by decades of bad product. Stylists and consumers must trust that these products are safe, that they will not damage their hair, and that they will not interact with other products in destructive ways. Pure henna can be lightened with chemical lightening agents. It can be dyed over with oxidative dyes. Adulterated henna products cannot.

              Meeting a high demand for quality product will require the existence of enough farms and milling facilities that operate within the expected standards. Henna is grown in semi-arid climates. Countries such as India, Iran, Yemen, Sudan, and Morocco have grown and produced henna. Currently, the majority of exported henna comes from the Rajasthan area of India. Political, economic, and agricultural factors have caused many countries to decrease production and cease exporting henna. A growth in demand from the western market could greatly boost the agricultural economy of those nations interested in growing and exporting henna.

              Henna is a hardy, drought-tolerant crop which does not require pesticides to thrive. The life of a henna shrub is about fifty years. Because only the leaves are harvested, the crop remains in the soil year after year. The plant’s dense, twisting root system prevents soil erosion. Henna is an ideal crop to grow in the southern boundary Sahel desert in Africa, where it can add to the “green wall” project preventing desert spread. As this region has ideal conditions for henna crops, it can present a great economic opportunity for those who live and work there. Building the henna industry there will require working with locals to establish farms and mills, and maintaining quality standards.

              Currently, there are no regulations on products labeled “henna” coming into the United States. Much of the henna powder currently sold for hair is poorly sifted, stale, low dye-content henna, with large plant particulates, sand, and other debris. This makes the henna difficult to apply and rinse cleanly. Hair is left tangled and with poor color results. As stated before, many products contain additional chemical adulterants.

              Henna is permitted by the FDA only as a hair dye, and not for use on skin. It will be beneficial to legalize pure henna plant powder for all uses and to set up regulations based on lab testing. This way, the United States can ensure that the product entering the country is free of harmful adulterants, and that only products that meet these standards can be sold as henna. These standards should include panels for heavy metals, metallic salts, minerals, and pesticides. Additional testing can regulate sift quality.  Legalization and regulation will lead to safer products and wider availability.

A henna plant and its root system.

Final Notes

PPD sensitization is rising at a rate that will soon make the current hair dye industry unsustainable. A transition from oxidative hair dyes to pure plant dyes within the mainstream market is definitely possible, but it will require earnest effort on the part of those companies which seek to make it happen.

              Hair dye companies will have to completely un-learn their previous ideas of what a hair dye is, and what their consumer expects a hair dye to be. They must engage with stylists and consumers to educate them on products and techniques which are far different from what is commonly used today. They must take the time to establish farms and facilities which are capable of putting out high-quality product.

              Doing so will allow for more people to dye their hair safely and with beautiful, damage-free results. It will provide alternatives for both consumers and stylists who are sensitized to PPD. It will increase opportunities for economic development in those regions suitable for growing henna, and protect those regions from desert spread. It will prevent future allergies and injuries. Switching to henna is a common-sense, feasible solution, but one that must be executed with the utmost deliberation.


[1] Ashraf, Waseem, Shiela Dawling, and Lew J. Farrow. “Systemic paraphenylenediamine (PPD) poisoning: a case report and review.” Human & experimental toxicology 13, no. 3 (1994): 167-170.

[2] Kligman, Albert M. “The identification of contact allergens by human assay: III. The maximization test: A procedure for screening and rating contact sensitizers.” Journal of Investigative Dermatology 47, no. 5 (1966): 393-409.

[3] Mukkanna, Krishna Sumanth, Natalie M. Stone, and John R. Ingram. “Para-phenylenediamine allergy: current perspectives on diagnosis and management.” Journal of asthma and allergy 10 (2017): 9

[4] McCally, A. W., A. G. Farmer, and E. C. Loomis. “Corneal ulceration following use of Lash-Lure.” Journal of the American Medical Association 101, no. 20 (1933): 1560-1561.

[5] Brancaccio, Ronald R., Lance H. Brown, Young Tae Chang, Joshua P. Fogelman, Erick A. Mafong, and David E. Cohen. “Identification and quantification of para-phenylenediamine in a temporary black henna tattoo.” American Journal of Contact Dermatitis 13, no. 1 (2002): 15-18.

[6] Smith, Vanessa M., Sheila M. Clark, and Mark Wilkinson. “Allergic contact dermatitis in children: trends in allergens, 10 years on. A retrospective study of 500 children tested between 2005 and 2014 in one UK centre.” Contact dermatitis 74, no. 1 (2016): 37-43.

[7] McFadden, John P., Ian R. White, Peter J. Frosch, Heidi Sosted, Jenne D. Johansen, and Torkil Menne. “Allergy to hair dye.” (2007): 220-220.

[8] Wilbert, Martin I. “Cosmetics as Drugs: A Review of Some of the Reported Harmful Effects of the Ordinary Constituents of Widely Used Cosmetics.” Public Health Reports (1896-1970) (1915): 3059-3066.

[9] Nohynek, Gerhard J., Rolf Fautz, Florence Benech-Kieffer, and Herve Toutain. “Toxicity and human health risk of hair dyes.” Food and Chemical Toxicology 42, no. 4 (2004): 517-543.

[10] DermNet, N. Z. “Allergy to Paraphenylenediamine.” (2005).

[11]Ahn, Hyung Jin, and Won‐Soo Lee. “An ultrastuctural study of hair fiber damage and restoration following treatment with permanent hair dye.” International journal of dermatology 41, no. 2 (2002): 88-92.

[12] Sinclair, Rodney D. “Healthy hair: what is it?.” In Journal of investigative dermatology symposium proceedings, vol. 12, no. 2, pp. 2-5. Elsevier, 2007.

[13]Lind, Marie-Louise, Anders Boman, Jan Sollenberg, Stina Johnsson, Gunnel Hagelthorn, and Birgitta Meding. “Occupational dermal exposure to permanent hair dyes among hairdressers.” Annals of occupational hygiene 49, no. 6 (2005): 473-480.

[14] Releford, Bill J., Stanley K. Frencher Jr, Antronette K. Yancey, and Keith Norris. “Cardiovascular disease control through barbershops: design of a nationwide outreach program.” Journal of the National Medical Association 102, no. 4 (2010): 336.

[15] Luque, John S., Siddhartha Roy, Yelena N. Tarasenko, Levi Ross, Jarrett Johnson, and Clement K. Gwede. “Feasibility study of engaging barbershops for prostate cancer education in rural African-American communities.” Journal of Cancer Education 30, no. 4 (2015): 623-628.

Gender, Race, and Class in Hair Styling Spaces: Constructing Individual and Group Identities

A dive into hair space identities.



[Image 1]

Hair is complex. As a physical attribute of nearly every human, it is not only an object but an idea: a symbol of the self.  As many sociologists note, hair is the most easily manipulated aspect of personal appearance, yet it must always be controlled, or managed in some way [1]-[4]. Hair grows whether or not we want it to. It grays and thins. Its texture and shape defies our wishes. Hair provides information on gender, age, social status, race, and even religion. Anthony Synnott writes, “Hair is perhaps our more powerful symbol of individual and group identity—powerful first because it is physical and therefore extremely personal, and second because, although personal, it is also public rather than private” [1]. When we do our hair, we are saying something about ourselves. Even if we leave it untamed and unwashed, shave it all off, or cover it, we are still signifying our identity and our relationship with society. As Helene M. Lawson notes in “Working on Hair,” “Within each culture styles may be used as symbols of power, signs of rebellion, or to emulate those who have more prestige” [4].

              Hair carries the weight of gender, class, and race. Women are told that short hair would make them look “manly” or “lesbian” [5]. The opposite occurs for men who grow their hair long. Many white-collar workers see their hair as an investment in their professional success [6], [7]. African textured hair is especially political, and has a long and complicated history. When a person chooses to wear their hair in a way that falls outside of their social group’s norm, it is often interpreted as rebelling against the ideologies of that group.

 [Image 2] Hair carries messages of identity and social group.

              Because hair is so intrinsically bound in identity, the act of “doing hair” is ritualized. It is a social act that holds the weight of individual and cultural significance. Hair salons and barbershops become cultural centers, where identity is negotiated and created. The acts of choosing a hairdresser, communicating a desired look, and trusting the skill and physical touch of the hairdresser, create a unique relationship. Beyond the physical act of “doing hair,” hairstylists also function as emotional laborers, taking on the role of confidants, therapists or even role models (For examples, see [8]-[11]). Because each person wishes to look a certain way, be treated a certain way, and be among people with whom they share common interests, a person’s choice of salon or barbershop sheds light on their “desired self.”

              This article explores hair salons and barbershops as cultural spaces where identity is communicated, negotiated, affirmed, and shaped. Salons and barbershops have historically been divided sharply along the lines of gender, race, and class. These spaces work to confirm a person’s identity within social constructs. Black barbershops have been well-studied as spaces in which black men engage in cultural exchange, and guide young men [10], [11], [12]. Barbershops as a whole have been almost exclusively masculine places where masculinity is affirmed and femininity is scrutinized [4], [6]. Beauty salons, especially higher-end ones, are predominately feminized spaces, but see a growing number of male clientele. As Kristen Barber noted in “The Well-Coiffed Man,” male clients of hair salons enjoy the pampering and personal attention they receive in hair salons, yet attempt to re-frame their motivations to affirm their masculinity [6]. Men who work as hairdressers in the feminized space of hair salons also have ways to negotiate their masculine identities [13], [14].

              Spaces where hair is “done” are full of complex cultural transactions. They are places where ideas about cultural identity are spread, where personal identities are affirmed, and where desired identities are constructed. This article focuses on the relationships within grooming spaces and how clients shape and affirm their identities with the help of their stylists.

 [Image 3] Doing hair is a social act.

Writer’s Note

              I write this from the perspective of a researcher, studying the works of sociologists, ethnographers, and other academics. I am an Asian-American woman who grew up having her hair cut in the kitchen by her mother, then later at unisex chain salons which focused on efficiency and customer turnover. I’ve been to salons only a handful of times, and preferred to sit quietly while having my hair done. Thus, I did not establish a meaningful relationship with my stylists. The locations I visited catered to a predominately white, suburban population. I have no experience in male barbershop environments. My personal experiences may be a benefit, as I have little bias; I examine these spaces with emotional distance. However, there is always the possibility of unintentionally “othering” or making sweeping generalizations due to my lack of such experience. Therefore, I approach these topics with the awareness that the spaces I plan to write about are both unfamiliar and complex. I rely on the reportage of others, with the trust that their methods are sound and their conclusions justified.

              This article is based on my readings of academic works, many of which involve both observation and the authors’ personal reflections. Those who wrote about black barbershops were themselves black men, and detailed their own experiences with barbershops [10], [11]. Other works focused on collections and analyses of interviews, or quantitative data. In these works, stylists and clientele were interviewed and/or observed in spaces that varied in location and demographic.

              Any social space is made up of individuals, and the individuals set the tone of the space [10]. Therefore, each salon and barbershop has its own unique qualities. There will be spaces which do not fit the description of those observed in these studies. It is impossible to observe every hair styling space in existence; as with all research, some generalizations are necessary. My goal is to synthesize the ideas made across numerous works to shed light on a larger picture, without confusing generalizations for individual truths.

 [Image 4]

Hair and Identity Construction

Hair and Identity Construction

For the sake of ease, I will refer to hair salons, beauty parlors, barbershops, and similar locations as “shops,” and those who work in them as “stylists,” unless it is important to make a distinction between specific types of spaces and workers.

              In these shops, clients enlist the skills of stylists to help them achieve a hair style which matches their identity and/or their desired self. This requires communication and negotiation. Because stylists depend financially on a steady stream of clientele, and because clients have the freedom to choose a stylist, it is important that there is a feeling of understanding between the two. Clients often visit the same stylist once they find one that suits them. A client’s choice is influenced by many factors, not limited to the location of the shop, the price of the service, and the physical environment. Most important is the feeling that the shop and the stylist match the client’s idea of him or herself, and the trust that the stylist will effectively create their desired image.

              Elements such as the name of the shop, the colors and décor used in the interior, and the images of people and hairstyles displayed, speak to the social identity of those who patron it. Some barbershops described in the studies had deer heads mounted on the walls, sports playing on the TVs, or “dirty magazines” hidden in a drawer [4].  The walls in Black spaces might display images of African American leaders, and styles specific to textured hair [10]. High-end salons choose softer colors and comfortable furniture. Even the reading material in waiting areas vary from space to space.

              Emotional aspect of the stylist/client relationship must not be underestimated. Most stylists believe that the level to which their clients feel cared for is just as important, if not more, than the service itself. Stylists believe that making a client feel good about themselves is an important part of their work [6], [9], [10]. They must show they care not only about making the client look their best, but about the client’s personal lives as well. Stylists become confidants and informal therapists. This is not surprising, as grooming is an intensely communal behavior. A bond of trust is formed that allows the stylist to touch a client, work on the client with sharp tools, and talk to the client as if they are friends [6], [8], [9], [11]. Because of this, clients feel comfortable divulging personal information to their stylists. This relationship is more than a transaction of goods or services. A person most likely does not share such intimacy with their mechanic or accountant.

              Many sociologists comment on the intimacy that comes with personal touch [6], [8], [9]. Fields such as nursing, physical therapy, and massage show similar patterns in emotional labor. Through touch and talk, the stylist affirms and helps to construct the client’s identity. However, the client and stylist may interpret this talk differently. Some stylists admit that they view emotional labor as simply part of their job. There is an understanding that clients who feel cared for will return, and therefore such behavior is simply necessary for good business. Others find great satisfaction in this aspect of their work, and see working on hair as only a means through which they positively influence others [7], [9], [10].

              The feeling of care and community can extend beyond the one-on-one relationship between client and stylist to the space as a whole. When a shop is seen as a place for open cultural exchange, groups of clients and stylists engage in discourse and identity affirmation as part of the expected ritual. For children and young people, these spaces play a role in the enculturation into their social groups [4], [10], [11].

Black Barbershops

Black Barbershops as Cultural Spaces

              In the case of Black barbershops and beauty parlors, the role of a grooming space as a communal center is intensified. Barbershops are places where men exchange ideas and information, and pass knowledge to younger men. They have been described as second only to the church as a space for cultural exchange [11], [12]. The act of cutting and styling hair comes second to the act of community, as men use a barbershop as a gathering place whether or not they are receiving services. While topics can range from sports, to history, to goings-on in the community, the discourse serves to strengthen the participants’ identities as members of the community, as men, and as African-Americans.

              Black barbershops have a rich history in the civil rights movement and in the growth of the Black community. Hairdressing was one of the first professions available to Black people after emancipation. Initially, Black barbers served exclusively white clientele. While hairdressing was at the time viewed as a servile vocation, it allowed Black men an avenue of entrepreneurship and financial success. As times changed and clientele shifted, Black barbers took on roles of leadership in their communities, and used their revenue to fund community projects [10], [11], [15], [16]. They employed family members and members of the community, and provided a space where people, especially Black men, could gather to discuss important topics.

[Image 5]

              The influence of these spaces have been recognized to such a degree that many studies have been conducted on using barbershops and beauty parlors to disseminate information on health issues [10]. Barbers are often respected role-models who see themselves as responsible for teaching and supporting young men. They are “trusted and respected information sources” [10]. The barbers and older clients ask young men how they are doing in school, and what their plans are for the future. They teach them how to talk to each other, and how to show deference to their elders. One client in Shabazz’s study said,

“I learned how to rap in the barbershop because you got to be sharp or they will take your head off, man. The young people don’t have no other spot where can be themselves. Men look out for men and we teach each other what’s real. I used to take my son with me all the time so he could soak up the knowledge. You can’t get that kind of love anywhere else”  [10]

In this context, “rap” means to discuss or debate. The client notes that the barbershop teaches young men how to respectfully engage in discourse, and that the space is one in which men can be supported and mentored. Young men feel supported and affirmed in their identities as men and as Black people by learning and engaging in cultural practices. Black barbershops also preserve and teach the history of African Americans. The shop in Shabazz’s study was decorated with African American icons such as Martin Luther King Jr. and Barack Obama. The young men learn about aspects of Black history that aren’t taught in their schools. The Black barbershop is “a site where the cultural and racial familiarity of Back male bodies is acknowledged as meaningful” [11]. 

              The kinds of information exchanged in barbershops vary with the environment. Other studies argue that Black barbershops teach sexism and misogyny when sexist language is used in the presence of young boys [17]. However, this is unlikely to be true of all Black barbershops, nor is it limited to only Black barbershops. As stated earlier, hair styling spaces have been distinctly gendered spaces, regardless of race. In such spaces, there is an idea of “men’s talk” and “women’s talk.” This talk does not necessarily have to be sexist or exclusionary; members of their gender group simply feel at ease being able to openly discuss certain topics without the presence of the other gender. This talk affirms the members’ group identity as men or women. The section on Hair and Gender will explore this further.

[Image 6]

Hair and Class

Hair and Class

Appearance is an important component of middle-class ideals. Those whose work depends on developing personal relationships with partners and clients believe that their appearance is an investment. At the same time, they often express the need for a style that is easy to manage, citing their busy lifestyle. They do not wish for styles that are too outlandish, as their work environments call for appearances that are clean and fashionable, but that do not draw excess attention.

              Professional middle-class men interviewed in “The Well-Coiffed Man” expressed the desire for a “stylish” haircut, rather than the “old-fashioned” cuts they equated with barbershops. Equally important is their belief that the female stylists in salons treated them with more care and personal attention, whereas barbershops were places where men talked about “sports and sex” [6]. This suggests that these men felt that their professional, personal, and social identities were better served at salons, despite their perception that they were feminized spaces. Their disdain for the style and environment associated with barbershops suggest that they view barbershops as lower-class. As professionals, they saw their time at the salons as one of the only times they had for themselves, when they could relax, be cared for, and pampered. They also believed that the women who cut and styled their hair were more knowledgeable and skilled. These qualities justified the extra money they spent in comparison to going to a barbershop or unisex chain shop. The men believed that the time and money were necessary investments for their professional relationships, and well-deserved respite from their demanding lives. In contrast, a male client at a barbershop interviewed in Lawson’s “Working on Hair” stated, “I go to a barber to be neat and combed and presentable, not as an asset for attracting women or making money, like yuppies” [4]

[Image 7]

              Middle-class professional women tend to prefer simple, “classy” cuts that are easy to manage [7]. They view “big, flashy” hairstyles and unnatural colors as lower-class, and inappropriate for their professional environments.Overall, there is an idea about what kind of hair is “appropriate” for a person’s identity and environment, and deviance from what is appropriate can be interpreted as anything from tacky to dangerous.

              Debra Gimlin noted in “Pamela’s Place: Power and Negotiation in the Hair Salon” that there can be class tensions even within a hair styling space, when stylists with lower-class statuses work with higher-class clientele. Stylists wish to see themselves as experts of the beauty world, and want their clients to accept their advice on what they believe is a fashionable or the “right way” to wear hair in accordance to beauty culture. However, the clients’ ideas of appropriateness for their social class may not necessarily match. Stylists must choose to either assert their power as hair professionals, or defer to the desires of their customers. Some reported feeling that they had to sacrifice their professional opinions for the sake of giving the client what they wanted, even if they felt that the client’s choice style was unflattering. Gimlin believed that these stylists saw beauty standards as universal, and on a scale from “bad” to “good,” while their upper-middle class clients’ style choices were grounded in their social group, and were concerned with “appropriateness.” While a certain style might be beautiful for a celebrity on a magazine, it was not appropriate for their lifestyles as middle-aged professionals and mothers [6].

 [Image 8]

Hair and Gender

Hair and Gender

Traditionally, western hairstyles for men and women are set in opposition to one another, as femininity and masculinity have been viewed as binaries. Women’s hair is longer, and styled more elaborately. Trends change often. A great deal of emphasis is put on optimizing youth and femininity, and disguising age. Men’s hair has changed considerably less during the past century; it is kept short, and less time is spent on daily styling. Men’s hairstyles have changed only more recently, influenced by the longer styles of the 1960s and 70s, the advent of the “metrosexual,” appearance-conscious man, and growing challenges to traditional masculine norms.

              While men traditionally visited barbershops through the 1900s, several events such as the growth of white-collar jobs, and technological advances in hair care caused barbershops to fall in popularity [4], [18]. Barbering focused on the use of tools such as the straight razor and electric clipper to groom men’s head and facial hair. The invention of the safety razor led more men to shave at home. The entrance of women into the workforce introduced both more women hairdressers, and more women who visited those same hairdressers. Cosmetology embodied not only cutting, but dyeing, perming, conditioning, blow-drying, and so-forth. Salons and female hairdressers readily accepted the advances in technology while most barbershops did not, which contributed to their decline. By the 1970s, men’s hairstyles grew longer, requiring less cutting. “Once the uniform style for all men, the short back and sides  became the preserve of older men and signified conservatism,” note Brookes and Smith, “The aging barber workforce found it difficult to accept the development of a youth culture with an emphasis on new styles that blurred the boundaries between masculine and feminine appearance” [18].

[Image 9]

              While barbershops exist today, there are much fewer than there were a century ago. They are more often frequented by men who still desire the simple “short back and sides” cut. These spaces represent a resistance to time, as their technology and services have remained largely unchanged. They are almost exclusively men’s spaces catering to traditional ideals of men’s hair and men’s talk. In Lawson’s survey of barbershops, which varied in location and social class,

“All seventeen barbers said they disliked and would not style long hair, even if it was on men. They linked long hair to femininity and homosexuality, and bonded with clients about mutually articulating their dislike of ‘f*gs’” [4].

When asked about topics of conversation, one barber said, “We talk about business, what’s going on with companies in the area, whose business is in trouble, if they are selling it and so on. We discuss money and deal, guy stuff.” Many expressed discomfort about the idea of women entering the shop, though it was rare, because women also saw it as a men’s space. In Barber’s “The Well-Coiffed Man,” middle class professional men visited salons instead of barbers. “The men position themselves as ‘classy’ by comparing ‘salon talk’ to barbershop talk and by describing the barbershop as a place for the expression of working-class masculinity in which men talk about ‘beer and p*ssy,’ sports and cars” [6].

              While the stereotype about barbershops as overly-masculinized, misogynistic spaces may not be true in all cases, it seems that both the people who work at or frequent barbershops, and those who do not, have a concept of what the space is, and position their identities accordingly. Barbershop clients affirm their version of masculinity, while male salon clients reject it for a “classier” masculine ideal. Despite seeing themselves above the hegemonic masculine culture, male clients at salons dealt with their own internal conflict in affirming their masculinity. They acknowledged that salons were feminized spaces, and expressed wishes for televisions showing sports, and GQ or Esquire magazines in addition to the women’s magazine in the waiting area. (Note the target demographic for those magazines is very different from Guns and Ammo, or Ebony. These men are positioning themselves as both middle-class and white) [6].

              These men also noted that the female stylist’s touch was a more pleasurable experience than a barber’s, and that they would not enjoy having their hair washed and scalps massaged the same way if they were at a barber. This can be interpreted as an implicitly homophobic feeling that enjoying a woman’s touch is acceptable, but enjoying another man’s touch is not. Note that the men who go to barbers affirm their masculinity by having their hair done by fellow men, but the men who go to salons would prefer to be styled by a woman because a male stylist might challenge the client’s sense of masculinity.  Touch is intimate, but it can be interpreted as pleasurable and therapeutic, as an indicator of trust and community, or as a purely necessary component of having one’s hair cut, the intimacy ignored or repressed.

              Despite cosmetology’s stereotype as women’s work, more men are entering the field. They often see advantages due to their gender. Even in feminized spaces, men are viewed as being more knowledgeable and skillful [4], [13], [18]. The most popular and successful stylists are men. It seems that because they are men in feminized spaces, people interpret them as unique, and therefore gifted or more serious in their work. Many women express preference for a male stylist. Similar to the men who enjoy the touch and care of their female stylists, women feel their femininity and beauty is affirmed by a handsome man who flirts and jokes with them, and who makes them feel beautiful.

              The men who work in salons face their own needs to simultaneously fit into a feminized culture, yet affirm their masculinity to themselves and their peers. They acknowledge that they take on a certain personality when at work, acting more feminine or “campy,” as some put it, and say that they enjoy the company of their female coworkers and clients [13]. In many ways, they reject hegemonic masculinity. However, they make it a point to show that they engage in traditionally masculine activities such as fixing their cars when outside of the salon. Some heterosexual male stylists said they are often mistaken as homosexual when people learn of their profession, and expressed annoyance or frustration about this [13]. Therefore, these men continue to reflect society’s ideas of hair styling as primarily women’s work, and find ways to affirm their concepts of masculinity and heterosexuality within and outside of salons.

 [Image 10] Manly men doing manly man things.

              Because hair styling spaces are intensely embedded with messages of gender, class, and race, they become locations of enculturation for the children who are present. The physical enviroment as well as gendered talk affect the children’s ideas of group identity. In “Working on Hair,” a six-year-old boy accompanying his mother at a hair salon called the male stylist a “barber,” explaining,

“He is a barber because he is a man and he cuts hair. I think it would be fun to be a barber when I grow up, but I would only like to cut men’s hair because I do not want to touch girls. No girls get their hair cut where my dad takes me” [4].

Another boy from the same study said, “the barbershop is the best place for boys to be.” One girl said of her mother’s salon, “I learn girl stuff. I want a Braun [butane-fired] hot comb for Christmas. I want my hair dyed blonde when my mom says I’m old enough” [4].

              In contrast, these spaces can also work to shift children’s gender ideas away from the traditional norm. One boy said of the salon he was in,

“My mom says she has taken me here since I was three years old. I have never been to a barber. I like the way Frank cuts my hair. My mom and dad say barbers do not cut hair as good. Frank cuts my dad’s and brother’s hair too” [4].

Clearly, the spaces that parents choose affect their children’s view. Some are taught that only barbers can cut men’s hair, while others are taught that they do not provide an appropriate style. The relationships that the children have with their family’s stylists begin at a young age.

 [Image 11]

              In “Fading, Twisting, Weaving,” Bryant Keith Alexander reminisced on his childhood experience visiting the neighborhood barber. He and his brothers dreaded it because the barber knew that their father wanted close, nearly clean-shaven cuts for all of them despite however much they begged for “just a little off the top.” His father had set down expectations of appearance for them. He later describes his experiences visiting both the men’s and women’s sides of another shop; the barbershop for when he kept his hair short, and the salon when he had his hair in locs. He noted that as a Black gay man, he stood somewhere in between, as the nature of talk on either side both welcomed and excluded him. The men’s talk of the barbershop affirmed traditional masculinity, and the women talked about men, and the struggles of being a wife and mother. Both sides were “marked by heterosexual discourse” [11]. As with other reports of men in feminized spaces, he felt welcomed by the women, but wondered if this welcoming was a sign of being seen as an “honorary woman,” a de-masculinized man.

Client Stylist Relationships and Conclusion

Client and Stylist Relationships

Stylists are very aware of the emotional aspect of their work. While some see it as a burden, most find satisfaction in it. As noted in the studies of Black barbershops, stylists often see themselves in an influential role, and willingly take on the part.

              In “Look Good, Feel Better,” the authors refer to workers who provide beauty services as “beauty therapists” [9]. This category is not limited to hair dressing alone, and can include those who provide massages, facials, manicures, waxing, and so forth. The beauty therapists in the study drew parallels between their work and the work of healthcare professionals; they did not see themselves as simply providing beauty services, but rather doing work that helped to alleviate stress and to increase self-esteem. The clients’ emotions were an integral part of the work. The beauty therapists defined their occupation in terms of work with both feelings and the body, and referred to their services (hair styling, manicures, massage, etc) as “treatments.” In contrast to the stylists in “Pamela’s Place,” the beauty therapists in “Look Good, Feel Better,” did not see themselves as part of the industry that placed unobtainable standards of beauty on women. They did not believe that they pushed those standards on their clients. They saw their service as a way to help women become happier with themselves through beauty work, thus affirming the clients in their identities.

[Image 12] Touch creates intimacy and fosters community.

              Despite the emotional component of working with bodies, stylists receive little to no formal training in emotional labor, and it is often seen as a “natural” part of being a woman, rather than a professional skill. Even the beauty therapists in “Look Good, Feel Better” saw it as something a person simply had a knack for, or a skill developed over time. Because the process and products of emotional labor are not tangible, and because it has long been an assumed part of certain industries– especially those dominated by women, it is too often overlooked as a real component that demands skill and affects a business’s success. Recently, more and more people in fields that deal with customers’ emotions are demanding that this component of their work be recognized officially in job descriptions, training, and fair pay. Emotional labor is being recognized as actual work rather than an expected trait of female workers.

              In a hair styling space, the effect of the stylist/client relationship on the client’s identity is two-fold: First, the stylist provides a service that helps the client achieve an outward appearance that agrees with their identity. Second, the stylist and client establish a relationship that is focused on the client’s emotional needs and affirms their feelings about themselves. While the relationship can be emotionally intimate, it is focused on the client. There is no requirement for the client to reciprocate identity-affirming talk to the stylist. Whether or not this connection is genuine on the part of the stylist does not seem to have an effect, as long as the client feels it is genuine. Even if the client is aware that emotional labor is part of the stylist’s job, even a transient illusion of being cared for is often enough. This goes back to the intimate and communal nature of touch and talk. For example, a woman may enjoy the touch and playful flirting from a male stylist whom she knows to be homosexual;  even though she is aware that he is not sexually attracted to her, she still enjoys the feeling of attention from a man.

              The topics of discussion do not necessarily have to be deeply personal. Men in barbershops would most likely deny any therapy-like talk. However, discussing common interests such as sports, business, and cars works to affirm the men’s ideas of themselves, and forms a community of shared masculinity. These are spaces in which “men can be men,” or “women can be women,” suggesting that gendered spaces offer a unique respite from daily interactions with the other gender. This can be positive and identity-confirming, or, as described earlier, can be seen as implicit indoctrination into societal norms.

 [Image 13]


A person chooses their hairstyle based on their ideas of their personal identity, and of their identity within social groups. As hair is a very public indicator of identity, people are aware that their hair transmits messages about themselves to those around them. The act of doing hair is deeply personal and ritualistic, as it involves groups of people engaging in touch and talk. Through this intimate relationship, a client and stylist communicate, negotiate, construct, and affirm the client’s identity.

              Hair styling spaces are centers of cultural discourse, where members of the same social groups validate each other and share information. They engage in talk that affirms their group identities. Oftentimes, this talk compares the group with other groups seen to be opposite. In masculine spaces, members discuss sports, money, sex, and other topics that affirm traditional masculinity. In middle-class and upper-middle-class spaces, clients express their needs to be seen as professional and stylish, but not “tacky,” or “old-fashioned.” In Black spaces, older members of the community instill knowledge and encouragement to younger members, teaching them what it means to be Black men or women. For children, hair styling spaces become part of their process of enculturation, influencing their ideas of gender, class, and race at a young age.

              Clients use their stylists as confidants and informal therapists, often divulging deeply personal information. Emotional labor is seen as a natural part of beauty work, and stylists acknowledge that the success of their business relies not only on the quality of their services but also the personal connection. For some stylists, these relationships are genuine and contribute to their sense of satisfaction. For others, it is a source of stress.

               Hair, identity, and social grooming are such complex phenomena that this article barely skims the surface. Future articles will explore individual components, such as: the politics of hair in times of social change; hair rituals marking transitions and rites of passage; and race and ideal beauty. Stay tuned for more explorations into the individual, social, and symbolic nature of hair.



[1] Synnott, Anthony. “Shame and glory: A sociology of hair.” The British journal of sociology 38, no. 3 (1987): 381-413.

[2] Hallpike, Christopher R. “Social hair.” Man 4, no. 2 (1969): 256-264.

[3] Leach, Edmund Ronald. “Magical hair.” The Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland 88, no. 2 (1958): 147-164.

[4] Lawson, Helene M. “Working on hair.” Qualitative Sociology 22, no. 3 (1999): 235-257.

[5] Hirschman, Elizabeth C. “Hair as attribute, hair as symbol, hair as self.” GCB-‐Gender and Consumer (2002).

[6] Barber, Kristen. “The well-coiffed man: Class, race, and heterosexual masculinity in the hair salon.” Gender & Society 22, no. 4 (2008): 455-476.

[7] Gimlin, Debra. “Pamela’s place: Power and negotiation in the hair salon.” Gender & Society 10, no. 5 (1996): 505-526.

[8] Toerien, Merran, and Celia Kitzinger. “Emotional labour in action: Navigating multiple involvements in the beauty salon.” Sociology 41, no. 4 (2007): 645-662.

[9] Sharma, Ursula, and Paula Black. “Look good, feel better: beauty therapy as emotional labour.” Sociology 35, no. 4 (2001): 913-931.

[10] Shabazz, David L. “Barbershops as cultural forums for African American males.” Journal of Black Studies 47, no. 4 (2016): 295-312.

[11] Alexander, Bryant Keith. “Fading, twisting, and weaving: An interpretive ethnography of the Black barbershop as cultural space.” Qualitative Inquiry 9, no. 1 (2003): 105-128.

[12] Marberry, Craig. Cuttin’up: Wit and wisdom from black barber shops. Doubleday Books, 2005.

[13]Robinson, Victoria, Alexandra Hall, and Jenny Hockey. “Masculinities, sexualities, and the limits of subversion: Being a man in hairdressing.” Men and masculinities 14, no. 1 (2011): 31-50.

[14] Ahmed, SM Faizan. “Making beautiful: Male workers in beauty parlors.” Men and Masculinities 9, no. 2 (2006): 168-185.

[15] Mills, Quincy T. ““I’ve Got Something to Say”: The Public Square, Public Discourse, and the Barbershop.” Radical History Review 2005, no. 93 (2005): 192-199.

[16] Harris-Lacewell, Melissa, and Quincy T. Mills. “Truth and soul: Black talk in the barbershop.” Barbershops, Bibles, and BET (2004): 162-302.

[17] Franklin, Clyde W. “The Black male urban barbershop as a sex-role socialization setting.” Sex Roles 12, no. 9-10 (1985): 965-979.

[18] Brookes, Barbara, and Catherine Smith. “Technology and gender: barbers and hairdressers in New Zealand, 1900–1970.” History and Technology 25, no. 4 (2009): 365-386.


[Image 1] Left: Original photograph of African-American siblings from family album in Philadelphia area, est. mid 1920s, USA, private collection of Catherine Cartwright-Jones PhD image collection

Right: Original postcard, “Won’t Mama Be Pleased!” 1920s, USA, private collection of Catherine Cartwright-Jones PhD

[Image 2] © 2008 Alex Morgan for TAAB conference, Shrewsbury, UK,   from photograph of young Japanese woman with lacquered, styled, hair, 1920s.

[Image 3] © 2008 Alex Morgan for TAAB conference, Shrewsbury, UK, from photograph by Lehnert & Landrok, North Africa, 1904 – 1914

[Image 4] Photographic postcard, Belgian, early 20th c., private collection Catherine Cartwright-Jones PhD

[Image 5] Original studio photograph of African-American man, 1920’s, from family album in Philadelphia area, private collection of Catherine Cartwright-Jones PhD

[Image 6] Original studio photograph of African-American man in zoot suit, 1940s, private collection of Catherine Cartwright-Jones PhD

[Image 7] © 2008 Alex Morgan for TAAB conference, Shrewsbury, UK, from original photograph of a woman in Pittsburgh, PA, wearing male clothing, 1940s.

[Image 8] Danderine advertisement from magazine, 1920s, USA, private collection of Catherine Cartwright-Jones PhD

[Image 9] © 2008 Alex Morgan for TAAB conference, Shrewsbury, UK, from studio photograph of two young men, Boston area, USA, 1920s.

[Image 10] Informal snapshot of men’s bodybuilding competition, 1970s USA, private collection of Catherine Cartwright-Jones PhD

[Image 11] Postcard of cat cartoons by Eugen Hartung, 1950s, published by Alfred Mainzer Inc., private collection of Catherine Cartwright-Jones PhD

[Image 12] V34189, “A Beauty Parlor in the Island of Zanzibar, Africa. The Swahil Women Take Great Pains with Their Hair.” Stereoscope card by Keystone View Company, early 20th ,  private collection of Catherine Cartwright-Jones PhD

[Image 13] Postcard, early 20th century, “I’m almost ready,” private collection of Catherine Cartwright-Jones PhD

Henna on Fingertips, Feet, and Nails: Cosmetic and Practical Applications (Part Two)

How To Henna Fingertips, Nails, and Feet

Part One of this two-part series explored the use of applying henna on fingertips, nails, and feet. Henna was used both as a cosmetic and as a way to heal and protect skin, nails, and hair.

To read Part One, click here.

This section will describe how to use henna paste to decorate and strengthen fingertips, nails, and feet.

Note for US Residents:

The color additive “henna” is approved by the FDA solely for the use of “hair dye” (see, 21 CFR 73.2190); it may not be used for dyeing the “eyelashes,” “eyebrows,” nor the “eye area” for cosmetic product applications. Neither is it approved for cosmetic “skin tattoo” purposes. To use a color additive in any cosmetic product application for which it is not listed for regulation renders it “adulterated” and/or “misbranded.” (see section 601(a) and/or 601(e), and/or 602(e) of the FD&C Act)
Here are the US FDA regulations for the use of henna for the purpose of body art. These regulations have the force of law:
If you live outside of the US, this does not apply to you.

Always make sure you are using only 100% Body Art Quality (BAQ) henna whether it is on the hair or skin.

How to Apply Henna to Fingertips

Save this for a time when you don’t need your hands. I do this before bed, and sleep with wrapped fingertips.

            Henna on smaller areas of the body is easily done with a rolled mylar cone filled with henna. If you are unfamiliar with how to roll and fill cones, click here to learn.

Set Up

You will need:

  • A cone of henna for outlining. (Or you can use medical tape. See below.)
  • A small bowl or shot glass with about 1T henna. (You can just squeeze out the rest of your cone after outlining.)
  • A small brush
  • Toilet paper or other soft paper
  • Tape


Start with clean hands that do not have lotion or oils on them.

            Use the cone to draw an outline. You may need a friend to help if you wish to do both hands.

            Alternatively, you can wrap a strip of medical tape around each finger. The result will be a nice, crisp line. You will want to choose a waterproof tape with a straight edge (some have a zig-zag edge).


Fill in the skin from the line or the edge of the tape, to the tips of your fingers. I prefer to apply in layers, allowing each layer to dry. This prevents having fingers covered in a thick layer of wet paste that will take forever to dry.


Wait until the paste is dry enough to touch without lifting any away. A hair dryer can help speed up the process. Wrap tissue or toilet paper around each finger, securing with tape.

            If you like, you can pull on a pair of stretchy fabric gloves. The warmth will deepen the stain, and the gloves keep the wraps from slipping off.


            To remove, unwrap your fingertips and gently scrape the paste away with a wooden craft stick or the blunt side of a butter knife. A stiff nail brush helps to remove extra bits. Try to avoid water for the first few hours while the stain settles and oxidizes.

            The stain will deepen over 24-48 hours. To expedite the process and darken the result, gently heat or steam your hands.

On the left, the fresh stain is bright orange. On the right, the stain has oxidized to a deep burgundy after 48 hours.

How to Apply Henna to Fingernails and/or Toenails

If you would like to stain only your nails rather than your fingertips the process is similar, and simpler.

            You can do this either with a cone or a clean, small brush. A recycled nail polish brush would work nicely. Trim and shape your nails as you prefer.

Using a Cone

Squeeze the cone gently and fill over the nail using back and forth motions.  It works well to apply a thinner layer, then apply a second layer as the first dries. As the paste dries,  it darkens and flattens. You will be able to see where you would like to add more paste.


Using a Brush

Henna tends to slip over the surface of the nail, so it is helpful to use dabbing motions rather than treating it the way you would nail polish. Let the first layer set, and then go back in to fill any areas that are thin.


You can either choose to wrap your fingertips similarly as described above, or allow the paste to fully dry on the nails. Damp paste will continue to stain the skin, leading to darker results. If you let the paste dry, keep it on for as long as possible (several hours is good) before gently scraping it away.

            Again, the result will be brighter at first, and deepen over the next couple of days. You can reapply to deepen the color, and apply as necessary as your nails grow. I find that doing this weekly keeps my nails a deep red hue. My nails grow longer and chip less when I maintain hennaed nails.

            Henna will stain the nail permanently, so if you choose to stop applying henna to your nails, a good way to hide half-hennaed nails is to paint them over with polish until the stained portion grows and is clipped away.


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Hennaed nails are a deep red. This color fades very little over time.

How to Apply Henna to Feet

You will definitely want to do this on a particularly lazy day, or in the evening before bed. You might want to have a friend to help you. I am a pretty flexible person and have found that hennaing one’s own feet is possible, but requires awkward positions.

            Start with clean, scrubbed feet. Henna will help the feet shed excess callus and dry skin, but if you’d like your stain to last for a long time, it is a good idea to scrub off anything that is on the verge of shedding already.


Feet can be hennaed in many styles. Hennaed feet have varied by culture and time period. Some people prefer to apply only to the soles. Some apply to the balls of the feet and the toes.  Once you have decided on your henna-feet style, use a cone to draw an outline along the tops and sides of your feet. I prefer a full slipper.

            A helpful trick for keeping it symmetrical: Put on a pair of flats and use an aquarellable pencil to trace outlines on your feet along the edge of your shoes.

You can also use medical tape to create a clean outline. Just apply the paste right over the edge of the tape.


Using the brush or craft stick, apply the henna paste evenly all over your feet. Make sure to apply henna between and under each toe. The paste will want to squish from between your toes while it is wet. Keep reapplying in layers.

            Let each layer dry, then apply again until the paste is opaque and even.  You can use a hair dryer to set each layer before beginning a new one.

            I’ve found that this works better than applying one thick coat. The first layer helps the second layer stick better, and it all dries much faster. If you slather on one super thick layer and try to dry it, the surface will dry but seal in underneath. Once you wrap your feet and get up, all that wet paste squishes out and slides around. Walking around with squishy paste against your feet is really weird.

If you do apply a thick layer, expect to wait a while for it to dry. Put your feet up in the sun, enjoy a beverage, take a nap…


Once your final layer is dry to the touch, use toilet paper to wrap your feet like you are a mummy. Be generous. The layers closest to your feet will get damp and rip. You’ll want several layers over everything, especially the balls and heels of your feet, where you put most of your weight. Use some tape to hold it in place if necessary.

            Then, wrap your feet in plastic. Plastic wrap works well enough. So does a grocery bag. Secure with tape. Finally, pull on a pair of socks and you are ready to walk around!

            Again, I prefer to do this at night and sleep through the processing time. I’ve found that my feet are too fat to fit into any shoes once they are hennaed and wrapped.

Here, just the balls of the feet and toes were hennaed and wrapped.


In the morning (or after as many hours as you can stand), unwrap your feet and gently scrape the paste off with a wooden craft stick or the blunt edge of a butter knife. I prefer to do this either outside or sitting on the edge of the tub with my feet in the tub (paste bits are rinsed down the drain for easy cleanup). Use a stiff brush to clear the remaining flakes, and do a quick wipe with a clean, damp towel.

Getting Fancy

            Want to add some complexity to your hennaed fingertips and feet? Take a look at all of the free pattern books available at The Henna Page. You can even add gems, glitter, shimmering powders, and more.

These feet were hennaed and decorated in multiple steps. Toes and details were hennaed, left for several hours, and allowed to deepen with oxidation. Applying henna and removing after a short period of time created the bright orange stain. Finally, gilding and jewels were added.

Oscar Wilde’s Hair and Skin: Investigations into His PPD Sensitization and Use of Henna

Oscar Wilde, famous novelist, poet, and playwright, lived a short and scandalous life during the turn of the 20th century, from 1854 to 1900. He is believed to be one of the first famous people to have had an allergy to para-phenylenediamine (PPD) from hair dye. His personal accounts and those from his friends and biographers leave no doubt that Wilde was prematurely gray, and that he used hair dye to cover his increasingly white hair. A study of paintings and drawings done of Wilde suggest that he may have tried henna products, as well.

              Oscar Wilde is known for works such as “The Picture of Dorian Gray,” “A House of Pomegranates,” and “The Importance of Being Earnest.” Having died at the young age of 46, he was in his lifetime no doubt prolific. He once wrote a play entirely in French, which, according to scholars, showed barely any trace of having been written by a non-native speaker. [2]

              However, during his lifetime, Wilde’s accomplishment as a writer was overshadowed by his notorious propensity for eating, drinking, and “sexual inversion” [1]. He was put to trial multiple times under the crime of homosexuality, and eventually imprisoned for two years from 1895 to 1897.

              At the time of his death, the cause was believed to be neurosyphilis, exacerbated by his gluttony and alcoholism. His reputation made such a diagnosis more than plausible. However, more recent medical professionals believed that the cause of his death was more likely to be a chronic ear infection which eventually spread to the brain. [1]

              Besides the worsening illness that eventually took his life, Wilde also suffered from a recurring rash that itched intensely and spread over his face, arms, back, and chest. This rash could not have been due to syphilis; syphilitic rashes do not itch. Wilde himself attributed it to some bad mussels he once ate. However the rash would disappear and reappear periodically for the rest of his life. The description of the rash was not consistent with an allergy to mussels. Scholars and medical professionals believe that this rash was more likely caused by a sensitization to para-phenylenediamine from the dye he used to mask his prematurely graying hair. [3] [4]

A younger Wilde, at age 28. (Keep the “favourite coat” part in mind for later.)

“Oscar Wilde in his favourite coat.” New York, 1882. Picture taken by Napoleon Sarony. Source:

Oscar Wilde’s Gray Hair: A Story in Letters, Photos, and Portraits

Photography during Wilde’s lifetime provides little help in determining the exact color of Wilde’s hair during his youth, the time when it began to gray, nor the exact shade to which he dyed it. Wilde himself was not likely to discuss his use of hair-dye, as he was exceptionally vain and was a lover of youth and beauty. For most of his life, his friends were largely unaware that he was graying, and he probably preferred it that way.

              In order to pull together some information about Wilde’s hair, one can turn to written documents from Wilde’s close friends, and to the portraits painted of him.

              In a letter written by Wilde’s friend, Robert Ross, to friend and biographer Frank Harris, Ross writes of Wilde’s hair during the month preceding his death.

               Ross wrote, “I noticed for the first time that his hair was slightly tinged with grey. I had always remarked that his hair had never altered its colour while he was in Reading; it retained its soft brown tone. You must remember the jests he used to make about it, he always amused the warders by saying that his hair was perfectly white.”

              Frank Harris responded, “I noticed at Reading that his hair was getting grey in front and at the sides; but when we met later, the grey had disappeared.” [4]

              During the decline of his health, Wilde likely had trouble keeping up with dyeing his hair. This would have led to Ross’ remark. Reading Gaol (pronounced “Redding Jail”) was the prison in which he served most of his time. From the friends’ accounts, one could deduce that Wilde had some access to hair dye while in Reading, but maybe not as regularly, allowing Harris to witness Wilde’s gray from root growth or perhaps fading dye.

              Information about Oscar Wilde’s changing hair color can also be gleaned from comparisons between paintings of Wilde in his early years and those of him from just prior to the time of his death. In the portrait below, done of Wilde when he was 27 years old, he has deep brown hair. In the photos, his hair also appears to be rather dark, perhaps a medium to dark brown.

“Robert Goodloe Harper Pennington, “Portrait of Oscar Wilde.” 1881.


The photograph below, taken in 1882, would have shown Wilde at age 28. Again, it seems his hair is rather dark, and that Wilde was rather vain. It cannot be precisely determined when Wilde began to gray, and when he began to dye his hair, but there is a clear difference between the brunette tones seen in his early life and the bright, orange and blonde tones seen later.

“Oscar Wilde by Napoleon Sarony, with hat and cape, 1882” Source:

While Ross described Wilde’s hair as “soft brown” during his time in Reading Gaol, the following paintings show his hair to be a blonde to light copper color. It must be taken into account that artists are afforded their creative freedom in choosing color; however, it is interesting to note that both the portrait of Oscar Wilde by Toulous Lautrec and the works by Ricard Opisso show him with light hair.

              The painting below is Lautrec’s portrait of Wilde, done in 1895 during the time of Wilde’s trial prior to his imprisonment. It is reported that Lautrec wanted Wilde to sit for the painting, but that this was done from memory.

Henri de Toulous-Lautrec, “Portrait of Oscar Wilde.” 1895


              Variations of this painting exist. It is possible that Lautrec himself painted or printed multiple versions, or that the color of the image was altered in other ways. Here is another version of the same portrait, and a section from the painting’s original sketch. Notice that even in the sketch, Wilde’s hair is not shaded in, but left light.

Sources: (left)


              Ricard Opisso, Catalan artist and cartoonist, also drew and painted Oscar Wilde around the same time, often showing him with Lautrec in the cafes and dance halls where they spent much of their time.

Ricard Opisso, “Oscar Wilde” 1880.


Oscar Wilde sits next to painter Toulouse Lautrec at a cafe. His hair in this painting is a deep yellow.

“Interior de cafè amb Toulouse Lautrec i Oscar Wilde” by Ricard Opisso. Not dated.

Source: Pinterest, saved from

Here, The viewer sees Wilde to the left of Lautrec. His hair is an orange tone.

Ricard Opisso, title and date unknown. Source:

              The two latter images above are not dated, but it can be assumed that Opisso created them around the same time as the first. They take place in Paris, where Wilde spent most of his time from 1880 to the end of his life, save for his stint in prison. Opisso himself was from Spain, and was only documented to have visited Paris, not to have spent any length of his time living there. Note that all of Oppiso’s images of Wilde show him with light copper or blond hair.

Did Oscar Wilde Use Henna, and If So, Why?

              While there is no doubt that Oscar Wilde was prematurely gray and that he used hair dye to mask the fact, only guesses can be made about the kinds of hair dyes he used. A brunette during his younger life, he no doubt wished to maintain a similar hair color when he first began to gray.

              Hair dyes available during the late 19th century had very little regulation. PPD was initially introduced as a fur dye in 1883, patented by a man from Paris, named P. Monnet et Cie. By the 1890s, it was adopted by hair stylists across the western world. The first commercially available PPD hair dye was produced in 1910, a decade after Wilde’s death. This means that if he had dyed his hair with a product containing PPD, it was either at a salon or with a dye labeled for use on fur. The latter is not a ridiculous thought, as products have always been used for purposes outside of their labels. Many early hair dyes were marketed for both hair and for fur. Wilde owned many articles of clothing made of fur. He would have purchased such products to maintain them, and could have used the rest on his own hair.

This is an advertisement for a hair and fur dye from 1885. A “sealskin sacque” was a popular style of jacket with a fur collar. Wilde has been photographed and painted in such a coat.

              Regulation of products containing PPD did not begin until 1938, in the United States. Oscar Wilde lived in the UK and France several decades before that. The products Wilde used most likely contained a high level of PPD, and possibly metallic salts and other additives. The location of his rash would make sense as a reaction to PPD; dye can easily get on the face, chest, back, and arms if a person is applying it at home.

              Henna for hair was available in western countries at this time as well. Proper techniques for mixing and applying henna were not yet known to those in western countries. The quality of the products would have been low, as well. Henna was advertised as an exotic product from far-off lands, which was greatly appealing to the people of that era. Women with red hair were seen as alluring. Most of the dancers and sex workers in Paris hennaed their hair to make themselves more beautiful and noticeable.

              Lautrec himself was fascinated with women with hennaed hair. He painted them frequently. These women appear in his paintings with red, tangerine, and yellow hair similar to the colors of Wilde’s hair in Lautrec’s and Oppiso’s depictions of him. Lautrec spent much of his time with prostitutes and dancers who hennaed their hair. As Wilde and Lautrec were close friends, Wilde would have known them as well.

 Notice that all of the women’s hair are shades of red. 

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, “In the Salon of Rue des Moulins.”1894.


              A woman named Jane Avril was a friend and muse to Lautrec, and a can-can dancer at the Moulin Rouge. There is no doubt that Jane Avril used henna. Lautrec painted her often for both portraits and posters. Her hair appears in shades from yellow to red, as well. Comparing Lautrec’s color choices for Avril’s hair, which was definitely hennaed, and Wilde’s, one can see that it is very likely that Wilde also used henna.

In this poster of Jane Avril, her hair is golden.

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, “Jane Avril.” 1899. Source:

Lautrec paints himself sitting among his friends. At the center, Jane Avril’s bright orange hair grabs the viewer’s attention.

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, “At the  Moulin Rouge” 1892/95.


              Henna for hair products were not much better than conventional dyes at the time. The products that were sold to the western world contained low quality henna and a myriad of additives. Techniques for henna mixing and application were also lacking. Henna mixed with boiling water produced a light, brassy result which faded. This could be a possible explanation for both Avril’s and Wilde’s variations in hair color.

              If Wilde had a PPD sensitization, there is no indication that he made the connection between his rashes and his hair dye. Very little research had been done on PPD sensitization and the dangers of hair dye at the time. The early research and warnings came about in the early 1900s, after Wilde’s death. Wilde would not have thought, “It must be the PPD in the hair dye. I should try something else.” Nor would a doctor have recommended him to do so. It is unlikely that he chose henna as a safer alternative. Henna at the time contained metallic salts and possibly PPD.

Examples of early henna for hair products. These would have been from the early half of the 1900s They often contained low quality, stale, chunky henna, other ingredients.

              At any rate, Wilde thought little of doctors and their attempts to convince him to eat and drink less, and to exercise more. Wilde’s love of food and drink came before his concern for his personal health. Wilde equally loved youth and beauty. Because accounts show that his rash continued on and off until his death, it is more likely that Wilde continued to dye his hair, perhaps switching between conventional dyes and henna-based ones.

              Additionally, there is no record of Wilde stating that he felt the rashes may have been from hair dye. Instead, he continued to think that the initial rash came from consuming bad mussels, and then popped up every so often after he indulged too much. “I’m alright, Frank,” He told his friend, “but the rash continually comes back, a ghostly visitant. It generally returns after a good dinner, a sort of aftermath of champagne.” [1]

              This sort of reaction is not consistent with an allergy to mussels or seafood, unless the “good dinner” that preceded the rash always contained mussels. He did not say “It generally returns every time I eat more mussels.”

              More likely is that Wilde experienced a delayed hypersensitivity reaction to PPD. Reactions to PPD do not always occur immediately after exposure. Medical professionals stress the importance of doing a delayed read of patch tests at 96 hours for this reason [3]. If Wilde expected to go out to enjoy a dinner or part with company, he might have dyed his hair the day before to ensure that his friends would not see any gray roots. By the day or two after the dinner, his rash would be present.

How Far Did the Allergy Go?

While his death is now believed to be the result of a chronic ear infection, some hypothesize that this could have been an extension of his allergy to PPD.  While in prison, Wilde one day felt ill and fainted, and his ear bled. He reported that his ear continued to bleed and discharge afterwards. The condition worsened, causing partial deafness.  He eventually had an operation performed by a doctor in his hotel room in Paris shortly before his death. Details are not known about the exact nature of this operation.

              PPD can cause severe blistering and weeping sores on the skin. It is not impossible to think that if Wilde had managed to get hair dye into his ear earlier on, that is could have caused a reaction that continued to worsen, growing into an infection and collection of pus in the inner ear. The inside of the ear is a difficult place to clean, and as it is warm and damp, is an ideal place for infection to grow. Having blisters and weeping sores would have made the skin inside the ear particularly vulnerable to bacteria.

Final Notes

Because of the lack of medical records, Wilde’s unlikeliness to discuss personal health and grooming, and the inadequacy of medical knowledge during this time, it is impossible to determine for sure the cause of Wilde’s skin condition. However, there is enough evidence to believe that it was contact dermatitis caused by sensitivity to para-phenylenediamine in hair dye.

              While it would have been wonderful to say, “Oscar Wilde knew the dangers of conventional hair dye and chose henna as a safe alternative,” there is simply no evidence behind this statement, and it would not fit into the facts of PPD knowledge and available henna products of the time. If he did use henna, it was simply because it was there. Henna for hair products at the end of the 19th century were not much safer, nor was the knowledge of proper mixing and application available in the west.

              All that can be done is to piece together information from photography, art, letters, and accounts written by Wilde’s close associates. Having done this, the conclusion to be drawn is the following: Oscar Wilde definitely had premature gray hair; he definitely dyed his hair; he very likely had a PPD allergy; and he probably used henna, although not to replace PPD-based dyes.

              Wilde, now loved for his writing and known for his flamboyant and rule-breaking ways, can be considered one of the first celebrities to become sensitized to para-phenylenediamine, and can tentatively hold a place in the hall of “hennaed divas.”


[1] Cawthorne, Terence. “The last illness of Oscar Wilde.” (1959): 123-127.

[2] Critchley, Macdonald. “OSCAR WILDE A MEDICAL APPRECIATION.” Medical history 1, no. 3 (1957): 199.

[3] Jacob, Sharon E., and Alina Goldenberg. “Allergic.”

[4] Nater, J. P. “Oscar Wilde’s skin disease: allergic contact dermatitis?.” Contact dermatitis 27, no. 1 (1992): 47-49.

Henna on Fingertips, Feet and Nails: Cosmetic and Practical Applications (Part One)

If you are familiar with using Ancient Sunrise® Henna for Hair, you will already know about the wonderful benefits of using henna. Hennaed hair is stronger, smoother, shinier, and has lasting color. Because of its many beneficial properties, henna (lawsonia inermis) has been used not only on the hair but on many parts of the body for various purposes since possibly as early as 1700 BCE.

            Lawsonia inermis grows naturally in hot, semi-arid climates. Regions include Northern Africa, the Arabian Peninsula, and the Indian Subcontinent. Wherever it grew, the people of those regions found a use for it. It was likely discovered when livestock grazed on henna plants and herders noticed the red coloring around the animals’ mouths. If the herders inspected the animals’ mouths for wounds, thinking the dye was blood, they would have noticed that their hands had become stained as well.

            Henna has been used for both cosmetic purposes as well as practical applications. Its ability to stain keratin and condition the hair led to its use in grooming and beautifying practices for both women and men. Its additional health benefits made it useful for combating a number of skin conditions, as well as being visually appealing.

Cosmetic Applications

Henna is now more commonly known for its use in body art, such as the elaborate designs that cover the hands and feet of brides. Henna stands are popular at fairs, festivals, and in areas of tourism. Traditionally, henna is used to decorate the skin with patterns for religious and cultural celebrations, and simply for adornment. Apart from its use to create delicate, intricate designs, henna was also applied as a solid, even color on areas such as fingertips and feet for both beauty and practicality.

            Dancers and musicians hennaed their fingertips to bring more attention to the movement of their hands. A henna “slipper” on the feet was common in many cultures. Using henna for cosmetic applications was once as commonplace as using makeup or nail polish. In many cases, not applying henna would be something akin to not brushing one’s teeth; failing to do so would make a person seem dirty and neglectful of their personal hygiene.

Physical and Spiritual Cleanliness

Henna stains darkest on hands, feet, and hair.

Because henna was applied after washing, it indicated cleanliness, and therefore purity. This is especially the case with women. If a person’s hands, feet, and/or hair was freshly hennaed, one could assume that they had recently been to the public bath.

            It was assumed that illness was linked to the Evil Eye, and that henna repelled it. A freshly washed and hennaed body was both physically and spiritually clean. It was believed that the Evil Eye was particularly attracted to the bodily fluids of women. A woman was considered dirty and susceptible to the Evil Eye while during her period, after intercourse, and during childbirth; afterward, she washed and hennaed herself. Fresh henna stains showed that she was again clean and pure. In the case of a household with multiple wives, fresh henna marked the women with whom it was safe for the husband to interact.

A mother feeds her newborn. Her hands and feet are adorned with henna patterns. Her wet-nurse has brightly hennaed hands, feet, and hair.

“The Amah Feeds the Newborn” Detail from Life in The Country: The Nomad Encampment of Layla’s Tribe, Tabriz, 1539 – 43, Cambridge, Harvard University Art Museum 1958.75

Practical Applications

Remedies which included henna as an ingredient have been discovered in historical texts such as the Ebers Papyrus that date back to thousands of years ago.

            The Ebers Papyrus is a text from Ancient Egypt containing hundreds of detailed descriptions of remedies, pharmacopoeia, and formulas gathered and cataloged from numerous sources. It dates back to around 1550 BCE. Many of these remedies included henna as an ingredient. Of those, most common  were topical applications for hair and skin ailments.

            Modern day scientific studies have found that using henna as a remedy is more than an old wives’ tale.  Studies have shown the effectiveness of henna, and/or solutions derived from henna and its compounds, to be effective in anti-fungal, anti-microbial, anti-inflammatory, and even anti-cancer uses.  It has been found to expedite wound healing, and also to act as an analgesic against pain. Lawsone also provides natural UV protection to hair and skin. This protection lasts even after the stain has faded from the skin. This bodes well for future pharmaceutical innovations. Allergy to henna is extremely rare, and the spread of knowledge about practical applications for henna would keep henna agriculture sustainable.

            In addition to the above properties, the simple binding of the lawsone molecule strengthens keratin, reinforcing and conditioning the area to which it is applied.  This makes it extremely useful for protecting and conditioning hands, feet, and hair.

When henna paste is applied, the dye migrates into the surface layers of the stratum corneum. As it oxidizes, the stain darkens. The surface layers of skin are shed over time, and the lower layers grow to replace them.

Strengthening Skin and Lessening Pain

Henna’s dye molecule, lawsone, binds firmly to keratin, allowing it to stain skin, nails, and hair. When it does so, it adds reinforcement.

            When henna is applied to skin, the treated areas feel thicker, stronger, and less susceptible to pain. While it strengthened and protected skin, henna also helped to soften and shed excess rough skin and callus, keeping the skin smooth and attractive. Dancers hennaed their feet to make them more attractive and to keep their feet from blistering, cracking, and hurting after long hours of performing. Musicians did so as well, to protect their fingers as they played. Women who worked with their hands hennaed their fingertips for the same reason.

            It is likely that the pain receptors under the skin become somewhat dulled by the addition of lawsone. One study found that people with hennaed fingertips rated the pain of a needle prick lower in comparison to those without hennaed fingertips. This is helpful knowledge for those who prick their fingers to perform regular blood sugar testing.

Henna protects a musician’s fingertips.

A Lady Playing the Tanpura, Rajasthan, Kishangarh, ca. 1735, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Fletcher Fund, 1996 (1996,100.1) Indian Court Painting, 16th – 19th C

Anti-Fungal and Anti-Microbial Properties

Besides its capacity to bind to and stain keratin, henna was and still is used for its anti-fungal and antimicrobial qualities. Historically, it has been used to treat ailments such as athlete’s foot, diaper rash, and wounds. (Note: Do not apply henna to young children unless you are absolutely certain that they do not have a hereditary G6PD deficiency).

            Ringworm, athlete’s foot, and related skin fungus conditions seem to be eradicated with one or two good applications of henna. Dandruff, often caused by fungus, is lessened after a person uses henna on the hair. Henna is safe to use on animals to treat fungal infections.

1. Athlete’s foot (tinea pedis) blistering began at the yellow dot and spread as far as the orange dots.

2. Henna is thickly applied to the affected area and left for two hours. Itching ceased almost immediately upon application.

3. As the stain darkened, the infected area peeled away.

4. After several days and an additional application, the infected area had shed and new healthy skin grew in its place.

Wound Healing Properties

Henna speeds wound healing and decreases inflammation. Wounds appear to heal more quickly when henna is applied; however, if an open wound is stained with henna, the stain may become permanent when new skin grows over top. A weaker henna paste mixed with oil could be used on open wounds for minimal staining.

             In Saudi Arabia, henna is a recommended remedy for diabetic foot ailments, as it lessened pain and inflammation from diabetic neuropathy, and helped lesions heal quickly while deterring infection.

 It is rare to see art depicting men with hennaed feet. This man may have had diabetic neuropathy, or just tired feet.

Detail: “Nighttime in a Palace” (1539 – 43, Iran), folio from a manuscript, attributed to Mir Sayyid ‘Ali (Persian, 16th century), Arthur M. Sackler

Henna on the Fingertips and Nails

Henna can protect weak nails against chipping, breaking, and flaking. While skin regularly sheds its outer layers, causing a henna stain to fade after a couple of weeks, henna fades very little on nails. It remains there until the stained part has grown and is clipped away. If the nails have a fungus infection, henna would eradicate it.

Henna on nails and henna on fingertips. A fully oxidized stain on skin is a deep maroon brown.

            Using henna to stain fingernails dates back to ancient times, and has been practiced in many regions and cultures. In Ancient Egypt, henna was commonly used to stain fingernails, and it was even considered impolite to have unhennaed nails. Mummies have been discovered with bright orange hair and nails, likely due to the used of henna in preparing the body for burial.

The sarcophagus of the chantress Asru has darkened nails.  Circa 750 BCE.

            In Islamic and Orthodox Jewish cultures, it is important to keep clean for prayer. Use of conventional nail polish is not allowed because the coating prevents water from touching the surface of the nail. Hennaed nails are acceptable because henna stains the nail without coating it.

            A lower concentration of lawsone is also found in the leaves and flowers of garden balsam, a species of impatiens. In Korea, young girls crush the plant into a paste and apply it to their fingertips for a light orange stain.

From the St. Pancras Pattern Book by Catherine Cartwright-Jones

Henna on Feet

Henna keeps feet clean, protected, and conditioned. It is used to rid one of athlete’s foot and similar fungal ailments that affect the feet. Henna aids in the softening and shedding of calloused skin, leaving feet smooth and soft.

            Variations of the henna slipper can be seen in artwork and photographs from various cultures across time. This was done across the whole sole of the foot and toes, or just from the ball of the foot to the toes. A solid slipper was common for most; additional elaborate designs decorated the feet of brides, new mothers, and the upper class.

An illustration of Persian women’s fashion shows hennaed feet. From a book printed in Paris, France, late 19th century.

From the Spain Pattern Book by Alex Morgan, and the St. Pancras Pattern Book By Catherine Cartwright-Jones

This article is the first part of a two-part series. This section discusses the history and science behind the use of henna on various areas of the body. Part Two demonstrates how these techniques are done.


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Pradhan, Rohan, Prasad Dandawate, Alok Vyas, Subhash Padhye, Bernhard Biersack, Rainer Schobert, Aamir Ahmad, and Fazlul H Sarkar. “From body art to anticancer activities: perspectives on medicinal properties of henna.” Current drug targets 13, no. 14 (2012): 1777-1798.

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