Shaved heads and perfume cones: a history of shampoo

March 21, 2018

Shaved heads and perfume cones: a history of shampoo

Thousands of years ago, there were all sorts of views on how to wash and take care of hair. Without running water and hot showers, personal hygiene wouldn't have been a top priority! So what did people use before we had shampoo?

Perfume Cone

Shaved heads and perfume cones

As far as we know, people washed without soap and oiled up their hair to keep it looking shiny. To disguise body odor, it's been said that women would put cones of perfume on their heads to keep their hair aromatic. Not something we would personally enjoy… but hey, you've got to work with what you've got, right?

In Ancient China, Cedrela, a fragrant wooded plant, was used to wash hair. In Egypt, their method of washing hair was just… don’t. Instead they shaved it off to avoid head lice! They did wear wigs though, which were frequently washed using citrus juice. The citric acid in the juice dissolved the oils in the wigs and closed the follicle. After washing, they would use almond oil as a conditioner.

The Greeks and Romans used olive oil to condition their hair and keep it soft, and vinegar rinses to keep it clean and to lighten the color.

Fast forward to the Middle Ages baths were still a lot of work -- they were even considered unhealthy, so people rarely took them. Instead of baths, women were advised to mix burnt barley bread, salt and bear fat (yes, bear fat!) together and put that on their hair. Apparently it made your hair grow faster?

And for those who wanted thicker hair, they made a tea with goat milk or water, elm bark, willow root and reed root and used that to wash their hair. Other hair-washing methods included vinegar, rosemary water, nettles, mint, thyme and several other herbs.

During the Renaissance period women in Italy washed their hair with lye soap, then used bacon fat and licorice to condition their hair.

It's safe to say, women of the past tried a lot of methods to get beautiful luscious hair!

Breck Shampoo

The invention of shampoo

Commercially made shampoo was available from the turn of the 20th century. A 1914 advertisement for Canthrox Shampoo in American Magazine showed young women at camp washing their hair with Canthrox in a lake.

In 1927, liquid shampoo was invented by German inventor Hans Schwarzkopf in Berlin, whose name created a shampoo brand sold in Europe.

In 1930, Dr. John H. Breck founded Breck Shampoo. It was because of his clever advertising campaign that commercial shampoo began to be used as  the  hair-washing product, and by the 1950s his shampoo was available nearly everywhere.

Breck ran ads in  Woman’s Home CompanionSeventeenHarper’s Bazaar, Glamour, and even  Vogue, under the slogan 'every woman is different', claiming to create a personalized shampoo that would result in beautiful hair, every single time.

He sold three types of shampoo: for dry hair, for oily hair and for normal hair, which were color coded for easy identification.

The 'every woman is different' campaign remained popular until the 1970s, creating a cultural expectation of frequent hair-washing. Other companies quickly caught on, and the hair-care industry was created. We’ve been using commercial shampoo ever since.

Natural hair-care

Full circle

Ironically, the hair-care shift is heading back to what once was. While we are no longer using bear fat as a conditioner (thank goodness!), natural hair-care is a booming billion dollar industry, leaving traditional chemical based products in its wake in terms of sales growth.

Gregg Renfrew, founder of  Beautycounter has this to say 'natural and safer brands are outselling their traditional competitors by two to threefold'.

Late last year, the research firm Kline & Company reached a similar conclusion, predicting that the synthetic cosmetics sector will decline in the next two years, while the natural skin care segment will grow. The firm has found 'naturals have grown by 7% in the U.S., compared to a 2% rise in the overall beauty market.'

Tata Harper goes further. 'People often think that natural means simple or untested, but natural ingredients are actually some of the most powerful ingredients in the world', she says via email. 'Synthetic ingredients are, in many cases, cheaper, more predictable versions of natural ingredients created in labs to simplify the manufacturing process.'

The verdict

As a natural hair-care company, we are excited about the global trend heading back to basics. We have become so accustomed to lathering harsh chemicals on our hair and bodies without questioning the effect it can have.

You could say we are bias, but our pioneering product, the inverse hair conditioning system harnesses the power of sub-zero temperatures to condition your hair -- you can't get much more natural than that!

Whether you use our products, or mix up your own concoctions at home, we are happy to see women embrace natural beauty.


History of things 

Fast Company

Kline Group


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