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Hair Care Through the Ages

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Have you wondered how people cared for their hair in the past? The modern liquid shampoo, as we know it, was only invented in 1927 and prior to this, people utilised several different methods to clean and treat their hair.

Natural, organic, and mostly plant-based ingredients were used due to their availability. Large-scale industrial production of hair care products only took place in the 20th century, so most of the washing, treating and conditioning happened at home with homemade ingredients derived from age-old recipes.

We look at 4 hair care treatments adopted across different cultures throughout history.


Indian women are known for their long, shiny and healthy hair so it is no surprise that hair care features prominently in their self-care rituals. The Charaka Samitha (the definitive book on Ayurvedic medicine) describes the importance of oiling the hair and scalp, to maintain good health and prevent hair loss. Daily oiling of the hair was recommended, with appropriate herbs infused to suit one’s constitution, and this practice continues today in Indian communities.

The Indian civilisation wasn’t the only one that was concerned with hair loss. In the Middle Ages, while hair care using animal parts existed, a traditional (and vegan) remedy for hair loss was a gel made of flaxseed and rosemary oil[1].



Perhaps the earliest forms of dry shampoo can be found in France in 17th and 18th Century, when powdered wigs were popular as natural hair was augmented with false pieces and heavily powdered. Hairstyles were prominent markers of class—the more elaborate they were, the more they signified high social standings[2]. Hair was rarely washed, and to maintain their styles, pomades were applied and then powders made of flour or starch to degrease. Hair powder was applied daily, leading to the creation of the “powder room” as we know it, where an attendant could help a nobleman or woman freshen up their hairdo. These powders were also scented with dried herbs like lavender, providing additional benefits to the scalp.


Hair Rinses

Even though soap is believed to have existed since 2800 BC, it was mainly used for laundry as opposed to the human body, as they were harsh and not pleasant-smelling. Instead, hair care came in the form of hair rinses, whether plain or perfumed with beneficial herbs and flowers. Ancient Javanese burnt dried stalks of rice and steeped the ashes in water overnight before using the liquid as a clarifying hair rinse. This was followed with coconut oil as conditioner[3]. In China, fermented rice water was used to strengthen and encourage hair growth. Both practices continue today – in methods virtually unchanged or through modern hair care products containing similar essences.



The word “shampoo” is derived from the Sanskrit word “champo” which means to knead or massage. The British colonists took to this hair care practice and like many aspects of Indian culture, was imported back to England where the practice of massaging the scalp with oil evolved into hairstylists using shavings of bar soaps in water to wash the hair and scalp. These early shampoos were rather harsh and only available in hair salons. Along came Hans Schwarzkopf, a German chemist and pharmacist, who first released a powder shampoo in 1903 to great success. Several years later in 1927, he invented the liquid shampoo and the rest, as they say, is history. 

The modern hair care market now consists of every product imaginable including updated versions of the methods we’ve described here. We are spoilt for choice, what would the ancients think of the innovations we have today?


[1] Sherrow, V. (2006). Encyclopedia of Hair: A Cultural History. London: Greenwood Press.
[3] Quinn, G. (2011). Washing your hair in Java. In K. v. Dijk, Cleanliness and Culture: Indonesian Histories (pp. 147-157). Leiden: KITLV Press.

Words by Lestari Hairul


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