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The fascinating history of shampoo and why we need it

Early civilizations of humans began to develop into a hierarchy of society as early as 5000 B.C.

Over the next thousand or so years the various cultural ranks of society arranged according to their place in agricultural or urban centers, each adopting its own set of principles for what was and was not acceptable in regards to personal hygiene.

People had no idea that hair soil was different than body soil…or any other kind of soil. However, after the induction of popular bathing houses meant to pamper people with upper-class amenities such as hairstyling, people began to pay more special attention to human tresses and ways to keep them both clean and pleasant-smelling.

The Attention to Ingredients and Clean Water

Until the Bronze Age of Europe people kept hair clean with the same soap used for skin and laundry, perfumes, and oils.

It was during the middle of this time, around 3000 B.C., that humans began to take real notice about personal grooming, a fact which separated them from other animals in the world. Ancient Egyptians were the first to market cosmetic products, including ones used for hair care.

Because of their close proximity to warm seas that produced natural sponges used to exfoliate skin, they took personal hygiene to a level the world had never known before. These early shampoo and conditioners had ingredients such as oil of lotus blossoms used to beautiful people with clean, shiny hair.

Archaeologists exploring ruins of Babylonian courts discovered entire areas outfitted with the means to provide clear, running water.

People were using animal fat and ashes to make soap in handcrafted jars of sunbaked clay. Bathers were still using sponges and pumice stones to scrape dirt and soil away from their skin, but now they were paying special attention to hair with use of cosmetic oils, lotions, and perfumes.

Because people couldn’t possibly achieve personal hygiene by using water that had silt, oils, and other debris, the Greeks took running water to new levels of cleanliness through the use of aqueducts.

Two Step Forward, One Steps Back

In an ironic twist of fate, the Middle Ages saw bathing houses earn a reputation for being a place of filth, as Pope Boniface forbade facilities that allowed the practice of unisex bathing.

Despite Judeo-Christian society placing purity of the soul and mind above purity of the body, public bathing houses continued to thrive in urban centers, only getting clean was no longer their primary purpose.

Once a place where the upper echelon of society went to be pampered in the trendiest styles of cosmetic fashion, bathing houses were now centers of ill-repute with activities that caused sexually-transmitted diseases. The religious leaders closed the bathing centers, an act that would not be rectified until the late 18th century.

Derived from the Hindustani word champo, the word shampoo dates back as far as the mid-1700s and originally used to describe a product used for head massages.

That’s right; it had very little to do with actually cleaning hair! Dean Mahomet, a Bengal native who traveled to London during service with the English East India Company, published a book called Travels that described the practice of a type of Indian therapeutic massage with hair oils to stimulate the scalp.

As a washer working in a London bath house, he implemented the traditional shampooing methods of his native country in conjunction with current vapor cleaning methods used by Englishman Basil Cochrane.

Eventually Mahomet would be sought out by royalty for his skill with hair and scalp massaging. However, it would be more than 60 years before people would associate shampoo with keeping hair clean.

The term shampoo was not associated with hair washing until 1860, according to an entry in the Online Etymology Dictionary, and within six years it was also used as a verb meaning to clean hair, human or otherwise.

However, long hair was in style for ladies, which made it difficult to keep clean, especially if one’s hair was thickly textured. This led chemists to continue experimenting with shampoo, until they had a formula that could clean even the thickest hair while leaving it shiny and fresh-smelling, to boot. And in 1898, Berlin perfumes-store owner and chemist Hans Schwarzkopf found a solution.

A Better Shampoo for Human Hair

Inspired by his personal dislike for expensive oils and harsh soaps that were being used at the time to wash human hair, Schwarzkopf developed a powder shampoo that, when mixed with water, created an efficient hair soap that was convenient and affordable.

However, its ingredients caused hair to appear dull, when people really wanted hair that was so clean that it shone. Even a 1908 article in the New York Times advised women on how to shampoo hair, stating, “Every woman likes to have her hair not only daintily and becomingly arranged, but soft and glossy in appearance and texture.”

It was around this time that Dr. John Breck introduced America to his company’s first shampoo product, which would in 1930 also introduce the first pH-balanced shampoo as well.

While Dr. Breck and his son Edward continued helping American women keep clean, shiny hair, Hans Schwarzkopf continued introducing Europe with liquid hair care products as well as hairdressing institutes that worked much like modern-day beauty schools.

Through the next several decades, shampoo would take the form of mousse and gel also.

Although shampoo didn’t get as much attention as skin care products early on, in today’s world it gets equal attention, with hypoallergenic versions that lack ingredients containing things like soy and gluten, and even specially designed shampoo for pets.