Ancient Hair Lighthening Techniques

Woman wearing an ancient Greek dress and hairstyle
Photo: Elena11/Shutterstock
Q: I read that women of ancient Rome lightened their hair with wood ash mixed with vinegar or ash and goat tallow (lye soap). Ancient Greeks did about the same thing. This sounds like a good non-chemical way to lighten my hair, but are there any potential unpleasant side-effects?
A: Well, I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but the processes the ancient Greeks and Romans used to lighten their hair were the earliest “chemical” processes in hair treatment.
Wood ash mixtures are alkaline and have been used for such purposes for centuries. In fact, the wood ash/tallow mixture of lye soap is a precursor of the modern preparations used in hairdressing. These mixtures usually worked by swelling the cuticle layer of the hair and allowing sun bleaching of the hair’s natural color.
Unless you are experienced in working with these substances, there are some seriously unpleasant side effects that could occur. Alkaline mixtures are caustic and can burn the skin – especially if you are sensitive to the substances.
There is also the fact that lye is a primary ingredient in hair relaxer and permanently breaks the chemical side bonds in the hair. If allowed to sit on the hair for too long, you can destroy the structural integrity of the hair and end up with hair that breaks at a touch. The tricky part of this is that “too long” varies with the individual. If your hair is already porous or fine in texture, it can process very quickly and become damaged much sooner than you expect.
The fact is that these “ancient” techniques are still chemical in nature, and it seems better to me to stick with modern chemical advances that have been carefully tested and carefully measured to assure timing and promote safe usage. Nonchemical processes are only going to provide you with a minimal effectiveness. This is specifically true if your goal is to lighten the hair. The results with “natural” products tend to be dependent on the hair’s responses to the substance and its texture, porosity and density.
If you want to get a gentle lightening effect with a more-natural process, take a page from the women of the Italian Renaissance. Use lemon juice on the hair and sit in the sun to allow the combined acidic juice and sunlight to bleach the hair to a blonder shade. In those days, women would wear wide-brimmed straw hats with the central cap removed and would pull the top layers of the hair through the opening and fan them around the brim. The locks would be saturated with lemon juice (from fresh lemons only) and then the hair would be allowed to dry (and lighten) in the sun.
For a lemon juice hair mixture, use the juice of real lemons and combine two parts of lemon juice to one part water in a spray bottle and shake well. Use the spray bottle to evenly apply the mixture to the hair. The spray bottle allows you some control on application and lets you better control the degree to which the hair is saturated with the mixture and therefore how quickly the hair dries and lightens in the sun.
This works best on golden blondes and pale brown hair shades, but can give some lightening to almost any hair color. However, the base pigment in the hair will determine the result – i.e. some dark brown hair will develop red and orange tones.
See also:
Lemon juice to lighten hair
How hair responds to sun exposure
The history of hair color and hair coloring