Aesthetic tendencies drift with marketing and cultural currents, but our drive to alter ourselves is a constant. As anthropologist Harry Shapiro wrote: “So universal is this urge to improve on nature … that one is almost tempted to regard it as an instinct.”
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Hundreds of plastic mannequins, lips pursed in model pouts, float around the halls of the Energizing Summit, an annual event of the American Board of Certified Haircolorists. You don’t really ever adjust to seeing the disembodied heads, be they upside-down in clear plastic bags (the handle cinched tight around the neck for easier carrying), gazing out of boxes in the hotel lobby, or mounted on poles, like some kind of punishment from Tudor England.
Hairdressers from around the U.S., all with stunning hair color and impeccably maintained roots, criss-cross the poorly lit basement of the Marriott Hotel at the Los Angeles airport. They’re here for two days of sessions dedicated to the science of dyeing hair.
Right away I realize that I have a lot to learn. Hair colorists, it seems, speak a different language to the rest of us. They talk of “volume” (concentration) and “lift” (lightening). And it turns out I have been making a faux pas. “We dye Easter eggs,” one Summit instructor gently informs me. “We color hair.”
But after a day and a half, I am still waiting for some science. Then I find Tom Despenza. He has years of experience working in research and development at Clairol—a career that began when, as a microbiology student, his car broke down in front of a beauty school. He is now retired and owns his own hair-color company called Chromatics.
When I catch up with Tom at the Summit, he has been teaching his popular class “Forget the Hype! Let’s Get Real,” which dispels the years of hearsay that make up the beauty-school curriculum.
Understanding the dyes used on hair is not as simple as understanding the color wheel. As we all learned in art class, any color can be obtained by mixing the three primary colors of red, yellow, and blue. If you want orange, you mix yellow and red; if you want purple, you combine red and blue; and if you want brown, you mix all three.
Beauticians are taught the same thing when it comes to hair—that brown dye is a combination of three different dyes. “That’s just fictitious information,” says Despenza. “Brown hair color is made up of two chemicals.” Both chemicals are colorless, he explains, but they produce brown through a chemical reaction that occurs when they’re combined.
An important distinction exists between color and dye. Hairdressers are not applying pigments (at least not in the case of permanent hair dye); they are applying a mixture of chemicals to initiate dye formation. The individual dye molecules have to be linked together before they emit color, so dyes have to sit on the head for 30 minutes to allow this reaction to occur.