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A Natural Way to Dye Your Hair

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Not long ago I was riding in a boat with a group of Shipibo natives on the Ucayali River in Peru’s Amazon. Sitting beside an older man named Alberto, I commented on his lustrous black hair, and lamented that mine was graying while his remained youthful-looking. “Oh, no, man,” he laughed. “I dye my hair!”

Wondering what kind of dye natives might be using in the Amazon, I asked to be shown what Alberto applied to his hair. Later that day, I was taken to a small native village by a river. There the native people picked a wild fruit off a tree, and cut it open, revealing many seeds. They scooped out the interior of the fruit, put it into a small bucket and added water. Very quickly the water changed to a deep black ink. “This is what we all use on our hair,” explained Alberto. I reflected on the fact that in my travels along Peru’s Ucayali River, I had not seen many older people with gray hair. Instead, even the most elderly sported black locks.

The fruit used by the Shipibo is called huito, or Genipa americana. Though well known among Amazon explorers and botanists, the use of this fruit as a dye has yet to be taken up by any major cosmetic companies. Currently, black dyes used in cosmetics are derived from iron oxide, carbon, coal tar, and occasionally from black walnut hulls. But hair colorants can cause problems, including skin irritation, allergic reactions, skin discoloration, and unpredictable results. This is where huito fruit dye could be of immense value to the cosmetic market. Used perennially by large numbers of native people in the Amazon, the dye demonstrates great safety and the bold, shiny color lasts.

After Alberto and his friends showed me how they made dye from huito, I paid more attention to its use in native villages. On many occasions I would observe a woman with wet hair and dark hands- a sure sign of fresh huito dye application. As it turns out, huito is also a popular dye for both temporary and permanent tattoos. Tourists to certain parts of Peru’s Amazon will be given temporary tattoos, made by inserting a slender wet paint brush into the interior flesh of a ripe huito fruit. When the tattoo is first brushed onto skin, it is pale. But over the course of twenty minutes or so, the tattoo becomes steadily darker, until it is a deep black.

Long before I ever arrived in the Amazon, researchers had investigated huito, Genipa americana. A substance named geniposidic acid appears to play a key role in the transformation of the inner fruit pulp and seeds into a deep blue-black dye. I have watched this process many times, and have had this type of temporary tattoo painted onto my own skin. A faint drawing becomes bold black. And unless you scrub it, the tattoo will last a good week, even more. With permanent tattoos, natives use huito for a design that will stay bold for many years.

But demand for black hair dye is far greater than that for temporary tattoo dye. I have observed several Shipibo natives apply huito fruit dye to their hair. They use their hands, simply scooping the liquid onto their hair, and running their fingers through it. Once their hair dries, it is a rich, shiny black. The color stays for a couple of weeks.

Huito trees are abundant in various parts of the Amazon rainforest, and each tree yields hundreds of fruits. The dye has been extensively used for many generations with great safety, and thanks to modern scientific analysis we know something about what huito contains and how it works. There is clearly a place in the cosmetic market for natural dyes, and cosmetic companies do not presently have a natural black dye that is even half as good as huito. It is only a matter of time before some enterprising entity makes an industry out of this. It will likely happen at some point. 

Beneficial natural agents discovered in wild environments often undergo scrutiny for many years until somebody commercializes them. We have seen this with many dozens of widely popular plants that once were obscure, from guarana to acai. In the case of huito, its popularization could mean a black hair dye for the end user, rainforest protection in huito collection areas, and economic benefits to native people. That’s not bad for a wild fruit.

Chris Kilham is a medicine hunter who researches natural remedies all over the world, from the Amazon to Siberia. He teaches ethnobotany at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, where he is Explorer In Residence. Chris advises herbal, cosmetic and pharmaceutical companies and is a regular guest on radio and TV programs worldwide. His field research is largely sponsored by Naturex of Avignon, France. Read more at www.MedicineHunter.com

Chris Kilham is a medicine hunter who researches natural remedies all over the world, from the Amazon to Siberia. He teaches ethnobotany at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, where he is Explorer In Residence. Chris advises herbal, cosmetic and pharmaceutical companies and is a regular guest on radio and TV programs worldwide. His field research is largely sponsored by Naturex of Avignon, France. Read more at MedicineHunter.com.