Analysis of ancient Egyptians mummies has shown that they styled their hair using a fat-based 'gel'. The researchers behind the analysis say that the Egyptians used the product to ensure that their style stayed in place in both life and death. Natalie McCreesh, an archaeological scientist from the KNH Centre for Biomedical Egyptology at the University of Manchester, England, and her colleagues studied hair samples taken from 18 mummies. The oldest is around 3,500 years old, but most were excavated from a cemetery in the Dakhleh Oasis in the Western Desert, and date from Greco-Roman times, around 2,300 years ago.
The Irish bog body Clonycavan Man, which has been radiocarbon dated to between 392 BC and 201 BC, was found to have been using a hair gel made from pine tree resin imported from Spain or South-west France.
In 1929, the British company Chemico Works invented Brylcreem, which became the market leader among hair styling products in both the U.K. and the U.S. during the following decades.
Modern hair gel was invented in the 1960s in the United States, by what would later be renamed the Dep Corporation. Marketed under the brand name 'Dep', modern hair gel was given this name by its inventor, Luis Montoya, in recognition of the substance that gave it its unique, non-greasy consistency: diethyl phthalate, commonly abbreviated as DEP.
Many brands of hair gel in North America and the UK come in numbered variants. Higher numbered gels maintain a greater "hold" on hair, while lower numbers do not make the hair as stiff and in some products give the hair a wet look. A category typically referred to as "ethnic" gels are designed and manufactured specifically for sculpting the hair texture common to African Americans. Ampro Industries is a common example of this category.
Some forms of hair gel are marketed to consumers who want to spike their hair in the style that emerged from the hardcore punk subculture in the 1980s. Some hair gels include temporary hair coloring for the hair, including variants in unnatural colors associated with various subcultures, and are popular within the goth and raver subcultures.
Cationic polymers are one of the main functional components of hair gel. The positive charges in the polymers causes them to stretch, making the gel more viscous. Hair gels resist natural protein conformations and allow hair to be styled and textured. This is because the stretched-out polymer takes up more space than a coiled polymer and thus resists the flow of solvent molecules around it. The positive charges also bind the gel to the negatively charged amino acids on the surface of the keratin molecules in the hair. More complicated polymer formulas exist; i.e., a copolymer of vinylpyrrolidone, methacrylamide, and N-vinylimidazole.
- Jo Marchant, Journal of Archaeological Science Volume 38, Issue 12, (December 2011), Pages 3432-3434