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Shampoo: Taking the sting out of childhood

“Argghh! It’s in my eyes. It’s hurting.”

Part of everyone’s childhood memories must be sitting in the bath being washed by their mother. And an inevitable part of that experience is having shampoo rubbed into one’s hair. Sadly, for many of us, that otherwise happy childhood memory is tainted by the recollection of that horrible moment when the shampoo found its way into our eyes.

“Don’t be a baby,” says mother. “Just hold the face flannel over your eyes.”

All very well for her to say; she wasn’t the one suffering excruciating agony.

For anyone born in the 1950s, the usual cause of that torture was Vosene, then the nation’s most popular brand of hair shampoo, its iconic green bottle once instantly recognisable.

The English word shampoo is derived from the Urdu word chāmpo. The word first popped up in Britain in 1762. It originated in Bengal, one of the eastern regions of the Mughal Empire that once ruled India. Chāmpo was used when giving a head massage; it typically consisted of an alkali, natural oils and fragrances.

‘Shampoo’ was introduced to Britain in the early 19th century by a Bengali entrepreneur and former military surgeon from Bihar, named Sake Dean Mahomed. He first used his shampoo whilst working in Basil Cochrane’s popular vapour baths in London’s Portman Square.

In 1814, Mahomed, together with his Irish wife Jane Daly, opened ‘Mahomed’s Steam and Vapour Sea Water Medicated Baths’ in Brighton. This was the first commercial ‘shampooing’ vapour masseur bath in England, located on a site subsequently occupied by the Queen’s Hotel. Mahomed described the treatment in a local newspaper as: “The Indian Medicated Vapour Bath (type of Turkish bath), a cure to many diseases and giving full relief when every thing fails; particularly rheumatic and paralytic, gout, stiff joints, old sprains, lame less, aches and pains in the joints”.

The business was an immediate success and ‘Dean Mahomed’ became known as ‘Dr Brighton’. Hospitals referred patients to him: he even enjoyed royal appointment as ‘shampooing surgeon’ to both Kings George IV and William IV.

Mahomed died in 1851, at 32 Grand Parade, Brighton, and was buried nearby at St Nicholas’ Church.

Within a decade of his death, however, the meaning of the word ‘shampoo’ was shifting from its primary association with head massage – first to a dressing for hair, and then to the more modern meaning of washing the hair with soap, and finally to the soap itself.

By 1866, A. J. Cooley’s ‘Toilet & Cosmetic Arts’ was referring to “The Shampoo Liquid often used by the hairdressers, after cutting the hair”.

Ordinary soap had long been used for washing hair. The dull film which soap left on the hair, however, made it uncomfortable and irritating. Hair stylists boiled shaved soap in water and added herbs in the hope of giving clients’ hair some shine and fragrance.

Kasey Hebert, an otherwise unremembered hair stylist from London, was reportedly the first known mass producer of a product known simply as ‘shampoo’.

Commercially-made shampoo was available from the turn of the 20th century. By the outbreak of the First World War in 1914, newspapers and magazines carried numerous advertisements for different brands. Yet soap and shampoo were still very similar products; both contain the same naturally derived surfactants. Shampoo as we known it today was first introduced in the 1930s with Drene – the first shampoo to use synthetic surfactants.

Vosene’s first shampoo, the ‘Original Medicated Shampoo’, was launched in 1949. As a medicated shampoo it aimed to prevent dandruff and to maintain scalp health by reducing itchiness and redness. That objective meant its formula had to include an active anti-dandruff ingredient: coal tar.

Coal tar gave Vosene shampoo both its highly distinctive smell and its light-brown colour. By the 1960s, Vosene had become an iconic brand, familiar in almost every household in Britain, not least for its eye-searing strength.

In 1997, however, the use of coal tar in the UK became restricted as a cosmetic ingredient. In response, Vosene was reformulated, and coal tar was replaced with climbazole. A coal tar-like fragrance, along with a brown colour, was simply added to retain the original, but now superficial, characteristics.

More recently, in 2008 Vosene replaced climbazole with salicyclic acid, another proven anti-dandruff active ingredient with broad scalp protection properties.

Its supplier says: “We’re committed to giving our customers the same familiar Vosene experience so made sure the original coal tar fragrance and colour remained, and that’s the formula that’s in our bottles today!”

These days Vosene comes in at least eight different formulations: not least, Vosene (almost) Original.

And does Vosene still sting? Apparently so. The good news for children today, however, is that Vosene also now boasts a range of shampoos for youngsters, ones which it’s said don’t end up with the user in tears.

Meanwhile, there seems to be a scarcity of nostalgic masochists who would like to revisit their childhood traumas: an original 1950s glass bottle of Vosene placed on e-Bay this year, with a reserve price of just £3.99, failed to receive even a single bid!

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