The Right Chemistry: How Jean Harlow became a ‘platinum blond’

Howard Hughes, who would go on to become a wealthy business magnate, engineer, pilot, philanthropist and famous victim of obsessive-compulsive disease, started out as a film producer. That’s when he came across Jean Harlow, a young ash-blond actress who had the makings of a star. Mary Pickford had gained spectacular fame as “America’s Sweetheart,”(she was actually Canadian) and Hughes thought Harlow could follow in her footsteps if she were properly promoted. That challenge was met by his publicity director, who came up with the moniker, “Platinum Blonde.”

The metal platinum derives its name from the Spanish “platino” for ”little silver,” thanks to its almost white lustre. It also has an aura of wealth due to its rarity and seemed just the right description for a potentially shining star. But there was just one problem. Harlow was indeed blond, but not uniquely blond. She wasn’t “platinum” enough. So the hairdressers went to work and after some experimentation were able to rid her hair of all the natural melanin pigment resulting in a silvery-white colour. Now the publicity team swung into action, offering a prize of $10,000 to any hairdresser who could match Harlow’s shade. None could, which was probably a good thing otherwise many women would have suffered the same fate as Harlow: hair that was the texture of straw and prone to falling out. As was revealed decades later by her personal hairdresser, the sex bomb’s famous platinum shade was achieved with a mix of hydrogen peroxide, sodium hypochlorite bleach, ammonia and Lux flakes. That mix may have done more than just slowly destroy her hair, it may even have affected her health.

Jean Harlow died tragically at the age of 26. She had suddenly become ill during the filming of Saratoga and had to be hospitalized. Three days later, she lapsed into a coma and died. The cause of death was kidney failure, possibly the result of a number of illnesses from which the actress had suffered throughout her life. She had had multiple bouts of influenza, had contracted scarlet fever when she was 15 and a severe infection after removal of her wisdom teeth. But there is also a theory that her frequent hair treatments may have contributed to her demise.

When ammonia is mixed with hypochlorite bleach, there are some nasty compounds that can form, with chloramine, hydrazine and hydrochloric acid among them. Chronic inhalation of these and absorption through the scalp can indeed put a burden on the kidneys. Whether this contributed to Harlow’s health problems we will never know, but we do know that mixing ammonia with bleach is a bad idea. Both of these can be found separately in cleaning agents and should never be combined. Indeed, hypochlorite bleach should never be combined with anything. Mixing it with any acid, whether that is vinegar or rust remover, produces potentially lethal chlorine gas. Combining bleach with hydrogen peroxide yields oxygen gas, which is not a problem unless the mix is stored a closed container. Then the pressure can build up and cause the container to burst.

While mixing hydrogen peroxide with other chemicals can cause problems for people, not so for the aptly named “bombardier beetle,” a little creature that can dispense chemical bombs to ward off its predators. When in danger of being attacked, the beetle produces a smelly, burning-hot toxic liquid that it sprays at the enemy in bursts from a turret-like appendage on its abdomen. There is some very interesting chemistry here. In one compartment the beetle stores a mix of hydrogen peroxide and hydroquinone, both metabolic products of its diet. Another vesicle contains enzymes that can quickly break hydrogen peroxide down into water and oxygen. When attacked, abdominal contractions mix the chemicals and the oxygen produced converts the hydroquinone into toxic quinone. The reaction is highly exothermic and any predator that gets sprayed with this hot mix and learns to leave the bombardier beetle alone. This chemistry can be life-saving for the beetle even if a predator has not been deterred. Frogs have been known to regurgitate beetles after swallowing them when the beetle exploded its chemical bombs in the frog’s stomach.

Humans have also made use of hydrogen peroxide’s ability to oxidize other chemicals. During the Second World War, the Germans developed the Komet, a rocket plane capable of achieving speeds of over 500 miles per hour, unmatched by any other aircraft. Concentrated hydrogen peroxide and hydrazine were stored in separate containers aboard the aircraft, and when combined generated steam and nitrogen gas at high pressure. As these gases escaped from the combustion chamber, they propelled the vehicle forward according to Newton’s third law, which states that there for every action there is a reaction. Although the Komet could readily pick off slower flying Allied aircraft, it never met with great success because mixing the peroxide with the hydrazine often led to the Komet itself exploding due to the instant buildup of high pressure.

Incidentally, Howard Hughes also discovered a young brunette who would go on to achieve fame after becoming a blond using the same chemistry as Jean Harlow. Marilyn Monroe in her autobiography opined that “In Hollywood a girl’s virtue is much less important than her hair-do.”

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Joe Schwarcz is director of McGill University’s Office for Science & Society ( He hosts The Dr. Joe Show on CJAD Radio 800 AM every Sunday from 3 to 4 p.m.

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