Myth: Jean Harlow died from bleaching her hair

In Classic Hollywood Myths we take a look at all the myths about the Golden Age of Hollywood. What really happened? Are these ‘urban legends’ true or false? Classic Hollywood Central looks into it!

Myth: Jean Harlow died from bleaching her hair

Although the term ‘Platinum Blonde’ is very common now, back in the days of Classic Hollywood nobody had heard of it. So when Jean Harlow stepped into the limelight with her hair a shiny, white-blonde a publicist came up with the term ‘Platinum Blonde’ to describe it. It was an immediate sensation and Jean even attributed her fame to her hair colour. She claimed it was all natural and her boss Howard Hughes even offered up a reward of $10,000 to any stylist who could match it and no one ever lived up to the task. But, although Jean was a natural blonde, the platinum colour she was famous for was the result of a painful weekly process. Her celebrity hairstylist Alfred Pagano once explained the process: “We used peroxide, ammonia, Clorox, and Lux flakes! Can you believe that?”. This mix produces noxious gas and hydrochloric acid and is by no means healthy. So it wasn’t long until Jean’s hair began to fall out and she had to start wearing wigs. As she wanted a more serious image towards the end of her life, her hair was a darker shade of blonde.
But at the age of 26 Jean died suddenly of kidney failure. As hydrochloric acid is a noxious gas that when inhaled can lead to kidney damage, rumours soon began to swirl that the young actress had died from bleaching her hair.

True or false?

False! Obviously, Jean’s hair colouring process was not a healthy one. Which is why her hair started falling out. But Jean had been sickly ever since she was a child. Most importantly: she contracted scarlett fever as a teenager. This is an infection with a beta strep, group A bacteria. Beta strep produces a toxin that damages the kidneys to cause glomerulonephritis and the heart to cause rheumatic fever. Throughout her lifetime, Jean had recurrent strep infections in her throat, mouth and skin that damaged her kidneys and heart. Nowadays anyone who has beta strep would be immediately put on penicillin, and children who have had rheumatic fever or glomerulonephritis are often kept on penicillin continuously through their youth to prevent beta strep infections. But in the 1930’s this did not excist yet. Jean was diagnosed very late with kidney failure, but the truth is that the medical care in those days could not have saved Jean. And the hair colour that made her famous was not the cause of that.

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