Oscar Wilde’s Hair and Skin: Investigations into His PPD Sensitization and Use of Henna



Oscar Wilde, famous novelist, poet, and playwright, lived a short and scandalous life during the turn ofthe 20th century, from 1854 to 1900. He is believed to be one of the first famous people to have had an allergy to para-phenylenediamine (PPD) from hair dye. His personal accounts and those from his friends and biographers leave no doubt that Wilde was prematurely gray, and that he used hair dye to cover his increasingly white hair. A study of paintings and drawings done of Wilde suggest that he may have tried henna products, as well.

Oscar Wilde is known for works such as “The Picture of Dorian Gray,” “A House of Pomegranates,” and “The Importance of Being Earnest.” Having died at the young age of 46, he was in his lifetime no doubt prolific. He once wrote a play entirely in French, which, according to scholars, showed barely any trace of having been written by a non-native speaker. [2]

However, during his lifetime, Wilde’s accomplishment as a writer was overshadowed by his notorious propensity for eating, drinking, and “sexual inversion” [1]. He was put to trial multiple times under the crime of homosexuality, and eventually imprisoned for two years from 1895 to 1897.

At the time of his death, the cause was believed to be neurosyphilis, exacerbated by his gluttony and alcoholism. His reputation made such a diagnosis more than plausible. However, more recent medical professionals believed that the cause of his death was more likely to be a chronic ear infection which eventually spread to the brain. [1]

Besides the worsening illness that eventually took his life, Wilde also suffered from a recurring rash that itched intensely and spread over his face, arms, back, and chest. This rash could not have been due to syphilis; syphilitic rashes do not itch. Wilde himself attributed it to some bad mussels he once ate. However the rash would disappear and reappear periodically for the rest of his life. The description of the rash was not consistent with an allergy to mussels. Scholars and medical professionals believe that this rash was more likely caused by a sensitization to para-phenylenediamine from the dye he used to mask his prematurely graying hair. [3] [4]