The History of Hairspray

An abbreviated history of one of hair care’s greatest inventions

Young woman using hairspray
Peter Widmann/age fotostock/Getty Images

From Shellac to Spray Net

Pop culture is rife with direct and indirect connections (and homages) to one of the beauty industry’s often overlooked but most fundamental hair care products: hairspray — the origins of which might surprise you. John Waters’ endearing and quirky movie Hairspray, Natalie Portman’s skin-tight ballerina buns in Black Swan, Gisele’s Victoria’s Secret waves and big, beautiful hair in general wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for, of all things, World War II, the United States government, and the fear of a life-threatening disease.

It all began with a can. According to Guide Mary Bellis, the aerosol spray can was patented and used to distribute sprays and liquids such as carbonated drinks as early as the 1920s—and the history of aerosol technology goes back even further than that. The birth of commercial hair spray came later in the first half of the 1940s when, after entering World War II, the U.S. government paid for research on ways that insect spray could be distributed amongst the military in an attempt to prevent malaria. The winning receptacle? A more-functional-then-ever fluorocarbon (liquefied gas)- pressured aerosol can created by researchers from the United States Department of Agriculture. Ironically, this wartime campaign against deadly disease would be responsible for decades of perfectly coiffed hair.

The Birth of Hairspray

After the war ended, the beauty industry caught on to the possibilities of using similar fluorocarbon (aerosol) cans as a dispenser for the first sticky, hard hold, resin-based versions of hair spray.

The very first company to package the spray was Chase Products in 1948, an aerosol manufacturer also attributed with being the first to distribute spray paint and antiperspirant deodorant in an aerosol can. Historic beauty titan Helene Curtis coined the name “hairspray” in 1950 with the release of her product Spray Net, which, along with a slew of quickly accumulated competitors such as Aqua Net, became wildly successful in conjunction with the Betty Draper and Jackie Kennedy bouffants, beehives, pin-up dos, and pillbox hat hairstyles that personified the 1950s and 60s.

The product made such waves, in fact, that according to Victoria Sherrow’s book The Encyclopedia of Hair, by 1964, hairspray was the most successful beauty product in the country, “outselling even lipstick.” Along with success, the 1960s saw nuances in the product, such as varying holds and hair types — the first precursors for the shiny shelves of sprays we find at Ricky’s and professional salons today.

Hairspray Backlash

In the late 1960s and into the 70s, however, the industry’s magic lacquer suffered a few setbacks. Simpler Twiggy-esque hairstyles caused hair spray sales to decrease and the realization that chlorofluoro-carbons (CFS) found in refrigerators, air conditioners—and aerosol spray cans—harmed the ozone lawyer, provoked new environmental regulations that forced hairspray distributors to abandon CFS technology in favor of “alternative propellants and mechanical pump sprays,” according to The Encyclopedia of Hair.

But the beauty industry adapted, and in the 80s, hairspray was back, along with Madonna, glam rock, punk rock, hair metal and the huge cotton candy clouds of hair that came along with them. One of the first and still most recognizable names in the industry —Aqua Net— became an indispensable dispensary for both rock stars and the teenagers that emulated them, some of whom required a $1 can a day to keep their larger than life hair and image intact in what would become a beacon of Generation X culture.

Today, there are as many brands, colors, consistencies and holds of hairspray as there are hairstyles themselves, and it’s hard to pinpoint a single look or icon or subculture as representative of the product’s current moment in pop culture. That being said, it’s difficult to imagine that Lady Gaga could have managed to affix a telephone, lobster, or human hair bow to her head without at least a little help from an aerosol can, which has clearly traveled a long way since its wartime bug-fighting days over sixty years ago.


Bellis, Mary, Guide,

Chase Products:

Sherrow, Victoria, Encyclopedia of hair: a cultural history

“The History of Hairspray Products,”