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U of O engineering students turned to icing dye and hair dye to dye their skin purple for 101 Week. Photo: Tress Sheffield/Flickr

Health Canada’s recall of the type of medical dye engineering students typically use to paint themselves purple during 101 Week had University of Ottawa students looking for colourful solutions last week.

In the past, gentian violet dye was used by engineering students, but the recall issued in June by Health Canada states that exposure to the dye may increase the risk of cancer. Health Canada says they are advising all Canadians to stop using any products in both human and veterinary practices.

Sam Garcia, vice-president external of the Engineering Students’ Society (ESS), says U of O engineers have been using two methods to achieve the purple hue in light of the recall: hair dye and icing dye.

Food colouring used in icing or Manic Panic, a vegan semi-permanent hair dye, were two of the alternative dyes to come out of the University of Waterloo’s Purple Plan. The Purple Plan was a test of various different dyeing methods to find one that would keep the purple tradition alive following the gentian violet ban. 

Garcia, a third-year mechanical engineering and computing technology student, says out of the two methods, the hair dye worked the best. 

“Icing dye was a lot stickier because it was oil-based and used for icing and cakes.” 

Garcia says the hair dye was a little less vibrant than the gentian violet method and seems to last a similar amount of time. 

She says students would test different methods of applying the dye to their skin during 101 Week; some would rub in and wait half an hour before washing it off and others would dilute the mixture into a small pool or tub of water. Garcia says the ESS has banned all dye from campus, making students dye themselves off-campus out of their own pockets. 

Garcia says she believes the hair will be continued to be used at future events, despite it being more expensive. 

“You’d have to pay for it yourself rather than the university supplying it,” she says. 

For engineers, the tradition holds meaning that dates back over to over 100 years ago. Garcia says the tradition is to pay homage to the engineers aboard the Titanic. 

“They would work in the boiler room and because of that they would get stained purple,” Garcia says. “When the Titanic sank, they were actually the last people who got out, so we dye ourselves purple to honour and remember them.”

The difference between gentian violet and the hair dye are relatively small. Garcia says gentian violet lasts roughly a week on the skin while the hair dye lasts a few days less.

“Both can dye dark skin, both last relatively the same (amount of time),” she says.

But the main priority? 

“You definitely don’t want to be purple for that long.”