The Hair Color Debate: Salon vs. the Box

A dirty little secret is that some of us can only go three to four weeks before touching up our gray roots. Granted, there are women whose gray grows in symmetrically, in just the right area, creating a sophisticated, mature look. But for many of us, those nasty grays appear wiry and unruly, transforming us from hot to hag overnight.

There have been many times I’ve passed rows of boxed hair color in the drug store. They’re tempting, with their convenience and reasonable cost. Do we really need to spend time and money on professional salon color?

The gap between professional color and the box is narrowing, says Judy Rambert, vice president of education and research at Pivot Point International in Chicago. Boxed color has improved over the years mainly because manufacturers of salon products are using their knowledge to improve boxed color. Manufacturers are also helping consumers choose color by displaying color charts in drug stores and allowing you to touch and feel the porosity of various products.

“A seasoned hair colorist used to be able to tell the difference in someone walking down the street,” says Rambert. “Boxed jobs didn’t have as rich a color as salon jobs, with a much narrower choice of colors. But today, there’s not much difference in chemical ingredients in boxed vs. salon products.”

The difference is in the service rather than the product. Salon professionals have been trained to determine what color and product you need depending on your hair’s condition, says Rambert. “They know when to use one product for re-growth and when to use another on the remaining previously colored hair to add shine and deposit pigment.” That’s more difficult to do at home.

The salon professional will avoid applying color repeatedly to the same hair strand. The more you apply color to the hair, the more porous the hair becomes, and the faster the color will fade.

Our hair is not the same color across the entire head, either. Some women have more gray on top of the head than in the back. You can’t see these subtle difference at home, regardless of how many mirrors you have.

In case you’re worried that boxed hair color is carcinogenic, fear not. “There have been many studies but there’s no conclusive evidence that has caused any manufacturers to pull color off the shelves,” says Rambert. If you’re still concerned, avoid applying color directly on your scalp. A salon professional is obviously better able to isolate strands so the product doesn’t touch the scalp.

Manufacturers of salon products recognize that our hair changes as we age. For many women, hair becomes not just gray but translucent and drier, because there’s not as much natural oil being secreted. Ultimately, says Rambert, “Getting the color you want is about where you’re starting, where you want to go and the color you choose.”

What do you prefer -- salon color or DIY?

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