Most of us don’t want to admit it, but it’s safe to say that we’ve all been there before — staring in the mirror with a towel around our neck, box of hair dye in hand, thinking, “What have I done?”
A 2013 International Journal of Trichology study on hair dyeing trends (yes, hair coloring research is a real thing) confirmed what we’ve long suspected: Hair dyeing normally starts at a young age, most of the time with semi-permanent dyes that appear to have less margin for error. Whether at home or in a professional setting, the survey of 263 men and women showed that roughly half of the group — more women than men — dyed their hair. The bummer part of the survey was that as many as 42 percent of people experienced adverse reactions, including headache and itching, after the fact.
This may be why we were met with a mixed bag of reactions when we asked our favorite pro hairstylists for their insider home hair coloring tips. Stephanie Johnson, licensed hairstylist, makeup artist and photographer in Dallas, candidly told us, “As a professional, I do not advocate coloring hair at home. There are just too many variables and chemicals involved, and there have been some rather terrible and scary results I’ve seen along the way. While many have had some success with it, it is not the rule. I’ve received too many panicked phone calls in my career to believe it is a comfortable choice for the masses.”
With Johnson’s recommendation in mind, and with your regular stylist on speed dial, other hair experts say you can still experiment with at-home hair dye if you heed their advice:
1. Don’t go too dark
According to Julie Featherman, owner of Philadelphia’s JuJu Salon & Organics, one of the biggest mistakes women make when coloring at home is selecting a shade that is way too dark. “Avoid the Goth look!” she says. “Many people think that their hair is darker than it actually is. My advice is to choose a shade that is a little bit lighter than what you think your actual color is.”
Becky Sturm, Founder/President of the online beauty shop StormSister Spatique®, cautions, “If you’re going to go dark brown or black, understand that you will need a salon visit when you want to remove it — unless you plan on growing it out. And, the salon visit will be expensive. Black is very hard to remove and involves a multi-level process.”
2. Don’t go too light
Blondes might have more fun but not necessarily when navigating the complexities of a home dye kit. Sturm urges, “Home hair color should only be attempted if you’re staying close to your natural color level. If you go too light, you risk hair turning brassy or ‘orange.’ This will require a salon visit to remedy.”
3. Match your skin tone
This is the big trick you need to know to avoid that dreaded hair color wash-out after your final rinse: Your skin tone has the last word. Featherman says, “If your skin seems sallow or dull, pick a shade that has warm tones. Cool tones work well on fair skin with pink undertones but can also look terrific on people with dark complexions. Lighter and warmer face-framing color can give the skin a youthful radiance.”
4. Red can be tricky
Red is one of the fun ones to try at home — especially when your life is in need of some shaking up. But it’s important to remember, as Featherman reminds us, that the final red shade you end up with depends directly on your present hair color, not on what you see on the box. She explains, “If you’re looking for a rich coppery red, and your hair is gray or very light blonde, go down a shade or two. Otherwise, you might end up with orange or pinkish-hued hair that is much lighter than you wanted. If you are starting with darker or medium-brown hair, go up a shade, or you may not notice much of a change at all.”
5. Think twice about the permanents
Another common home hair-dyeing dilemma, according to Featherman, is not having a clue what to choose between the permanent, semi-permanent and demi-permanent dyes on the shelves. For bigger color changes and for gray especially, Featherman says, “Permanent color can provide 100 percent gray coverage, but a semi or demi-permanent color may be the better option. These dyes, which usually cover most but not all of the gray, help to ‘blend’ the gray with the new color, giving a natural looking result and taking away the harshness of the line of demarcation as the new hair grows in.”
6. Stick to the roots
Both Featherman and Sturm advise not to ever make this grave home hair-dyeing mistake: “If the goal is to cover the gray that’s grown in, or to touch up your roots between salon appointments, then just stick to the roots. Many women think that they need to coat all of the hair on their head with color when they really only need to apply color to the roots,” Featherman says. “Over time, with all of the layers of color, the hair gets darker and darker, making the overall effect uneven: light and bright at the roots and dark and ‘fake’ looking from mid-shaft to ends.”
Sturm agrees, saying, “Be certain to apply color to roots only. Overlapping the color will cause damage to previously colored hair.”
7. Give more time for gray
Along with the not-so-fun reality of accepting that your natural hair color is fading with age, dyeing gray hair is a whole new ballgame. Sturm says that gray locks can be extra stubborn, “If coloring gray hair, I don’t care what the box says, you need 45 minutes to process. Gray hair is very resistant and requires a longer processing time.”
8. Don’t get sloppy
It’s all fun and games, until you smear permanent hair color all over your freshly painted bathroom walls. Featherstone says that when dyeing at home, it is imperative to pay attention to detail from start to finish. “Avoid uneven coverage and missing spots by applying the color in a thorough manner. Read and re-read the instructions. Don’t take shortcuts or try to wing it. And have a timer nearby. Leaving the color on for too long or not processing for the full amount of time can undermine your results,” she says.
And when it’s finally time to rinse, your hard work isn’t done yet. Featherstone advises carefully washing the color out so that you don’t risk ruining your favorite linens: “Towels, sheets and shirt necks become seriously stained if hair color isn’t shampooed out completely.”
Originally published June 2008. Updated July 2016.