Anyone who has their hair coloured professionally will be unable to visit their salon for the foreseeable future. This means that people will have 2 choices: colour their hair at home using products purchased from a shop or let their hair grow out to its natural colour.
Those who choose to colour their own hair need more information than is written on the box.
To this end, I have placed here relevant extracts from my book Hair Colour At Home. There’s quite a lot of information but it is worth taking the time to read before you try to colour your hair at home.
How Hair Colour Works
Hair colour or tint as it is professionally referred to, comes in three categories. Described as Level 1 colour, Level 2 colour and Level 3 colour. They are effectively the three different types of artificial hair colour.
Depth of colour or shade is also referred to by levels. Shown as Level 1 (Black) to Level 10 (Lightest Blonde) they include all of the natural shades of hair (this is explained fully in the chapter on Levels and Tones).
For the purpose of clarity, in this chapter, I will explain about the category levels.
Level 1 Colour:
Semi-permanent colour – true semi-permanent colours are not activated by a developer (Hydrogen Peroxide). They coat the cuticle of the hair and are used to make the hair darker or stay at the same depth, they cannot lighten the hair and do not hold fast. Typically, they last for 4 to 6 washes and do not damage the hair.
Level 2 Colour:
Quasi semi-permanent sometimes called demi colours or mildly oxidising colours. They do not lighten the hair and cannot be washed out, rather, they fade out gradually due to exposure to daylight (UV) and washing. Unlike Level 3 colourants, they do not contain ammonia which makes them less permanent. They sit just underneath the cuticle and do not fully penetrate the cortex (main body of the hair). Coverage is in the region of up to 40% white/grey hair and they last for up to 20 washes. Typically, in a professional salon, these colours use 3% hydrogen peroxide.
Level 3 Colour:
Permanent colourants. These are the most versatile of all hair colourants, they can lighten, stay at the same level or darken the hair and 100% white coverage can be achieved. The level of lightening is in direct proportion to the strength of the hydrogen peroxide in the formula. The strength of the developer does not appear on any of the box colours that I have researched but it should be noted that the lighter the hair is lifted, the stronger the developer and therefore the more damage there is likely to be.
In professional use, Level 3 colours use 6,9 and 12% hydrogen peroxide as a developer. 6% is used for darkening, staying the same colour and lifting the hair 1 level (shade). 9% is used to lift the colour up to 2 levels and 12% is used to lift the hair by up to 3 levels.
Because professional tint products give up to a maximum of three levels of lift when using the strongest developer available, it’s likely that you will achieve a lower level of lift using home products.
It’s difficult to gauge the strength of the developer used in domestic products as the strength is rarely included in the ingredients list. I can however, use my professional experience to say confidently that the darker colours will have a lower strength developer (as there is little lightening required) and the lighter colours will have a stronger developer as more lightening will be needed.
Permanent hair colourants are oxidative, which means that they are able to remove natural colour and deposit artificial colour at the same time. This is achieved by the ammonia in the tint cream opening the cuticle and the hydrogen peroxide oxidising (dissolving) the existing colour in the hair, then the pigment granules contained in the cream are then deposited into the cortex (the main body of the hair), developing into the desired colour. After a period of time, usually around 30-45 minutes the tint stops working and becomes inactive. This is because the hydrogen peroxide decays quickly and causes the mixture to cease to be effective.
Tint (artificial hair colour) is granular. That means it is made up of small particles of colour mixed in a specific way by the manufacturers to create a unique colour. When applied for the first time (to virgin hair) the colour achieved will be close to the manufacturers target colour, depending on the original (virgin) colour of the hair. If the manufacturers targeted a result of level 9 (Very Light Blonde) it will only be achieved when applied to hair that is a natural level 7 (Medium Blonde) before colouring, as the developer will most likely only lift 2 levels. Darker hair (Level 6 and below) will not achieve level 9 and lighter hair (Level 8) will not reach higher than level 9, because the tint is designed to only achieve a level 9 result.
The only way to achieve a higher level of lift (lightening) at home is to use a hair bleach. Also, as a rule, tint cannot lighten existing tint. So, if you have an existing tint on your hair with a re-growth of virgin hair and you correctly apply a tint that is lighter than the old colour, your hair will lighten to the correct level at the root but where the old tint is, the colour will not change.
A bleaching agent is the only thing that will remove old tint. So-called colour removers are still bleaching agents and must be used with great care as bleach does not stop working until there is nothing left for it to work on or it has been washed off. Bleach is not for the inexperienced and is best applied by a skilled professional.
Artificial hair colour comes in 3 categories. Level1 semi-permanent. Level 2 Quasi or demi-permanent and Level 3 permanent.
Levels 1 and 2 do not lighten the hair.
Up to 3 levels of lightening (but probably a bit less) can be achieved with level 3 colour.
Tint stops working after around 30-45 minutes.
Tint cannot lighten the colour of existing tint.
Bleach continues to work until it is washed off.
Before embarking on a hair colour it’s important to follow a few simple steps, to ensure your safety and achieve a successful result.
The first task. Make sure you are safe.
When you decide to colour your hair for the first time, you should always conduct a skin compatibility evaluation (Patch Test). In a professional salon, it is required for all new customers and those who have not had their hair coloured in the salon in the last 6 months. The test should be performed no less than 48 hours prior to the application of colour because it can take this long for a reaction to occur. Therefore, it is equally important for you to follow the same procedure. The method used will be determined in the instructions that come with the product you purchase.
Before colouring your hair check the following:
Have you ever had an allergic reaction to any hair colourant product?
Have you ever had an allergic reaction to any kind of skin tattoo including Henna or to permanent make-up?
Do you have a sensitive, irritated or damaged scalp? (e.g. eczema or psoriasis)
Have you been prescribed and are taking any medication to treat allergies?
If you answer YES to any of these questions then you should not colour your hair until you have checked with your doctor. Even if you have coloured your hair without any problems in the past, you should always perform a skin test whenever you change products, if it has been a long time since you last coloured your hair or if the product you are using has changed in any way.
Your next task is to find out your natural colour level. Colour levels determine the amount of light or darkness to the hair. In the professional salon, they are numbered from level 1 (darkest) to level 10 (lightest). Use the Natural Level Shade Chart in the Levels and Tones Chapter to determine your own natural level. If you have any artificial colour on your hair you should also make a note of this too as it will react differently to virgin hair.
It’s important to understand that everybody’s hair is different. Some people’s hair has been previously coloured and now has a mixture of virgin hair at the root, then a gradual build-up, of colour towards the ends. Someone else might have some old bleach highlights coloured over and has decided they want to go lighter again.
If you have an existing colour on your hair, it is not possible to lighten this colour using another tint. It can only be lightened using bleach. Remember, the re-growth will react differently to any pre-existing colour. The safest option when trying to lighten dark tint is to get it looked at by a professional hairdresser.
If your hair is porous, it will need to be treated in a specific way to ensure that the colour is not washed straight out. We’ll look at this more detail in a later chapter.
Do you use heated tools on a regular basis? Blow-driers and straightening/curling irons used too frequently can make the hair very dry and porous and can even cause breakage. This can have a negative effect on the colour’s staying power.
How often do you shampoo? Daily shampooing will clearly have more of an effect on the colour than shampooing twice a week. Swimming in a chemically treated pool or in the sea will cause the colour to fade.
Everyone’s hair has its own set of features which need to be looked at carefully before colouring. Sometimes the practicalities mean that you may have to amend your original idea as it may not not possible due to the state of the hair at the time and the potential for causing further damage.
Make sure to perform a skin evaluation test, following the manufacturer’s instructions.
Find your natural colour level and make a note of it.
If you have existing artificial colour on your hair, remember the re-growth (roots) will react differently to the pre-existing colour.
Check your hair’s porosity.
Remember that heated tools, excessive washing and swimming will all have a negative effect on the colour you apply.
Be prepared to amend your original idea, if your self-consultation necessitates change.
Before attempting to cover grey hair, first, take a moment to look at a few facts about grey hair and what it is.
There is no such thing as an actual grey hair. More accurately, they are called non-pigmented hairs and are seen as white. They occur because as people age, some hair follicles stop producing the pigment Melanin. Melanin is required to give the hair its colour. Either the individual hairs lose their ability to create pigment and grow white from the hair follicle, or they are simply new hairs that do not contain any pigment.
As it’s quite rare for all of the hairs to become white, there will be a mixture of darker and white hairs mixed together. When this happens, the white hair dilutes the darker appearance of the remaining hair and the overall look becomes grey. With natural redheads, the colour can dilute to a strawberry blonde. White hair is much less obvious in naturally blonde hair. The more of the non-pigmented hair there is, the whiter the hair will look.
Almost always hair goes white at the front first. Often the back will retain its original colour for much longer.
In most professional salons the most popular colour service is covering white hair in one way or another.
For the purposes of colouring grey hair at home, we’ll look at all over colour. Highlights and other more complicated colours are not really possible at home and are best performed by a professional hairdresser. Although there are highlighting kits available, they don’t give a satisfactory result (more on this in a later chapter).
Most people, who want to cover white hair, do so in order to keep their natural colour intact. These people are not looking for a huge change. However, some people want to make their hair lighter than their natural colour. It should be noted that you can only achieve 100% coverage of white hair on levels 8 and below.
There are 2 types of white hair – resistant and non-resistant. Non-resistant white hair is slightly coarse in texture and a little wiry looking; it accepts the colour quite readily. Resistant white hair, on the other hand, is smooth and glossy in appearance as the cuticle is tightly flattened, this makes it difficult for the pigment to penetrate the hair shaft. If your hair is resistant leave the colour on for a few minutes longer to allow the colour to settle into the hair.
As we age, hair loses the melanin that gives it colour, so to a lesser degree does the skin. Therefore, it’s important not to take the colour too dark as it will create to much contrast between the hair and skin washing out the colour of the face.
When covering white hair, it is best to use the more natural colours that are available. Natural/neutral colours are a mixture of red, yellow and blue. Brown is simply equal amounts of these primary colours. Also, natural/neutral colours do not contain additional tone that could give an unwanted result. Certain ash tone products when applied to white hair can give off a violet cast (that is you will see a violet tinge on the hair). This is because white hair is already ash and adding more ash toned pigment will deposit more of the undertone, in this case, violet, into the hair.
The first thing to do is, determine the amount of white hair present. Don’t worry about being precise, up to 25%, 25-50%, 50-75% and 75-100% is fine. Decide which materials are most appropriate level 1 colour (semi-permanent) will not cover much at all, Level 2 colour (quasi or demi colour) will cover about 40% and level 3 (permanent) will cover up to 100%.
Check whether the white hair is resistant or non-resistant.
When colouring white hair, it’s best to start at the front and work backwards. This gives the colour a little more time to work on the front where there is likely to be a higher concentration of white hairs (more detail on this in the application chapter).
If you identify your hair as resistant leave the colour on for a little longer. There’s no precise way of determining how long, a professional will rely on past experience. For you it’s just trial and error, if the coverage isn’t enough then next time leave it for 5 minutes longer and so on. I advise making a note of how long you leave it on for so you know for next time.
Check if your white hair is resistant or non-resistant.
Decide which product is most appropriate for your needs.
Start at the front and work backwards.
If your white hair is resistant leave the product on for longer.
Choosing and Mixing Your Colour
Picking the right colour for your hair is one of the most important parts of the process and to make sure you get it right it’s vital to know what your natural hair colour is. This is called “The Level” and denotes how light or dark your hair is. Professional products use a numbering system from 1 – 10, 1 being black and 10 is lightest blonde (use the shade chart in the levels and tones chapter). Once you have identified your natural colour, make a note of it because once you have coloured your hair, the only place you will see your natural colour will be at the root after it grows, making it more difficult to identify.
Here is a list of the colour levels used by professionals and their representative names.
- Intense dark brown
- Dark brown
- Medium brown
- Light brown
- Dark blonde
- Medium blonde
- Light blonde
- Very light blonde
- Lightest blonde
Unfortunately, the manufacturers rarely use the professional system of identifying colour levels. Some even opt for obscure and meaningless names like “California” or other equally vague identifiers. Avoid brands that use ambiguous naming systems, it’s much more important that you can control your colour choice by using a brand with a useful identification system.
Some manufacturers do use a numbering system. However, they tend to use their own, this creates many different systems and increases confusion.
Don’t rely on the photograph on the box to give an accurate representation of the colour. You can’t tell what the natural level is before colouring, so you can’t gauge what result you will achieve on your hair. Look for clues like the numbers or representative names. Even if the numbers aren’t exactly the same as a professional system, they should be close enough for you to make a reasonably informed decision.
It may be that the number has a separator. This will be a symbol something like these / (slash) , (comma) . (stop) : (colon). If they are present then the number to the left of the separator is the level (shade) and the number(s) to the right is the tone. This is explained fully in the levels and tones chapter.
In a blind identification test, most non-hairdressers believe level 7 to be medium brown, when technically level 4 is medium brown whilst level 7 is actually medium blonde. This means that the general public’s perception of hair colour is different from that of professional hairdressers and must be taken into account when choosing a hair colour.
Because it falls close to the middle of the chart level 6 (Dark-blonde) is useful to show what can be achieved.
If you are lightening the hair, from natural level 6 you can only achieve around level 8 (light blonde). However, going darker is much easier, as you could take your hair down as far as level 1 black.
Be careful, unless you really want black hair, make sure you get the right product for the level you want to achieve. I’ve seen people who have accidentally bought a colour that turned out darker than they thought it would get a massive shock when the result was revealed and was way too dark. If you use a colour that is too dark it can only be lightened with bleach and should really only be attempted by an experienced salon professional as more often than not the result will be patchy and require another (different) colour application to correct and even the tone.
Once you have identified your true level, it’s time to get a colour that will achieve the level you want.
In general, neutral tones suit most people best, if you want to lighten your hair look for products that identify as cool this way you can prevent your hair from appearing orange as the colour lifts. You can add tone at your natural level by picking a product that is less neutral.
Unless you have a lot of white hair that you want to cover, to go darker either use a true semi-permanent colour (doesn’t require mixing) or a quasi (demi) colour. Demi-permanent colours don’t contain ammonia and use much lower strength developer (hydrogen peroxide). They simply add colour and will fade off the hair over time.
If you’re looking for a slightly brighter but not a statement look, then a semi-permanent will probably achieve the best result. However, if you want a really bright result, something like a strong red, then you will need to use a permanent colour. Remember the darker your natural hair the less bright the finished colour will be.
As a rule of thumb. pick a colour that is no more than 2 levels lighter or darker depending on whether you want your colour to be lighter or darker. Remember, if you want to go lighter you must use permanent colour.
Identify your natural colour level with the shade chart below.
Don’t buy products with ambiguous names.
You can only lift the colour by around 2 levels with tint.
Tint will not lighten an existing tint.
Preparation and Application
It’s important to know that colouring hair can be a messy job. So, in order to prepare for a home colour, there are a few questions that need answering.
How do I do a skin test?
At least 48 hours before colouring your hair, a skin compatibility test should be completed. Unless the instructions on the box say otherwise, this is best done by mixing a small amount of the colourant and the required amount of the developer, there should be an indication to the ratio on the box, if not then check the amounts of each ingredient if they are the same then the ratio is 1:1 if there is twice as much developer then the ratio is 1:2 and so on.
Once you have a smooth mixture take a cotton bud and dip it into the mixture and place a small spot of the mixture either behind an ear or in the crook of your elbow. Do not cover the product and leave for 48 hours. If there is no reaction, everything is fine to continue the application to your hair.
If you do experience a reaction, which could be anything from feeling warm at the site of the test to pain and discomfort, wash the product off your skin and do not continue the application to your hair. Follow the product’s instructions.
Do I need any special equipment?
You can purchase tinting bowls and brushes from any hairdressing supply shop (it’s worth ringing them to make sure they will sell to the public) or you can get them on Amazon.
I advise getting a mascara brush for applying the tint on the hairline around your face.
Some old towels or something similar, to protect the surfaces in your bathroom.
An old T-shirt or button fronted shirt that doesn’t need to go over your head, that you don’t mind getting the tint on.
Some clips, for sectioning your hair.
Vaseline, to use as a barrier cream around your hairline and on your ears.
Wet wipes, to remove any splashes that get on your skin.
A plastic bag to cover your hair whilst the colour processes.
Should I brush my hair first?
Yes, it’s easier to section your hair if it’s free of tangles.
Should I wash my hair first?
No, it’s important that any natural oils that are on your scalp are left there to protect your skin. If you wash them off you will lose that protection and may suffer some discomfort.
Should I use a deep conditioning treatment before colouring?
It’s not really necessary and it might create a barrier that stops the colour taking evenly.
Do I need to use all of the colour?
No, first just use half and see how you get on. You can make more if you need to. Make sure that you refit the caps to the colour and developer containers tightly as the hydrogen peroxide’s strength reduces after contact with air.
Gather together all of the items listed above. Colouring hair can be a little messy so remove any unnecessary items where you will be applying the colour to avoid damage.
Next, cover all surfaces with old towels (or similar).
Get yourself ready by wearing an old shirt and brush your hair to remove any tangles.
APPLICATION TECHNIQUE 1
This technique is for an allover colour on virgin hair at the same level or darker.
Start by applying some vaseline around your hairline at the front and on your ears, section the hair into 4 quarters as shown in the pictures below.
Next, when you are comfortable, mix the colour according to the manufacturer’s instructions. Do not mix the colour early, it starts processing as soon as it is mixed and may stop working before it has completely processed.
If you are colouring the hair to cover grey, start where the most grey hair is (usually at the front). This gives the colour more time to settle into the hair and achieve better coverage. Start by taking thin horizontal sections with the tail of your tinting brush from the front hairline to the ear.
Over time, all artificial hair colours fade. The reasons are many but with a little knowledge, you can keep the fading to a minimum.
Anything that is able to open the hair’s cuticle will allow the pigment granules to come out of the hair, resulting in colour fade.
First, let’s take a look at washing your hair. When hair is washed, we tend to use hot water. This can cause a problem because the hotter the water the more the cuticle will open and the easier it is for the colour granules to fall out of the hair shaft. So, try turning down the temperature a bit, a cold final rinse will close the cuticle and increase shine as well as protect your new colour
Shampoo is designed to remove dirt, grease and other things from the outer layer of the hair, if the cuticle is open then it will easily pull some of the colour out. Try washing your hair a little less frequently and just do one shampoo, this will help and save money as you’re not wasting product.
Avoid clarifying shampoos such as those designed for use after swimming. Also, anti-dandruff shampoos, these types of product will strip colour from hair.
Colour saving shampoos are readily available and do a great job of protecting hair colour.
The sun will fade the colour. UV rays in sunshine can damage the hair leading to colour fade, so if you are going to be out in the sun for long periods try to keep your hair covered. A good tip is to buy shampoo and conditioner that contain sunscreen as they will protect your hair from the damaging effects of the sun.
The heat generated by hairdryers, straightening irons and curling wands can damage the outer layer (cuticle) of the hair causing the hair to become porous. When this happens, it is easy for the pigment to fall out of the hair, reducing the intensity of the colour. Use a heat protector before drying and if it is possible to turn down the heat of the appliance do so. This will help to protect the hair and your colour.
Use cooler water to wash your hair.
Try to wash hair less frequently and just do one shampoo.
Avoid clarifying and anti-dandruff shampoos.
Use a shampoo and conditioner that contains a sunscreen.
Keep hair covered when in the sun.
Use a heat protector before drying when using any heated styling tools.
Reduce the heat of any electrically heated tools.