In 1956, Clairol introduced the first at-home hair-coloring kit, and suddenly women everywhere had the option to take something into their own hands that they had previously had no choice but to entrust to professionals.
In the last half-century, millions upon millions of women have colored their hair themselves, and the market has provided an ever-increasing array of products with which to do it: semi-permanent, demi-permanent, glosses, and glazes. But just because you can color your hair yourself, should you? The answer depends on the woman. Up to 70 percent of women have tried at-home hair color. Some just want to camouflage grays, some want to augment their natural color, and some want a drastic change. Since tinkering with hair’s pigments can sometimes have disastrous and indelible results, learn when it’s safe for amateurs to give it a shot and when hair coloring should be left to the professionals.
Not All Dyes Are Created Equal
There are three distinct types of at-home hair color, each with a different chemical formula and different abilities. The first step in successful at-home coloring is choosing the right one for your needs.
Level 1 Color (Semi-Permanent Hair Color): These formulas (like Clairol Loving Care) contain no ammonia or peroxide, so they work by simply coating the hair shaft in color. That makes them very gentle, but it also means that they’re very temporary, usually washing out in six to ten shampoos. Also, since it doesn’t open the hair’s cuticle, semi-permanent color can’t lighten hair. You'll often find that semi-permanent hair colors come in outrageous colors designed to be worn for brief periods and then washed away.
Level 2 Color (Demi-Permanent Hair Color): Products like L’Oreal Healthy Look or Garnier Herbashine contain peroxide, so they open up the hair’s cuticle and react with your natural color just a bit. They can darken or enhance and take much longer to wash away than Level 1 color does (Level 2 lasts about six weeks). But Level 2 products don’t contain ammonia, so they can’t lighten hair. Demi-permanent colors are still fairly gentle on hair, and since they don’t have the chemical power to make major or permanent changes, they’re fairly foolproof.
Level 2 Color (Permanent Hair Color): Level 3 colors contain both ammonia and peroxide, so they work in the same way that salon colors do, completely opening up the hair’s cuticle and reacting with your natural pigments to induce a permanent molecular change. The color may fade over time, but it will not wash out. Level 3 formulas (like Garnier Nutrisse or Clairol Nice ’n Easy) can lighten hair, but they have the most potential for unintended reactions and results, and the chemicals can leave hair dry, dull, and over-processed.
Don’t Try This at Home
Home hair color, in any formulation, is an excellent option for a woman who just wants to cover or blend away grays, enhance her natural color, or go a shade or two darker than what she currently has. It’s great for a woman who wants a single-process, all-over hair color, and it’s great for people with hair that’s healthy and in good condition. But if you’re looking to make a very drastic change (more than two or three shades away from your natural color)—especially if you want to go from very dark to very light—go to a professional colorist, since this requires a more complicated double process. It’s also a good idea to see a pro if your hair is permed, relaxed, damaged, or already colored, since this affects how color “takes.” Things like highlights, lowlights, and frosting are also tricky procedures that shouldn’t be attempted at home.
Whether you’re a home hair-color pro or a first-timer, keeping a few helpful hints in mind can make the difference between a fabulous hairdo and a fiasco.
- DO spread a little Vaseline around your hairline and behind your ears before you start to color. This can help prevent stains on your skin.
- DON’T wash hair before you color. A little bit of oil acts as a protective barrier against the chemicals.
- DO start at the roots every time, since virgin hair takes longer to color. Only leave the product on the ends of your hair for the time specified in the instructions, since the ends are more porous and can absorb color more readily.
- DON’T try to fix a disaster yourself. If your home-coloring job has gone terribly awry, head to a salon for a professional fix.
- DO clean up drips and spills immediately. If hair color gets on your walls or floor, it will stain.
- DON’T feel the need to use all of the product in the bottle. If there is some left over after your hair is well-coated, toss it away.
- DO remember that the finished result will always look different on you than it did on the box. The final color will always depend on how the product interacts with your own natural pigments, so do a strand test first to be sure you know what you’re getting.
- DON’T wash hair for 24 to 48 hours after you color.
- DO treat your hair gently with products specifically designed for color-treated hair to keep your hair fresh and healthy and your color vibrant.
The first home hair-color kits were unpredictable, stinky, and laden with harsh chemicals. Today there are dozens of options that make it easy to choose the right color and get the right result. Picking a new you is as easy as picking a box off the shelf.