Hair Color 101

How to get the most from your chosen shade. Experts tackle your questions, head-on.

0512brushing-hair
Photo by Paul Sunday

Q. Should I wash my hair before I color?

A. No. The natural oils on your scalp act as a buffer between your skin and the chemicals you’re applying, so it’s best not to shampoo for 24 hours before coloring. If you’re going to a salon, make sure your last wash before the appointment isn’t with a color-depositing shampoo or conditioner. These can skew how the colorist perceives your current shade, therefore altering the results.

 

Q. What’s the difference between semipermanent and permanent color, and how do I choose?

A. Semipermanent color contains pigments that coat the outside of the hair shafts. It washes out in about five to seven weeks, so "it’s good for people who are wary of a big commitment to color or who want just a subtle change," says Shayla Crawford, lead colorist at Astrids Day Spa, in Springfield, Missouri. It can darken the tone of your current shade and cover a few gray hairs, but it can’t address a full head of white strands. Permanent hair color, on the other hand, typically contains ammonia to open the hair cuticles, so color gets deposited inside the shafts. It may also contain peroxide, which bleaches out hair’s natural tones. A permanent dye job can lighten hair, completely change its shade, and fully cover gray, but maintenance is high: Your roots will be obvious. “You’re looking at a touch-up every four to six weeks,” says Amanda Paul, lead color specialist at Salon 124, in Grayson, Georgia.

 

Q. What factors affect how my hair takes color?

A. The two biggies: your hair’s health and its texture. Healthy hair holds on to color best. If yours is dry or damaged, it might fade quickly. "Finer hair lightens faster and generally requires more gentle (semipermanent) agents, while coarser hair is more color-resistant but can handle potent chemicals," says Kim Lundin, creative director of the Gene Juarez Salons and Spas, in Seattle. At a salon, a colorist can make adjustments to accommodate your hair type by leaving the color on longer or washing it out sooner, but at home it’s harder to make those judgment calls. (That’s why salon color is often a safer choice.)

 
"In addition, some medications and other drugs may affect hair’s receptivity to dye," says Richard Sollazzo, an internist and oncologist in private practice in New York City. The most common culprits could be thyroid medications, chemotherapy, and some types of hormonal medications. Always alert your colorist about medication changes.

Q. Are hair-coloring chemicals harmful?

A. Dyeing your hair can weaken it, which is why colorists stress the importance of using conditioning treatments and color-specific products. "Coloring formulas can also irritate your scalp if it’s extremely sensitive," says Nicolay Loor, a colorist at the Stephen Knoll salon, in New York City. About 30 years ago, concern arose that chemicals in the coloring process might increase the risk for certain cancers in those who dye their hair, “but most large studies since then have been reassuring,” says Michael J. Thun, M.D., M.S., vice president of epidemiology and surveillance research for the American Cancer Society. And according to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, hair dyes are considered safe to use during pregnancy. (Still, if you’re pregnant, colorists suggest consulting your doctor.)


 

Q. How do I keep my hair color from fading?

A. You can’t stop fading completely, but you can slow it down. Don’t shampoo for at least a day after you color. "From then on, wash only every two to three days," says Jasen James, a color specialist at Maxine Salon, in Chicago. Stick to shampoos and conditioners made for color-treated hair, since “these products are designed to keep the hair shafts closed, and that keeps color in,” explains Crawford. If your scalp gets greasy on days you don’t shampoo, Naomi Knights, a color technologist at the Cristiano Cora Studio, in New York City, suggests scrubbing and rinsing your scalp with plain water, then conditioning and rinsing the hair’s ends. Or try a dry shampoo, which absorbs scalp oils without the need for water.

 

Shield hair from the sun with a hat or a color-protecting styling product, such as Kérastase Soleil Crème UV Défense Active ($36, kerastase-usa.com). Salt water and chlorine can fade your shade, too, so create a barrier by wetting hair with fresh water, then applying conditioner, like KMS California Sol Perfection Survival Creme ($13, amazon.com). “Hair acts like a sponge,” says color specialist Amanda Paul. “If it’s wet, it can’t absorb (the chlorine or the salt water) and will fade less.”

In general, help keep hair healthy by minimizing the damage of heat styling with a frequent conditioning treatment, such as Redken Color Extend Rich Recovery ($17, walgreens.com). And be wary of volumizing products, which can open the hair’s cuticles, releasing the color inside and causing fading.

Q. I had my hair colored and I hate the shade. What can I do?

A. If you know you’re not happy while you’re still at the salon, speak up. A pro can usually remedy the problem with ease. “Sometimes you can simply take it to another shade with a toner, or maybe add a few highlights or lowlights,” says Carla Gentile, owner of Steam Salon, in Los Angeles. If you realize you don’t like the color after you get home, call the salon and speak to the manager. A reputable salon will invite you back to fix it. Whatever you do, don’t try to correct the color yourself. You run the risk of making matters worse, since the product you use may react with the chemicals already in your hair. (Green highlights have been known to happen.)

 

For home hair-color mistakes, color specialist Jasen James suggests "washing every day for a week with a clarifying shampoo, which can remove some of the dye." If you want to be more aggressive, he recommends scrubbing hair one time with a mix of liquid dish soap and a tablespoon of baking soda. Follow this with a deep conditioner.

 

Q. How can I keep my highlights looking good longer?

A. Protect hair from the sun, which can oxidize color and turn golden streaks orange (a common complaint). If you shower with treated well water or water that has a high rust content (both of which can deposit minerals that make highlights look brassy), install a shower filter. Or use a detoxifying treatment, such as Davines Detoxifying Environmental Damage Recovery Mud ($68, sleekhair.com), to remove the residue.

 

If your highlights have already turned brassy, your colorist can apply a glaze to counteract the orange and return your hair to the desired shade. Color-enhancing shampoos and conditioners that have a blue or purple color, such as Bumble and Bumble Color Support Shampoo and Conditioner for Cool Blondes ($23 each, bumbleandbumble.com), can also neutralize brassiness.

As for roots that show between salon appointments, you can cover them in two ways. The simplest but most temporary fix is with a color wand, like ColorMark ($22, colormarkpro.com). Easy to apply (just brush the wand over gray roots), it washes out with your next shampoo. For longer-lasting coverage, consider an at-home root touch-up product, such as Clairol Nice’n Easy Root Touch-Up ($7 at drugstores). It’s similar to single-process color, but you apply it to your roots only. "Choose a shade that’s slightly lighter than your base color so there’s less of a chance that you’ll wipe out your highlights," suggests Michael Brimhall, senior colorist at the Warren-Tricomi Salon in New York City.
 

Q. How do I get hair dye off my skin?

A. To minimize staining when coloring at home, always apply a barrier to protect skin as much as possible. Dab a layer of petroleum jelly or heavy moisturizer (like Cetaphil Moisturizing Cream) around your hairline. If you do get a stain on your skin, try using rubbing alcohol, an astringent toner (like Sea Breeze), or a color stain remover from a beauty-supply store.

 

Q. Can I use a store-bought glaze in between color appointments?

A. Tread carefully―you don’t want to spend time and money on salon color just to mess it up at home. If you use a glaze with pigment, Michael Brimhall, a senior colorist at the Warren-Tricomi Salon in New York City, recommends matching it to your highlights, not your base color, so your highlights won’t darken. Clear glazes, such as John Frieda Collection Luminous Color Glaze in Clear Shine ($10 at drugstores), are usually fine and can help boost shine.

 

Q. Why doesn’t semipermanent color show up on dark hair?

A. According to Lisa Evans, senior colorist at Salon Mario Russo, in Boston, semipermanent color or any coloring product that is designated as “temporary,” “wash out,” or “deposit-only” won’t work on dark hair because it doesn’t contain a combination of ammonia and highly concentrated hydrogen peroxide (you need both to lighten dark hair). A permanent shade will brighten your color, but when this is done at home, the result is usually an unwanted brassy red. Your best bet is to have the process done professionally. Amanda Paul, lead color specialist at Salon 124, in Grayson, Georgia, recommends asking for subtle caramel highlights, which will look most natural.

 

Q. Are there any “green” hair-color alternatives?

A. Some salons are coming around to the idea of earth-friendly, chemical-free hair color that offers clients an alternative to noxious ammonia, but you’ll probably have to do some research to find one. “Natural color costs more, and salon owners aren’t quick to change when they’ve been using a color line they like. But clients are starting to demand it, so I think eventually ammonia will be a thing of the past,” says John Masters, creator and owner of John Masters Organics, in New York City.