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The Be-All, End-All Guide to Dyeing Your Hair At Home

Less muss, less fuss.

Coloring your hair at home involves so much more than simply buying a box of color and following the directions. There’s a lot to consider: the strength of dye you’re using, your skin and hair’s natural coloring and undertones, maintaining the color once you achieve it. I’ve taken my own experience, as well as the expertise of some of the coolest beauty editors and colorists in the business, to give you the ultimate guide to home hair color.

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For years, I’ve reached for box color to match my aesthetic, my lifestyle, and my rapidly-swinging moods. I’ve spent hours in tiny, unventilated bathrooms, breathing in chemical fumes while coloring my friend’s hair (a great way to pregame a night out, by the way). It’s a labor of love; a long process of trial and error that takes years to perfect. Once you find the perfect color and technique for you and your hair type, you can pull off beautiful, luminous color without ever setting foot in a salon.

The Rule of Two Shades

First off, keep in mind that dramatic changes may be better left in the hands of a professional. If you want to go from brunette to platinum from a box, my best advice would be to not.

Even if you’re an at-home hair color pro (but especially if you’re a newbie), a good tip to keep in mind when choosing a color is what we'll call "The Rule of Two Shades." This means when you’re choosing a new hair color, you’ll most likely get the best results going only two shades darker or lighter per coloring.

Applying a too-dark color can lead to discoloration, uneven color, and some nasty fading. On the other hand, trying to take dark hair too light with just once processing… well, we’ve all seen the results. Subtle changes can give you a vibrant, rich tone that will stay wearable longer, and help you achieve better color over time.

More Is More

Once you settle on a color, play it safe by buying two boxes—one may not be enough. While most at-home kits contain an ample amount of hair color, buying two ensures you’ll have enough product to coat every strand, regardless of your hair’s length, thickness, and texture. You don’t want to discover that you're out of color in the middle of the application process!

Know Your Strengths

Not all dyes are the same strength, so knowing the difference in their staying power is important.

Semi-Permanent color lasts through 8-12 shampoos. These are the gentlest dyes, making them ideal for coloring fine hair, softly tinting grays and providing even coverage.

Demi-Permanent color lasts through 26-28 washes. Demi-permanent dyes color hair outside of the strand, coating it in color without permanently altering your natural hair. These are a great way to road test a new color without being tied down for good.

Permanent color will be there until the hair grows out. Permanents traditionally contain ammonia, which opens the hair’s cuticle, depositing color inside the strand—so there’s no going back on the color you choose. Many permanent dyes have been reformulated without ammonia or other harsh chemicals, in order to be more gentle while still providing lasting results.

Strong Is Better

The condition of your hair when you color it has a lot to do with how the color will last, and catching your hair in the perfect condition can be a bit tricky. Healthy hair always holds color the best, so as you’re approaching the big day, apply a moisturizing mask to ensure that hair is hydrated, resilient, and ready for color application. Living Proof’s Restore Treatment Mask always comes through in the clutch when my hair is in desperate need of hydration. It makes hair 20 times stronger after just one use, and works to protect hair from future damage. But most importantly, it makes my hair look like I just stepped out of the salon.

Masking isn’t only important before you color, it’s essential to replenish your hair’s strength after you color as well. Beauty writer Arabelle Sicardi stresses the importance of masks after lightening your hair. "I do a hair mask cocktail after I bleach it," Sicardi explains, "Usually consisting of a protein mask (Arrojo has one) and a Kerastase mask, or whatever I'm testing at the time." She notes that while protein hair products can be more difficult to find than moisture masks, protein is vital after any dramatic hair change.

Get Dirty

Conversely, hair color always takes better to hair that isn’t freshly washed. Your natural oils work as a barrier between the dye, which can irritate some people, and your scalp. Make sure hold off on shampooing at least 24 hours before you color.

Dirty hair is sexier anyway.

blonde hair close up

Photo: Getty Images

Cleansing Your Color

The sad truth is that every time you wash dyed hair, you’re stripping it of its color. After coloring, try to space out shampoos by a couple of days—two or three at least.

I’m not going to waste your time by telling you to use shampoos and conditioners specially designed for color treated hair, because that much is obvious. What I will tell you is that the game has changed: while there are a lot of great products out there for protecting your color, but you need to be using Purely Perfect Cleansing Crème.

This new product is ideal for all hair types. It combines aloe vera and essential oils like peppermint, sunflower, and primrose, without using any detergents, sulfates, or parabens. It’s the safest cleanser to use on your color-treated hair because its gentle formula won’t strip your hair of color and it causes virtually no fading, leaving your hair looking and feeling better than ever. It even takes the place of your conditioner. Purely Perfect is a true all-in-one.

Sun Protection

We talk so much about protecting skin when we’re out in the sun, but we forget that sun damages hair as well. Too much sun exposure can lead to brassiness in blondes, pull red tones out of darker hair, and cause discoloration for anyone.

The best way to avoid sun damage is just to cover up. Find a great sun hat or a vintage scarf to keep hair healthy and color vibrant—as if you needed another reason to accessorize.

Heat Styling

Half the fun of having beautifully colored hair is being able to style it, but be careful: one of the quickest ways to rob yourself of the color that you spent so much time and money achieving is to hit it with hot styling tools.

"Avoid heat styling too much," Celebrity hair stylist Aura Friedman warns, "Any type of heat styling opens your cuticle and draws your color right out, especially flat ironing and curling irons. Always protect your hair before you dry it or before you use any heat." She recommends a leave in conditioner from Shu Uemura’s Color Lustre line, saying it’s "a great protective barrier when heat styling." The reason? The product burns off, keeping your hair from getting singed.

Think you’re ready to try it yourself? Here are some of the best at-home colors on the market right now:

If you want perfect color: eSalon

If you want color that’s totally customized to you—personalized almost to a level that you’d get in a salon—eSalon is the way to go. You begin by filling out a profile about your natural hair, its color, texture, how it takes to dye, whether or not its already color treated, and the color you’d like to achieve, and eSalon generates a number of options for you. And you can even—wait for it—talk to an actual colorist about any questions you have. Each color is custom blended to perfectly compliment your natural coloring, and to work with your lifestyle and how often you color your own hair.

If you want to nourish your hair (and avoid that hair dye smell): Madison Reed

Madison Reed wants to change the way you think about box color. It’s formulated with argan oil, keratin, and ginseng root to fortify, protect, and nourish your hair while it colors. What you won’t find in Madison Reed color is ammonia, harmful chemicals, or parabens. That means no foul smell or irritation, and less damage to your hair. They use a gentler coloring process involving smaller color molecules, which don’t open the hair cuticle the way that many permanent dyes do. This leaves your hair stronger, allowing it to hold color longer. The kit comes with everything you need for a no-mess, at-home dye job—including multiple pairs of gloves (one for application, one for the rinse #thoughtful), barrier cream, and cleansing wipes.

If you like things clean and simple: L’Oréal’s Superior Preference Mousse Absoloue

With all of the dyes, creams, bowls, and tools, coloring your own hair can be a messy process. L’Oréal redefines at-home color with their new system; the color and developer mix as they dispense into your hand, removing multiple steps from the coloring process, eliminating the mess, and allowing you to store the product for re-use and touch-ups.

Never again will unused product go to waste. Use the leftover color for root touch-ups, reglossing, or save it for your next recolor. The color mousse is very easy to work with—you won’t have to worry about dripping or running down into your eyes while it’s processing.

If you're an old pro: Wella Colour Charm Permanent Haircolor

If you’re an at-home color veteran and you’re ready to upgrade from a box, Wella Colour Charm Permanent Haircolor puts the power in your hands, allowing you to customize the shade and strength of the color you’re using.

Alle Connell, Senior Beauty Editor of Daily Makeover swears by it, saying, "My best advice is to learn a little about how hair dye works before you start coloring. Just knowing what the numbers mean, the difference between permanent, semi-permanent and demi-permanent dyes and different developer strengths will aid you well; it gives you a way better idea of how your hair will turn out than staring at a box ever will."

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