Changing your hair color is great way to create a new look. Bright reds and vibrant blondes are popular ways to spruce up your do, but there are some things you need to consider before altering the color of your hair.
Let’s start from the beginning. Hair is mostly made up of keratin, the same protein found in your skin and fingernails. The natural color of your hair depends on the ratio and quantities of two melanin pigments, eumelanin and pheomelanin. Eumelanin, which determines darkness of hair, makes brown to black shades. The amount of genes you have that produce this pigment is believed to be genetic. Pheomelanin produces lighter golden browns, blondes and reds. The absence of either melanin makes your hair white or gray (we lose melanin as we age, hence the reason hair grays with age).
Now, let’s look at two ways you can alter your hair’s natural color:
1. Temporary Hair Color
Semi-permanent dye deposits on the outside of the hair shaft. These products do not contain ammonia, meaning the cuticle isn’t opened during processing and the hair’s natural color and texture is retained once the color is washed out over time. These are often referred to as “rinses” or “tints.”
Demi-permanent dye lasts longer than semi-permanent, but eventually washes out over LOTS more time. These colors are ammonia-free and deposited using level 10 developer, which will not lift (lighten) or remove the natural hair color, but will slightly open the cuticle allowing color to deposit on top of your natural pigment.
Henna is a plant that grows in dry, hot climates. When its leaves are harvested, dried and powdered and then mixed with a mildly acidic liquid, it will stain skin, hair, and fingernails. Henna will not lighten the color of your hair, but it may tent or highlight (see page 24 of Henna for Hair “How-To” Henna). Like demi-permanent dye, it will deposit color and “wear-down” over lots of time if it is not reapplied. Because henna comes from a plant, it is said to be a healthier option for hair color.
2. Permanent Hair Color
Traditionally, there are two main parts to a permanent color process that take place simultaneously. First, the outer layer of the hair shaft, the cuticle, must be opened before color can be deposited into the hair. Peroxide, or developer, is the chemical that opens the cuticle so the dye can react with the inner portion of the hair, the cortex, to deposit the color. The level of developer used is determined by the desired color and how many “levels” of lifting it will take to achieve it.
Second, ammonia combines with the peroxide to remove the hair’s natural color (melanin) making it possible for the new, permanent color to bond to the hair’s cortex. Bleach or hydrogen peroxide is often used to achieve very light shades on naturally dark hair. Conditioners and other agents in the dye close the cuticle after dying to seal the new color, making it permanent.
More recently, brands have been releasing ammonia-free permanent dyes using an ammonia alternative called MEA, or monoethanolamine, to lift the hair up to three levels. They are designed to gently open the cuticle with an oil base to allow the color molecules in the hair shaft, and with heat, they activate. The developers for these dyes use hydrogen peroxide for lift, but without ammonia.
What you need to consider before choosing to dye your hair.
Porosity: How your hair absorbs and holds moisture will determine how color deposits in your hair. If you have low porosity, it can be more difficult to process dye because the hair shaft is not as receptive to foreign chemicals. This means if you are using a box kit, you may not get the color result as you see it on the packaging. If you have high porosity, you have to be careful not to over-process the hair as chemicals can process almost twice as fast. But, you can expect the color to fade slower. Also note, permanent dye will increase your hair’s porosity since it has to penetrate the cortex, making it harder for the hair to retain moisture in the future (which is why dryness can become an issue).
Texture: Coarse strands generally take more time to absorb color than fine width strands. This means the processing time may vary from the instructions given in box kits. How much, you ask? Well…as always, it depends! (Not sure what hair texture you have? Learn more about texture typing.)
Your Natural Hair Color: There are levels to this. If you have level one or two, black/very dark brown hair, you will not make it to those light blondes and bright reds without the use of permanent dye, high-level developer and in some cases, bleaching agents.
Damage: Depending on the type of dye used and how many levels you have climbed up the color chart, you may experience differences in curl pattern, elasticity and overall manageability. This varies person to person. Some people have no problem at all with hair color and for others it’s a disaster. A good barometer is to think about your hair’s history. If you are prone to excessive shedding, dryness and breakage without color, expect those issues to get worse with it.
Looking at those kits on your favorite retailers’ shelves make it look so easy! But, you should know that dying your own hair when you are not completely knowledgeable about how chemicals interact is extremely risky. Also, hair dye is not a “one size fit all” process. No two people will get the exact same result because everyone’s hair is different. Using what you see others use or guessing can be a costly, damaging, irreversible mistake. This is not meant to discourage you from ever dying your hair, but to arm you with information you need to make a wise, conscious decision!
It is always my recommendation that you consult a professional colorist or stylist (that you trust) in your area before making any decisions about chemically altering the color of your hair. In almost every instance, consultations are free and do not require booking a service upfront. And there’s no harm in visiting more than one salon to compare their recommendations! So, find a few pictures of the color you want to show the stylist and ask these questions during your consultation:
- What color system do you use and are the maintenance products (shampoo, conditioner, etc.) available from the salon or in stores?
- Will the color I want require bleach? (If the answer to this is “yes,” you may consider another color as bleach can be very harsh on the hair making it difficult to keep it healthy.)
- Is it possible to achieve the color I want without the use of permanent dye (only using low-level developer and/or demi-dye, semi-dye, or a tint)?
- What treatments are recommended to maintain the vibrance of the color and keep my hair healthy?
- How often will the color need to be touched-up?
- Are there any products/ingredients I should avoid once this color process is complete?
- Do you think my hair, as you can see it now, is in a healthy enough state to withstand this chemical process?
I hope this information gives you a better understanding of how dye works and how to approach and plan your hair color transition!