To Dye Or Not To Dye?

What you need to know before you dye your hair.

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.)

Diagram source:

Diagram source:

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.


I use ammonia-free, Ion Demi-Permanent Light Burgundy Blonde with low-level 10 developer. My hair’s texture, porosity and natural medium brown color allow me to achieve this vibrant color without permanent dye or bleach. I touch-up every 10-16 weeks; it just depends on how much has washed out over time. I did not experience any change in curl pattern, shedding or breakage after using this color system. I attribute this to the fact that my hair was healthy before color processing.


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. And there’s no harm in visiting more than one salon to compare recommendations! So, find a few pictures of the color you want to show the stylist and ask these questions during your consultation:

  1. What color system do you use and are the maintenance products (shampoo, conditioner, etc.) available from the salon or in stores?
  2. Will the color I want require bleach? (If the answer to this is “yes,” you may consider another color as bleach can be difficult to maintain if you do not schedule regular salon visits.)
  3. Is it possible to achieve the color I want without the use of permanent dye (using demi- or semi-permanent)?
  4. What products are recommended to maintain the vibrance of the color and keep my hair healthy at home?
  5. How often will the color need to be touched-up?
  6. Are there any products/ingredients I should avoid once this color process is complete?
  7. How often will I need to return for touch-up and hair cut?
  8. 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!

24 Comments to To Dye Or Not To Dye?

  1. I was thinking about dying my hair so this is good to know thank you.

  2. This was very helpful. Your explanation and breakdown of the different types of dyes and developers was awesome. THANK YOU for posting this!

  3. Latoya Abron // February 16, 2014 at 10:21 am //

    I have been natural for four years now. I decided to let my beautician to dye my hair yesterday. She used a developer 20 on my hair. My hair did not take. She told me to come back in a week from now. So she can attempt to recolor my hair. What is your advice for me?

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  5. i want to dye my hair, but I am transitioning but i am concerned that my hair will become damaged. i believe that my natural hair texture is 4b with coarse strands and low porosity. what would be your advice?

  6. Danetra H // June 14, 2014 at 3:30 pm //

    DO you have any tips for going darker? I’ve never dyed my hair before and already have a natural dark brown but I would like to go black.

  7. I mistakenly bought 20 volume liquid developer instead of cream, but heard I can still
    use liquid. ? Can I mix/use it with black hair dye, my hair color is a dark brown.

  8. janae bryant // August 11, 2014 at 10:18 am //

    i just dyed my hair but it didn’t turn out to be the color I wanted can I change it now or wait till its out then try to dye it again

  9. I want this so bad I have dyed my hair like two weeks agocontent://media/external/file/1819

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  12. This was really helpful. I’m going to ask these questions when I go to get my hair colored 🙂

  13. Luv ur hair! My question is I’ve been natural for 1 1/2 yrs. now and luv it but I have gray hair ESP in the front so I color just to cover it because it annoys me so. I’ve used in past Shea Moistures haircolor system which I loved but they stopped selling at Target and got to be too much $$ to order so I just changed to the One n Only Argan Oil system and I luv that too now because the color it turned my gray was medium copper on roots and I already had dark auburn on earlier dyes that turned hair like a fire red so my hair color has many hues to it because color turns gray into a brighter color than pkcg but still all beautiful. Now you may ask what’s my ? Well I constantly have to color gray because as soon as I color within 2 weeks I have gray again coming in and I just can’t believe my hair grows that fast as my friends have told me. These are permanent colors so I’ve always been waiting at least 2 months before applying more color to roots but still 2 wks later there’s new gray growth so what do u suggest? I used a color powder to cover it but u know these don’t last n just rubs off. Oh and did I mention I just luv ur hair?!!

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  15. i want to dye my hair, but I am transitioning but i am concerned that my hair will become damaged. i believe that my natural hair texture is 1b or a 2 with coarse strands and low porosity. what would be your advice?

  16. Lindsay Nelligan // March 9, 2015 at 8:28 pm //

    I have natural highlights. I wanna dye my hair blond, but not permanently….just for the summer or winter….

  17. Lindsay Nelligan // March 9, 2015 at 8:32 pm //

    My natural hair color is a mix between 1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9,10,11,and 12

  18. Lynn Mears // April 6, 2016 at 12:21 pm //

    Mo can coloring your hair determine your hairs porosity? I took Shea’s porosity test twice and just for kicks I changed my answers to whether or not my hair was color treated. When I said it was, the answer was that my hair was high porosity” & the opposite when I said I wasn’t color treated, then the result was that I’m low porosity. Please help! I trust your knowledge over theirs. I’ve also done the clean strand in a cup of water thing and days later my color treated hair still hadn’t sank. Thanks

    • Lifting your hair several levels (with permanent color or bleach) can increase the hair’s porosity because the cuticle open due to the chemical processing. Hair will absorb and lose moisture more quickly than it did prior to processing.

  19. Charlene Taylor // April 8, 2016 at 7:47 am //

    I have black dyed hair and have bought a red one for the bottom half now where the developer and colour haven’t mixed properly I started to put it on and realised so mixed it more now it hasn’t taken apart from where the colour has gone with out the developer I’ve bought 2 so want to put the other one on with out the developer is this going to be safe??

  20. Dede Dallas // September 7, 2016 at 7:56 am //

    I have a question…..I’m just starting my natural hair and it’s damage a little do I have to cut it off?

  21. My girlfriend is thinking she can dye her hair from black to a light blond. She says she can do this with a semi-permanent dye. After looking at your chart, I don’t think this would be possible. She would need to use something permanent. Thanks for the advice.

  22. Hi my name is brittany I had to know if u new to coloring your hair what would happen to your hair and if your hair is a dirty brown can you still color your hair still

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