If you’re like me, you just don’t have three hours to sit in a salon chair to get your hair cut and colored. After realizing that a professional-looking treatment isn’t very hard to copy – and in the interest of saving my time, money, and sanity – I set about perfecting my home hair coloring technique. At first, it may seem like a recipe for disaster, but if all you’re doing is covering up grays or making minor changes to shade, you’re a prime candidate for home coloring.
Of course, it’s important to remember that while coloring your hair at home can save you money, it does cost you time – generally around 60 to 90 minutes. The dye itself is the biggest monetary expense, and with the cost of extra accessories, your total DIY job should cost around $25. And once you purchase hairdresser’s clips and a dye brush, that lowers your outlay the next time around. If you’re a fellow salon-hater, or simply do not want to spend $80 to $100 every six weeks, the substantial savings of home hair coloring may be enough to justify the investment of time.
Home Hair Coloring Tips
The following method was not easily formulated. I’ve completely botched my hair dye three times in the 10-plus years I’ve been doing it DIY, but because hindsight is 20/20, I can now pinpoint exactly what went wrong. Learn from my mistakes and get a great dye job on the cheap every time by using these tips.
1. Don’t Make Drastic Changes
The number one rule of thumb of DIY hair dyeing is to avoid drastic changes. Anytime you want to alter your hair color more than three shades, it’s best to see a pro. Lightening hair sometimes requires a light base, and going extremely dark can result in higher chances of patchy color. If you’re planning an extreme makeover, visit the hair salon.
Two of the three times I ruined my DIY dye job, I was shooting too high. One resulted in dark, splotchy black, and the other looked a lot more orange than the blonde hue I was going for. The lesson I learned was to self-dye for more natural results by sticking within my color family.
2. Choose the Right Shade
Don’t make the mistake of heading to the store and just grabbing a box of hair color. Instead, take your time. I tend to buy dye at big box stores because they have the largest range of shades and brands.
Even if you love the model’s hair on the box, there’s little chance your hair is going to look the same as hers. Individual hair thickness, skin tone, and current color can all affect your results for an unpredictable result. Your best bet is to choose a hue based on your skin tone.
Here’s a quick primer on matching skin tone to color:
- If your eyes are brown, blue, or hazel with blue or green flecks, you have a cool skin tone and should choose shades that are cool-toned as well – such as ashy brown, beige blonde, burgundy red, and blue-hued blacks. Cool skin tones usually look best in silver jewelry, so if you naturally gravitate to silver, this is you.
- If your eyes are brown, blue, or hazel with brown flecks, your skin is likely warm-toned and you look best in gold jewelry. Choose hair colors that are similarly golden-toned, like golden brown, wheat-toned blonde, auburn red, and black with reddish tones.
Many hair color brands offer several shades within the tone. The color guide on top of the box usually lets you know if the tone is warm or cool, and shows a realistic picture of how it should turn out on your hair shade. If you’re still wary, try a temporary color, rather than permanent – it should wash out after approximately 28 shampoos.
3. Prep Your Hair
Color works best with dirty hair, since it lacks the slippery conditioner that freshly washed locks have. Coloring 24 to 48 hours after your last wash is usually fine. That way, color stays on the strands and penetrates better for more predictable results.
Always start with your hair combed into your usual style. That way, you can perfect the color on top before moving to the hair underneath the first layer. This is also the perfect time to change into an old shirt. I prefer a button-up, since it doesn’t need to be pulled over the head (and through a bunch of dye) when it’s time to rinse.
4. Gather Tools
Keep your necessary tools at the ready so you don’t have to waste time searching while your color is processing. Here are some of the things you need:
- Box of Hair Color. If you’re short on time, options such as Clairol’s Perfect 10 have more potent formulas and can process faster, but can also be more damaging to dry hair. My favorite color is a two-way tie between Clairol’s Nice n’ Easy Foam (perfect for beginners since it’s easy to distribute and less likely to miss spots), and L’Oreal Couleur Experte, which contains both color and simple highlights in the same box for a natural look. Each costs anywhere from $6 to $15.
- Plastic Gloves. These should come in the hair color box, attached to the instructions.
- Petroleum Jelly. Rub it along your hairline to prevent staining your skin. If you’re out of petroleum jelly, any thick lotion works.
- Comb. Get any kind from your local store.
- Hairdresser Clip. These are the long clips your hairdresser uses to hold your hair up when styling. You can get a pack of six for around $2 in the hair aisle of a drugstore, big box store, or beauty supply store. It allows you to focus on saturating sections with color before moving onto the next area.
- Dye Brush. This is like a short paintbrush, which you can buy at beauty supply stores for about $2 to $3. It’s much easier to control the dye with one than applying it with your hands.
- Timer. Any kind can get the job done.
- Conditioner. If dying your hair black, brown, or red, choose a conditioner that’s gentle on colors – those are the first shades to fade and a color-safe conditioner can help preserve them.
You may also need to protect any light-colored counters in your bathroom, since even light hair color formulas can stain. Once you have your tools at the ready, it’s time to do the strand test.
5. Do a Strand Test
While it may seem like one of the less important steps, don’t make the mistake of ignoring the strand test. It tells you exactly how the hair dye looks on your hair and allows you to adjust processing times accordingly. Just grab a half-inch section of hair that’s not typically visible – I usually take some from behind my ear – apply the dye and wait the amount of time prescribed on the box. Then rinse it off in cool water.
Dry your strand and assess: Do you like the color? Are the results too subtle, requiring extra processing time? If so, try tacking on an extra 5 to 10 minutes, since some people’s hair takes color faster than others. If you’re happy with the test, proceed. If you hate it, be grateful you didn’t do your entire head.
6. Apply the Color
If you’re just touching up your roots, load up your dye brush and start there. If you’re coloring all over, apply it first to the hair that’s visible when it’s combed into your usual style and then move onto the bottom layers.
This is where your dye brush comes in handy. Brush the dye as close to the roots as possible, and then drag the color down the length of your hair while it’s flat on your head. Continue the process until the entire first layer is saturated. Then, use your hairdresser clip to separate the first inch of the top section and continue the process on the next layer.
Once your head is completely covered, set your timer as prescribed in the color instructions. Starting it when you first begin coloring your hair could mean that your bottom layers don’t get enough processing time.
My best piece of advice for applying the color is to take your time. Hair dye is potent for about 90 minutes after it’s mixed, so you don’t need to hurry the process. Being patient results in even, saturated color instead of splotches and an uneven hue.
7. Add Heat
Some hair is more resistant to color than others. If you have thick hair or you’re going lighter than your natural hair color, adding heat can help improve dye penetration for better results. You probably don’t have a salon-quality dryer in your bathroom, but any hairdryer should do.
I pop a diffuser (a round attachment with prongs) on my dryer and then focus the heat on my roots. The diffuser is so large that directing the nozzle at your roots means even heat distribution across your head. I usually do this during the last 5 or 10 minutes of processing, and it always gives me better results.
8. Rinse and Condition
Once your timer goes off, rinse out the color without using shampoo. It may be tempting to just wash it out over the sink, but you could end up leaving color in your hair, which is highly damaging.
Instead, do yourself a favor and hop in the shower so you can wash thoroughly. Add water and scrub your hair with your fingertips as if you’re shampooing. Then, rinse it out and watch the water until it runs clear. Finally, finish up with a good-quality conditioner – there’s usually one in the hair color box. You can also check for dye drips on your skin. If you notice some, use an exfoliating cream and they should come right off.
9. Style and Assess
Lastly, style your hair as usual and assess the results. Don’t make any snap judgements when your hair is still wet, since water makes your hair look darker than it really is. Instead, use a warm – not hot – hairdryer to style your hair with minimum heat. Then, check out the color in natural light – by a window, for example.
Hopefully you love the result. But if you don’t, there are some ways to fix it:
- Use a Color Remover. Products such as Color Oops can strip dye from hair, but it only works if you dyed it a darker color. If you’ve lightened your hair, it’s likely that hydrogen peroxide was used and your hair has actually been bleached to achieve the result. Since color remover only works to remove artificial pigment and not to replace lost natural pigment, you’re going to need to find other options. Color removers can be damaging, since they use harsh detergents to get rid of bad color, so be sure to use a deep conditioning treatment.
- Use a Clarifying Shampoo. If the color is just a little too dark, you can tone it down by using a clarifying shampoo. Designed to remove products from hair, it uses strong detergents and can actually fade your color to a more acceptable shade. Follow up with a good-quality conditioner and only use clarifying shampoo once a week.
- Use Toning Shampoo. If your gripe is that your lightened hair looks too brassy, use a toning shampoo. Because it’s blue, it counteracts the yellow in your hair to cut the brass and create a brighter, more accurate result. I use toning shampoo regularly because I’m a bottle blonde who leans red. Clairol Shimmering Lights is a must-have to achieve truer color and get rid of the reddish or yellowish tinge that can sometimes accompany a blonde dye job.
- Head to the Salon. If you’ve totally botched the color (and we’ve all been there) it’s time to go to the salon and have it professionally fixed. Don’t be embarrassed – hairdressers see this all the time. While it may be tempting to try and color it again at home, hair dye can be damaging, and redyeing doesn’t guarantee better results the next time around. Instead, see a pro and get a color you know you’re going to love.
How to Apply Highlights
With all the gadgets out there that add highlights to hair – I’ve seen finger combs, caps with holes, and even devices that resemble forks – the best way to apply the most natural highlights is with a clean mascara brush, which you can buy at any beauty supply store.
Comb your hair into your usual style and then clip up the top section, separating from just above your ears and pulling that top section up and out of the way. Load the brush up with color and begin highlighting the lower layer, starting just behind your ear and working your way around the head. Then, release some of your hair from the clip – the thinner the layers you release, the more highlights you get.
Finally, when you get to the last layer, start at the root near the front of your hairline, placing the tip of the mascara brush to your hair and dragging downward. This creates thin highlights that most closely resemble those you naturally get in the sun. Then, repeat a few millimeters back on the opposite side of your part, alternating sides as you work your way back for the most natural look. You might need a friend or spouse to help you with the crown of your head and beyond, which is a tricky area to get to solo.
Let the highlights process according to package directions, using your diffuser again to heat the hair and improve penetration. Then, rinse (don’t shampoo) and condition.
Follow the box instructions for timing and rinsing and you should have simple, natural-looking highlights to punch up your color. Because the color is subtle, you don’t have to worry about uneven or chunky highlights, so it’s an easy way to add dimension. It takes me an extra 30 minutes to add my own highlights, which is a minor time investment with results more on-par with those I get at the salon.
I like to do my own highlights because I think it results in a more natural-looking color. However, if you do your highlights at home, they’re not going to be as precise or noticeable as when a colorist does them in the salon. Professionals use a weaving technique that essentially picks up small strands of hair in alternating patterns for a natural look. They also probably use foils, which direct heat to the dyed strands and improve color penetration.
But if you prefer subtle highlights, try them solo. When adding them to freshly colored hair, wait 24 hours to avoid doing excess damage. You can purchase hair dye with complementary highlights included in the box (L’Oreal Couleur Experte is one great example), or just purchase a second box of color that’s a few shades lighter than yours. Again, this is not the time for drastic changes. If you want heavily bleached streaks or a complete color change, head to the salon and have it professionally done.
It can be hard to get comfortable doing your own hair coloring. With some practice and subtle adjustments, though, you can hone your technique to the point where you get predictable results again and again. Take your time and follow the box instructions, and once you get comfortable with DIY dye, you just may wonder how you ever had the time for a three-hour salon marathon before.
Do you DIY your dye? What are your best tips for perfect results?