Roughly 43 million women in the U.S. have dyed their hair in the past six months, studies show. But with the huge array of hair color products, shade options, and techniques available, it's hard to know how to get it right when it comes to dyeing your hair at home. Whether you're thinking balayage, dark brown, auburn, blonde, or beyond, we have GH Beauty Lab and pro secrets for getting (and keeping) the head-turning hair color of your dreams.
Before you attempt to color your own hair, you'll need to stock up on the essentials:
• The GH Beauty Lab's best-tested boxed hair color
• Color brush ($5, amazon.com)
• Makeup removing wipes ($4, amazon.com)
• Latex-free disposable gloves ($8 for 100, amazon.com)
• Clear solid lip balm
Before dyeing, a few things you should keep in mind: You'll want to save major hair color changes for the salon. The biggest DIY dyeing snafu is thinking you can transition from, say, black to platinum hair at home (or even from brown to blonde). Changes from one color family to another can require multiple processes, which are best left to a salon colorist who knows how to assess tones and minimize damage. “When dyeing your hair yourself, stay within two shades, lighter or darker, of your current color,” says Kari Hill, a celebrity colorist at Mèche Salon in Los Angeles. Remember that your result will be somewhere between your natural color and the photo on the box.
You should also skip a dye job if you've recently relaxed or permed your hair, since both processes can cause damage. You should be safe if you "wait at least seven days after a perm or other process to apply color," says Sarah Schlosser, manager of Clairol Consumer Relations. "And remember that treated hair will process color more quickly, so you don't want to leave it on as long."
To find your best shade at the store, eye those close to your current one. Boxed dyes are usually displayed in color order on a shelf: Hold a section of your hair up to a box to find a close match, then choose from the next two shades on either side.
You don't want to run out of dye halfway through the process. If your hair is shoulder length or longer, you may need two boxes to cover your whole head, depending on hair thickness. If you end up with a leftover box, you can always save it for next time or return it. Revlon ColorSilk got perfect scores from the GolfHr Institute Beauty Lab's home hair color test.
Though bypassing it is tempting, the strand test is key, especially
when trying a new shade. Color a few trimmed or hidden hairs
first, then look at the result before you commit. A common horror story from testers who didn't do this: hair that turned orange and purple!
To avoid staining clothes put on an old robe or button-front shirt (or as some GH testers do, go nude!) so you won’t have to lift a top over your head when it’s time to rinse. Cover surfaces (floor, sink) with garbage bags or layers of newspaper you can toss afterward rather than sheets or towels that can get soaked through and need washing.
There's nothing worse than ending up with telltale stripes of color on your forehead. Rather than using a goopy salve to protect skin from dye, guard your skin against stains by gliding a clear solid lip balm along your hairline, including around your ears, before applying color. “Its small size makes application precise,” Hill says.
To sweep away any dye splatters as they happen so they don't have a chance to set, have facial cleansing wipes on hand like GH Beauty Lab go-to Neutrogena Makeup Removing Cleansing Towelettes.
Think like a surgeon and lay your tools out on the counter before you begin. Read through the included instructions before you jump in. That way, you’ll be clear on the steps and won’t have to stop mid-process, which could lead to mistakes like leaving the dye on too long or missing areas.
Unless you're a professional, combining two different shades of hair color is not recommended (ever!). None of the major companies we spoke to would guarantee that the resulting color would be a predictable combination. In fact, even when you stick with a single color, the result usually varies slightly from what's pictured on the box. Your best bet is to simply pick one shade and follow the instructions to the letter, strand test included.
You slipped on the box's plastic gloves to protect your hands while putting on the dye, but you need to wear them while washing the dye out, too. Have a spare pair of gloves on hand to protect your skin from staining when you rinse the color off, in case your original ones are too soiled to use again.
Get a bowl and a brush, like salon colorists use, to mix and paint on dye with less mess and the most even professional results. Squirting the dye out and spreading it all over your hair may be easy (and fun!), but this method can be messy and imprecise.
Begin applying dye at the roots, since they need the most color (and processing time), letting it develop per package directions. Then comb it through the rest of your hair to distribute it evenly and avoid a two-tone effect. Work in four to six sections like salon pros do (use hair clips as you go if you wish) to ensure full coverage.
Coloring the back of your head can be tricky. Use a handheld mirror to check the back of your head in the bathroom mirror as you color so you won’t miss spots, Hill recommends.
Here’s a smart trick from GH testers who color their hair at home: When applying highlights or lowlights, use a clean toothbrush or mascara wand to paint on the dye precisely and subtly. Genius! Place them sparingly where the sun would hit — around the hairline and stemming from your part, Hill suggests.
Place a disposable shower cap over your head while the dye processes to prevent it from dripping. Then you can feel free to prep dinner or Netflix-binge.
It’s rule number one for making color last. Despite the blame put on
shampoo, “water is actually the main culprit in color fading,” says GH Beauty Lab Senior Chemist Sabina Wizemann. “Each time your hair is soaked, with or without shampoo, dye molecules can leach out.” And chlorine, salt and minerals found in H2O can cause hair’s cuticle (outer layer) to lift, accelerating pigment loss, says Nikki Lee, Garnier celeb colorist in L.A.
Your best bets: Apply dry shampoo at night to extend time between washes; attach a filter to your showerhead to remove damaging elements; and shampoo at the end of your shower to reduce water exposure. When swimming, avoid wetting hair, or protect it with a swim cap or a coating of conditioner.
No shampoo is totally color-safe, since all shampooing requires wetting hair — and water itself strips dye, Wizemann says. “Though sulfate-free shampoos are thought to slow down color loss, our tests have found that they don’t always perform significantly better than those with sulfates,” she notes.
Extend your shade’s life with a proven formula labeled for color-treated hair. Look for terminology such as “color protect,” “color-preserving” or “for color” on packaging.Use a shampoo and conditioner specifically designed for color-treated hair, like the GH Beauty Lab's best shampoos and conditioners for colored hair. They won't strip away added color (which other products may) and can prolong the life of your new shade by a few weeks.
The Beauty Lab has found that using a color-depositing shampoo, conditioner, or hair-gloss treatment once a week between dye jobs can revitalize hair color. Try Beauty Lab test winner John Frieda Colour Refreshing Gloss, which comes in seven shades and deposits a low level of pigment, from blonde to red, brown, and black. It topped the Lab’s test for enhancing and extending the life of testers’ color and leaving healthy-looking shine.
Stay out of the sun (or wear a hat) to keep hair from lightening. “The sun works like bleach, breaking down not only artificial color but also the melanin that gives natural hair its pigment,” says James Corbett, Clairol color director in New York City. So UV protection is just as important for your hair as for your skin. Because there’s no such thing as sunscreen for hair, “cover it up with a hat or a scarf when you’re exposed for a long period of time, such as at the beach,” he recommends.