At-home hair color: a way to experiment for some, an act of rebellion for others, a cost-cutting solution for many. But for professional hair stylists—who have spent years fixing botched DIY hair jobs—boxed dye is their biggest grievance in the world of hair color.
“Dyeing your hair is complicated and that’s why people shouldn’t do it at home,” says Stephanie Brown, master colorist at IGK salon who has more than 10 years of experience. She whips up a scenario as an example: “Let’s say you went to a salon and you hated the highlights, but you didn’t want to spend more money to get it fixed. Don’t just throw brown dye all over it thinking that it will fix it because there are underlying elements to it—it can look gray and muddy.”
At the root of hair color is science mixed with experience and a dash of gut instinct. Throw in different hair textures, the unpredictability of boxed dye formulas, and plain human error, and the outcome can feel random.
“At the salon, I know what kind of hair you have because can see it, I can feel it, so I know what to do with it—it’s second nature to me,” Brown continues. “With boxed dye, you just don’t know what you’re going to end up with.”
But, not all hope is lost. When done right, boxed dyes are beneficial for covering up grays, for last-minute emergencies, and for saving yourself a trip to the salon. The key, though, to even coverage (and mastering at-home hair color overall) is to take away these pro tips.
Stick to your natural shade range
The telltale sign of a botched dye job is when the result is too black, too red, or too orange. “The biggest mistake is straying too far from your natural base color,” says Amy Mrkulic, colorist at Vu salon with more than 20 years of experience. “When you do at-home hair color, you should only go half a shade to a full shade either lighter or darker than your natural color. Bad things start to happen the second you come out of your natural zone. If you go too far, then that’s when you see me and I try to triple fix it.”
And a color can look most unnatural when it doesn’t complement eyebrows, your skin tone, and eye color. Mrkulic says if your skin tone is warm, reach for a cooler—or ashy—hair tone; if your skin is cool, then go for a warmer—or golden—tone. “Stick with your natural tones, your natural color, which will give you amazing camouflaging regrowth and no pricy color-corrective work at the salon,” she says.
Gravitate toward semi-permanent washes
For the most natural look, skip the permanent dyes for a semi-permanent one, which will wash out over time. “If you’re camouflaging grays, always use semi-permanent because it won’t give you any lines or bands or harsh lap over of color when it grows out,” Mrkulic says. “If it’s permanent, it’s not washing out at all and it will look home-done; it’s not as natural.”
Consult a professional colorist to figure out your color level
“Level 1 is black and level 10 is platinum blonde—when a client isn’t able to come into the salon, I tell them what color level they’re at, so they know what to choose when they’re doing it at home,” Brown says. “I tell them to only use it on their part and hairline—that way, it’ll be easier to fix if they make a mistake.”
But if you want to freshen up the ends, Brown warns to not apply dye all over because it will feel too heavy. “Just do the roots and pull it through to the ends in the last five minutes,” she advises.
As for tone, when in doubt, do neutral.
The letter that’s next to the number on the box indicates hair tone (N for Neutral, G for Gold, A for Ash, and so on). “If you’re not looking for red or gold in your hair, always opt for Neutral,” Mrkulic says. “Natural blondes should go for Neutral, but brunettes should do Ash to get rid of any brass or red tones.”
Manage your expectations.
“That model pictured on the front of the box has been sitting in the chair for four hours getting her hair professionally done—that’s how she got her color,” Mrkulic says.
If anything, Brown suggests judging a box dye by the back photo (where there are before/after photos), which is more effective at determining the end result, even if it’s not going to be 100-percent accurate.
It’s easier going darker than lighter
“Any time you try to go lighter, you’ll always pick up some orange, brass, or yellow and those are the hardest tones to get rid of,” Mrkulic says.
Leave dye on for an extra few minutes if you’re gray
“If my client is brunette and has silver hair that’s coarse and thick, I’ll tell them to leave the dye on for an extra five minutes,” Mrkulic says. “It will give you a little more deposit, a little more hold. Semi-permanent washes out really quickly so leaving it in a couple extra minutes will add a touch more depth and richness.”
Buy two boxes if you have longer hair
“If you have longer than shoulder-length hair or if you have a ton of hair, get two boxes because you won’t have enough with one,” Brown suggests. “Or if you’re between a color, get two different boxes, it’s better to mix them together and be a little on the safe side than going a little too dark or a little too light.”
“What can happen with the brush that comes with the boxed dye is that there will be too much color on the brush and you’ll end up layering color on hair that’s already been processed, which is how you get bands,” Mrkulic explains. “Use a Q-tip to apply it or disposable makeup sponges, which you can pat into your root or dab around the hairline. It won’t drip or leak and you won’t get overlapping color.”
To avoid accidentally staining the skin, Brown advises wearing gloves and applying Vaseline around the hairline.
Steer clear of highlights
“With highlights, you’re past hair color—that’s just pure bleach and bleach processes differently,” Mrkulic says. “Don’t do highlights yourself—it will be a disaster.”
Naturtint Reflex Semi-Permanent Colourant
“I always recommend Naturtint—you can get it at health foods stores—because it doesn’t contain allergens like paraphenylenediamine (PPD),” Mrkulic says. “It camouflages and covers gray.”
Nice ‘N Easy Root Touch-Up
“I love the Clairol root touch up because it’s semi-permanent and it blends away gray naturally instead of depositing all this color,” Mrkulic says.
Color & Co.
Price: $26.90 for one time, $19.90 auto-replenish
To take the guesswork out of at-home hair dye, L’Oreal has launched Color & Co, which allows you to consult with a professional colorist via live video, who will select and create a custom color to suit your hair wants or needs.
Temporary Color Gel
A gentle, semi-permanent formula that’s specifically designed to cover grays. And it can be applied straight from the bottle, which means mixing isn’t required.
By staining the hair follicle from the outside, this semi-permanent color is perfect for enhancing your natural shade (read: not lightening) without all the bad-for-you chemicals. But the best thing about it is that it doubles as a deep-conditioning treatment for super glossy—and most importantly, healthy—hair.