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Hair Dye | At Home vs Salon

Updated: Dec 15, 2022

Box color or salon color? Hair color can be very personal. Read more...



Photo: Wix

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How do you determine the best hair color to buy?

Determining the best hair color to buy may take a little trial and error. Although there are color guides on the sides of several boxes, there are other factors that can influence the shade your hair ultimately achieves. For example, if you do have hair color on your hair already, many times color on color can come out darker than anticipated.

In general, it is best to stay within 2 to 3 shades of your natural color to achieve the expected results.

My hair is naturally in the dark brown category with some natural highlights. I also (now) have a tremendous amount of grey hair to cover. I tend to choose shades in the brown range but favor the mid-range (medium brown) as it seems to capture my highlights by lightly coloring my greys and keeping my color vibrant overall. There are so many shades within these categories- auburn, chestnut, bronze- these seem to capture various highlights.

Are there certain processes that can be safely done at home?

Overall, if you are staying within your hair color range- just shifting within 2-3 shades of normal for you- using a box color is very reasonable to consider.

Which should only be done by a professional?

If you are planning a drastic color change, for example, going from brunette to blonde- then it’s likely a good idea to seek a professional. Melanin (eumelanin for darker shades and pheomelanin for reddish hues) is responsible for our hair color. It may not be so simple for someone like me with darker hair color to simply pick up a box of blonde hair color and expect to be blonde after one application.



What are common problems with hair dye?

This is where it is important to understand what’s in hair color to achieve the pigments we seek and understand what happens when things go wrong. Scalp dermatitis is one of the most frequent complaints I see- I have even had a number of men and women with blisters from using a product they were allergic to.

Ingredients to know


Also known as ppd. This is the dye responsible for darker shades of hair color. It is found in BOTH salon hair color and at-home hair color products. If you prefer darker shades but have developed an allergy to them, consider using vegetable-based dyes. Another substitute for PPD is para-toluenediamine sulfate (PTDS). In a study comparing PPD to PTDS, PTDS was less likely to cause contact dermatitis and was found to be a suitable alternative. However, it is still possible that some may be sensitive or allergic to PTDS. Patch testing is important to consider prior to a full treatment.

PPD free hair dyes…


Ammonia is added to hair dyes to swell the hair follicle to help hair dye penetrate the cuticle and attach more effectively. Even though we often hear about ammonia-free products, it is difficult to say if these are actually better. Ultimately these products will still use some kind of alkalinizing ingredients to achieve the same result. If you are not using a permanent hair color this is not necessarily important to have as an ingredient.

Ammonia free hair dyes…


Peroxide takes our hair from dark to light and is also considered a permanent change to hair. It will not likely be in our temporary or semi-permanent colors because of this. Peroxide breaks down the pigment in our hair’s cortex.

Lead acetates

Lead acetates gradually darken the hair over time. Lead is generally not considered safe in our products and it can have health consequences.



How can dying your hair at home go wrong and make you look older?

Overall, if you are staying within your hair color range, you will likely avoid a problem. Choosing a shade slightly darker than your natural color can help for a couple of reasons. Consider the fact that the hair color you choose attaches to each of your hairs. Each hair is not the same color- there is a range of hues and potential greys to consider. There may perhaps even be some colors from prior hair color treatments to take into consideration. When the hair dye attaches to your natural color the color will appear a bit more intense or deep. The grey hairs may get close to the hair dye color but likely will still stay a little lighter than your natural. This is not necessarily bad because the grays can appear as though they are highlights through your at-home color experience. Hair color present from prior treatments, regardless of the color, may dye darker than expected. Color on top of color, with some exceptions often just makes the hair appear darker.

There are a couple of challenges though when you were trying to cover your grays or look a little younger with hair dye. The most common issue that people run into is simply the fact that those stubborn grays tend to be closest to the hairline, finer and wispier. They often will not adhere to the hair dye as quickly and may require a little longer to process with the dye in place. By missing some of these along the frontal hairline that meets the face, sometimes your secret greys can reveal themselves very quickly just because of the proximity to your visage. It’s important to make sure that you generously apply hair dye to the edges of the scalp to ensure that these hairs pick up the dye. It also may be necessary to spend a little extra time cleaning away excess hair dye that can pigment the facial skin at the end of your processing time.

The key to at-home color is to stay within your color range. Those that try to venture out into an entirely different color or dramatically different in terms of multiple shades away from their natural color will run the risk that the color on the box will not match the color you find as a result of using the hair dye. There is the risk of accentuating those stubborn grey hairs if not done correctly!

What is the worst color to dye your hair if you want to look younger?

I cannot say there is a “worst color” simply because I encourage people to really follow their sense of self-expression, especially when it comes to hair color. If your goal is to stand out, then anything goes! I would suggest using a well-trained colorist to achieve this goal to match your vision. If your goal is to avoid drawing attention to your hair, focus on staying inside your color range. The real risk here is simply the fact that it will not match or suit your natural hair color that is hiding in the background and be challenging to address. If you do wish to have a dramatically different color I suggest doing this professionally to avoid this problem.

How can you avoid this mistake while still dyeing your hair at home?

If you still insist on dying your hair at home and want to venture outside of your color range, it might be worth considering an at-home color that comes with a color consultation first such as Madison Reed. It’s fascinating because if you do have darker hair and want to go lighter through hair dye, sometimes this can just make your hair look darker no matter what for the simple fact that box color is adhering to the hair follicle. It may not be the color you are anticipating. It’s almost like coloring on a piece of paper with a black crayon and then trying to use a brown or yellow crayon on top of it and realizing that even if you rub that crayon back and forth you simply can’t see the shade you’re looking for. This is because darker shades work by lodging hair color molecules in the scales of the hair shaft itself. Our hair follicles are not smooth, they are actually scaly. The hair dye works by opening up these scales, lodging underneath, then pulling the scale back to the follicle to stick around. Lighter shades can work similarly or actually strip the color that is present in the hair.



Best at-home hair dye tips?

The best way to approach home hair dyes is to try out a few temporary colors first before making the commitment to a permanent hair dye. If you can find a shade that suits you and that you’re comfortable with, then switch to using the semi-permanent or permanent version.

How should we decide which shampoo to use to maintain our new hair color?

To decide which shampoo is best for color-treated hair it is important to consider how hair color works and which direction you are coloring in!

Most hair dyes work by opening the outermost part of the hair follicle called the cuticle to alter your natural color and deposit artificial pigment. Some hair dyes, usually ones that contain peroxide, work by lightening your natural hair pigment. Regardless, once artificial pigment or color is deposited in your cuticles, it undergoes a reaction that makes the particle too large to just come out on its own. It needs a pH change in your hair and heat to open the cuticles back up to release the pigment.

That being said, the goal of shampoo for color-treated hair is to maintain a pH that allows your hair to hold onto its pigment and to avoid stripping color with harsh detergents that can strip the cuticle and the color along with it.

Ingredients to avoid:
  • Sulfates: sodium lauryl sulfate and sodium laureth sulfate

  • Formaldehyde

  • Parabens

If you don’t use a color-treated shampoo you will need to color your hair more frequently since your hair simply won't hold the color as long!

Shampoo options that work well...

Kerastase Bain Chromatique Sulfate Free Deluxe Shampoo Addresses the sulfates, pH, love this line of products!

Affordable option! Sulfate free (as far as I can tell)


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