10 Commandments of Hair Color

I’ve been getting a lot of questions via email and Facebook lately about hair color. After spending a lot of time answering in great detail, I’m realizing that there is a huge need for a comprehensive hair color guide that I can direct all of you lovely ladies to. As much as I love answering your questions (and of course, still send them in!), a lot of the questions I get can be traced back to a few basic “commandments” of hair color. A lot of questions are about too-brassy highlights, color that keeps fading and gray coverage, which can all be answered with these basics. And I’m also realizing that I might be part of a small group of hairdressers who likes to explain and teach all of these basics to my clients.

I believe that every woman should feel empowered and knowledgeable in a situation she puts her time and energy into. And being informed about why your hair color works the way it does is something every woman should spend the time on. Doing so helps both of us to get to the best result in the most efficient and enjoyable way. I want you to know what your natural level is and what undertones you prefer in your highlights. I want you to know that choosing red will mean a lot more maintenance or that blending gray with highlights can be more beneficial than covering them completely in the short and long-term.

So follow along this week as we go through my Ten Commandments of Hair Color! You’ll see a new post every day with two more commandments to study and learn, beginning with the first two today. I hope this information will serve as a really effective guide for you to understand the scientific makeup of your natural color and the chemistry of changing it with bleach or color. Enjoy and be sure to share with your friends! 

1. There’s a system to hair color levels.

Starting with level one representing true black and ending with level ten at platinum blonde, every hair color has a number to represent the level of darkness or lightness. Hairstylists don’t typically speak in “medium blonde” and “dark brown” because that can change based on opinion, especially when speaking with a client. But using the level system is to use science that every hairdresser understands the same way. Take a look at this chart below to become familiar with what level your hair is and to be able to explain what level you’d like to become when speaking with your hairdresser! And a couple notes… you’ll notice that there is no level one pictured on this chart. Though this level does in fact exist, most color lines don’t even bother to use it. Level one is a very true black with blue undertones and for most people that want “black”, a level two does the trick without giving them that blue undertone. Level one is also near impossible to lift out of the hair, so it’s best to completely avoid it if that color can be made with a level two. Also, it’s important to note that in recent years with the popularity of platinum blondes, you’ll often see levels 11 and 12. Those are not pictured here either, but if you can picture a Heidi Montag white-blonde, that’s your level 12.

2. Each color has an undertone.

Just like a the level system, there is a similar undertone system. Each level represents a color (example: true black) and that color always has its own undertone shining through the color. This is why if you have a dark brown hair color and even though you’ve never colored your hair before, red always shines through. That’s because at your level, red is the natural undertone that will always be present until the level is changed. This concept is so crucial to understand because as you lift or darken hair, you need to follow the undertones in order to end up with a true level 3 or whatever level you’re trying to achieve. Without having the correct undertone in a level, you’ll end up with a murky, muddy color that lacks warmth or a brassy, orange color that lacks neutrality. Knowing how this system works can help you explain to your hairdresser more clearly what you want! For example, instead of saying you want a “bright red”, you can say you want your red to have an orange-red undertone, which will result in a copper color. Or a true red undertone, which will give you fire engine red color and is most ideal at a level five.

3. Remember your primary colors!

Once you have your levels and undertones down, the next step is to know your primary colors. I know you learned about this in elementary school, but it plays a huge part in understanding hair color. Each hair color has an undertone, right? Either a natural undertone after lifting pigment out with bleach or from virgin hair color. Or a chemically created undertone from a box or tube of hair color. Well, the most requested undertone for most women? It’s neutral! And there’s a very specific way to take hair color from red based or yellow based to perfectly neutral.

Neutral is perfect balance between the two different undertone colors. It’s what happens when you have an abundance of one underlying pigment (such as yellow) and you use its complimentary color (violet) to balance and create neutral. If you prefer yellow, then you can stay with yellow. Or you can add orange and go more copper. But if you want a neutral color, you must use the complimentary color to balance.

So, let’s study those, shall we? First, our primary colors are red, yellow and blue. Neither of these colors can be created by combining other colors. And the combining of two of these colors creates one of the secondary colors. For example, blue and yellow combine to create green. Red and blue combine to create violet. And red and yellow combine to create orange.

When you break it down further, you look at the complimentary colors. And that’s what truly helps you to find neutral. Red is the compliment of green, yellow is the pair of violet and orange matches with blue. In all three of these matches, you can add one to the other in order to make neutral. Alright, so study the chart below and when you are ready with this commandment, scroll down and learn about how to use this information for your benefit!

4. Fillers and Toners are essential!

You can categorize any color service by these two titles: “Lifting” and “Depositing”. Simply put, if you are wanting to go lighter with your color, you are lifting and if you want to go darker, you are depositing. I’m sure this seems like a silly concept for me to spell out, but there’s a reason!

Let’s start with lifting. Let’s say you come to visit your hairdresser with level 6 hair. You’ve been coloring it this color for about a year and you’re ready for some fun highlights, maybe even in an ombre pattern. You show me a photo of Jennifer Lopez at a gorgeous level 8 with a neutral undertone. So, let me explain what is going through my mind when you are my client and it’s my chair you are sitting in.. 

“Okay, she wants to go to a level 8, so about two shades up. Her hair feels a tiny bit porous and I know she’s been coloring her hair, so I’ve going to have to use bleach to lift out this color. But of course, when I go through and do that, I’m removing the pigment and I’m going to end up with raw undertone of whatever level I lift to. She wants to go to an 8, so it’s going to still have some orange to it. I’ll have to tone with a level 8, blue/violet based demi-permanent color to deposit the color she wants to result with and leave it with a neutral tone, like the one JLo has in the photo she brought in.”

As you can see, there’s a lot more to lifting than simply throwing in some highlights and washing them out. When you are lifting the hair with bleach, toning is usually essential. Even if you aren’t lifting with bleach and you’re instead lifting with permanent color, you still have to keep in mind the tones you want to add and make sure they are in your color formulation. But regardless of the process used, toning the new hair color at the correct undertone is essential.That’s why you need to study and know the levels, undertones and primary colors to truly understand how your hair works and how to truly own the process of knowing what you can do with your hair realistically. For example, if you lift up from a level 3 to a level 6, you are moving up the undertone scale from a violet to a red-orange. So in order to truly achieve a level 6 (and not just end up with raw red-orange undertone), you have to tone with green/blue based toner.

And the same goes for depositing with a filler. When you have previously lifted pigment out of your hair or you have a natural hair color that lacks the undertones that come with darker colors, then you have to fill the hair before you can deposit color that’s more than two shades darker than the current level your hair is. It’s generally known among colorists that if you lift without toning, you end up with very brassy, warm colors. And if you deposit without filling and missing undertones, you end up with muddy, murky, cool colors. You need a proper balance of both in order to have a vibrant, rich hair color.

For example, when you are a level 9 and you want to go darker to a level 4, you’ll have to literally fill your hair with the undertones you are missing. A level 9 has an abundance of yellow and a level 4 should have an undertone of violet-red, so the missing undertone is yellow-orange, orange and orange-red. If you look down the undertone chart we saw yesterday, you can see clearly what’s missing. For this formulation, because we have more yellow than we do red and because red is so hard to get into the hair, I would use a toner with an orange-red base.

This process, as well as highlighting and then applying a toner onto the highlighted hair, is considered a double process. In depositing color that requires a fill, a stylist must apply the filler pigment, let it process and wash it out. Then, your colorist will dry hair as much as necessary and apply the final color result (Level 4, Neutral) to your hair, let it process and finally, wash it out. It’s also important to note that every time a fill or deposit is done, the product used is a demi-permanent color. It’s the least harsh color to use on the hair that will still get the job done. I use Wella and I love the demi-permanent color line because it looks so glossy and luscious after deposit and it has conditioning properties.

This concept of lifting and filling is so important for you to know for a few reasons. First, it would be great if you understood the process of what it takes to change your hair so dramatically. Some women want to be blonde, go to dark brown and then back to platinum in a year.. and wonder why their hair feels like straw. If you understand this concept, then you realize every time you make such a drastic change to your color, you are blasting the cuticle open and shut and lifting out old pigment and depositing new pigment. When done at a slower rate (say once every two years or less), neither process will give long-term damage to your tresses. But when done often, it can really fry your hair to the point of melting or breakage.

It’s also incredibly important that you understand this because when you pick up that “Dark Cherry Cola” box color from Walgreen’s and put it on your level 9, blonde hair, you understand why it doesn’t turn out. You know that if you want to put a level 3 color with a red-violet tone on your hair, you are missing a crucial undertone of orange. So, the color might look like it’s taken for a day or two, but once it washes off the surface of your hair strand, your left with a faded, awkwardly violet mess of a hair color.

5. Choose Semi, Demi or Permanent.

Semi-permanent color is your Manic Panic. Mostly popular among those who like to change their hair color on a frequent basis, semi-permanent color is a direct dye with no ammonia. It basically just coats the first two layers of the hair and washes out a little more with each rinse. I have friends who swear by using colors like this for their bright pinks or blues or even just to add some fresh, natural looking pigment to their hair. I personally am not a huge fan simply because it gets on everything! It rinses out with every wash, gets on your pillows and jackets and you constantly have to worry about it. And it also fades fairly quickly because of it’s semi-permanent status.

Demi-permanent color, which we talked a little bit about when we went over toners and fillers, is the next level up. Demi is an “oxidative color”, meaning a developer is mixed with the color in order to allow for a chemical process. It simply deposits color, meaning it can’t be applied and processed to lighten the hair, only darken or to add pigment. Demi-permanent color also does not cover gray hair according to manufacturer’s directions. I’ve been able to use my Wella demi-permanent under heat for clients who are less than 30% gray and have it cover, but for the majority of people, it’s not strong enough and it fades quickly on gray if you try. This category of color is also great because it doesn’t damage the hair as much as permanent color; because it only deposits and doesn’t blow the cuticle of the hair open to lighten, it’s actually quite soft on the hair strands. The one that I use, Wella’s Color Touch actually has conditioning properties and lots of shine, so the end result is always glossy, smooth and conditioned hair.

Then you have permanent color. This is your strongest type of color and as I said before, usually essential when trying to cover gray. Permanent color is also oxidative just like demi-permanent, so it is considered a chemical process. However, because permanent color lines lift and deposit color, they are often a lot harsher than the demi’s. This kind of color can be used to cover gray, change pigment, darken to a level 1 or even lighten virgin hair up to a level 10. I find myself using this hair color more than any other just because it doesn’t fade and it is so vibrant and rich for the entire 6-8 weeks in between touch ups. However, where demi-permanent fades slowly over time without a line of demarcation, permanent will show as grow out in a hard line. To cover gray or drastically change your hair, though, using permanent is necessary.

6. Know that red is a commitment before you try it out.

In the basic chemistry of hair color, it’s widely known that the molecules that make up red pigment are much larger than any other pigment. Why does this matter at all? Because what that statement means is that red will take a long time to finally penetrate each hair strand and once it does, it’s not going anywhere.

I just did a post on this specific topic of red hair color on HelloGiggles, which you can check out here. I won’t go into a whole lot of detail because you can read the HG post, but I do want to give you a basic rundown.

Because of the larger molecules, red will fade very quickly the first few times it’s applied. It hasn’t fully penetrated the hair strand, only coated the outside or second layer. This has nothing to do with lack of skill on a stylist’s part or even a faulty color line, it’s just simple chemistry. But since I have frequently gone red myself and I get red requested often in the salon, I know that once you’ve gone through about two to three sessions of reapplication through the entirety of the hair, that red is pretty much in there. It might lose a little bit of vibrancy over the course of 6-8 weeks in between touch ups, but the base will be there. In order to enhance the red, try a pigmented shampoo once a week. And definitely be careful when using white pillowcases or towels… I’ve ruined a few in my day with my red hair!

It’s also important to note that if you decide to get rid of the red at some point, you should get ready for a battle! Now that the pigment has worked its way into the innermost layer of each hair strand and has fully stained it, the only way to truly get rid of it is to lift it out with bleach. And the first couple times you do so by adding a few highlights in, be ready for a lot of orange. Each color has an undertone and the undertone directly above red is red-orange and then orange. So as you lift that color up from red, you’ll have to pass through the brassy oranges. In the next commandment, we’ll find out all about how to counteract those unwanted colors, but the important thing here is that you recognize that red is not for the faint of heart. It takes a lot of time, a lot of maintenance and a lot of patience.

But for those of us who just don’t feel like ourselves without red hair, it’s all worth it! 

7. Your texture determines how your color will take and last. 

Whether your hair is fine, medium or coarse will determine how well it will take to color and how quickly it will fade. If you don’t know the texture of your strands, check out my post on HelloGiggles about how to figure it out. And also, remember we are talking about the texture of each individual hair strand, not the amount of hair on your head. It’s totally possible to have really fine hair, but to have a large amount of it on your head.

Speaking of fine, we’ll start with that texture. Fine hair is the smallest texture of any hair type. When you run your hands through fine hair, it usually feels angel soft and air-y. And what most people don’t realize about fine hair strands is that the outermost layer, the cuticle, is actually incredibly thick. Even though the strand itself is so thin, the thickness of the cuticle makes fine hair the hardest hair type for color to penetrate. Just like what we learned about red color principles, color applied to fine hair will take a few processes to really stick and stay. But once it does, that cuticle has locked it in and it’s not going anywhere. If you have fine hair and have noticed this problem before, now you know there’s actually a scientific reason for why that happens! It’s also important to note that since fine hair has such a concentrated amount of pigment in one small strand, hair color can often appear darker than expected. Also, because fine hair is so fragile with a small inner layer, you have to be incredibly careful not to damage the hair when trying to get rid of pigment.

Medium texture is exactly like how it sounds: right in the middle. It has an average sized cuticle and cortex, making it the easiest texture to deal with when coloring. Because all layers are average size and supported, medium hair can handle most color applications. And it can also take color very well with minimal fading and minimal maintenance. If you have medium strands, you’re fairly lucky when it comes to how much your hair can handle!

Coarse texture is hair that has a very large inner layer and a small, thin outer layer. Coarse hair is quite resistant to lightening and can sometimes even process lighter than expected due to the size of each layer. It’s also important to note that because of the small size of the cuticle, color is mostly resistant because it has an easy time penetrating the cuticle, but a very difficult time penetrating the thick inner layer. If you have a coarse texture and have often found your hair to be resistant to color applications, now you know why!

8. Find your hair’s porosity.

Porosity is the hair’s ability to hold and retain moisture. The amount of porosity your hair strands have directly determine how well they will hold color or if they will hold color at all.

When I was new in my career, I put one color formulation on a client’s hair. She wanted to go to a darker, cherry red color, so I formulated that color and applied it from roots to ends. Obviously, there was a lot more thought that should have gone into this and one key thing that I missed looking into was the porosity of her hair. I’d asked this client about her color history and though she didn’t tell me about the dozens of box colors she’d done in the past on her long hair, I should have checked the porosity myself and noticed that her ends were severely damaged. Of course, when I put that color onto her crazy porous hair, the top half of her hair (where there was less damage) was the perfect color we had wanted to achieve. And the midstrands and ends? Completely black. They had soaked up every bit of pigment and her hair color history that I wasn’t aware of, her fine texture and her extreme porosity made for one bad experience for both of us. But I learned a whole lot about dissecting each aspect of the hair before even thinking about beginning a service. I tell you this story simply to explain how serious porosity can be to your hair color!

Very porous hair will usually be the result of heat or sun damage, previous color applications (especially harsh box colors), perms, relaxers and heat styling. You can always tell the porosity of hair by holding a small amount of strands in your fingers and running them down the strand. If the strands are very smooth with no roughness, they have a resistant porosity. This means they have a hard time holding and absorbing color, but if you use a little extra pigment and use the maximum processing time, the color can turn out beautifully. If the hair strands feel mostly smooth, but with a bit of a raised or rough cuticle, the porosity of the hair is average. This is most commonly what I see in clients and this kind of porosity holds color fairly well. If the hair strands feel incredibly rough or even like there might not be an outer layer, the porosity is extremely high. This would be where the example I gave you comes in of the very dark ends.

I always recommend checking the porosity before coloring because, obviously, it makes a great difference in how the final result looks. If you have very porous hair, I would suggest staying away from color or highlighting until you can repair and build your stands back up to optimal health.

9. Always do a patch test before using a new color line or coloring for the first time. 

Hair color is not always for everyone. I’ve seen allergies, reactions and just general sensitivities, but none of them are pretty or fun to deal with and treat. In beauty school, all new hairdressers learn that a “patch test” is required for every new customer they service. However, it doesn’t often happen because most women who receive hair color in a salon have had a color service previously and don’t have any known problems or issues. So most hairdressers will assume that they are in the clear to move forward with any color services. Also, a patch test needs to be applied and watched for 24-28 hours. Because this requires the client coming in for the patch test and then coming back in at a later date after seeing the results, a lot of women choose to opt out and follow a more convenient route, albeit a riskier one.

A patch test is taking a small amount of color, applying it to the forearm and watching and recording results to gauge any reactions. If the patch test leaves a little bit of redness, but had no itching or burning, the client has a mild sensitivity but not an allergy and you can proceed with a color application. However, if the patch test has produced any itching, burning, inflammation or even sickness or fever, you should consult a doctor immediately and forego any hair color applications in the meantime.

Unfortunately, it is a bit unrealistic to do a patch test on every client that books a color service in the salon. Because highlighting and balayaging doesn’t require putting color directly onto the scalp, I almost never do a patch test for clients who request these services. However, if I have someone who’s never had color before and we are applying right onto the scalp, I do require a patch test. And at the very least, for any color customer, I always inform them of all this information and require their acknowledgment that they understand the risks of applying hair color before a service. As a consumer, it’s crucially important to know your risks and your rights, so I really wanted to share with you how a patch test should occur and when it should always take place. Part of owning your hair color knowledge is understanding the risks involved, so always take extra precautions if necessary!

Furthermore, if you choose to do your own hair color at home, always do a patch test beforehand. Every single time. Even when I was in high school using box color, I would place a small amount of color on my wrist and watch it for a day before actually using it. The reason why this is so important is because box colors have much harsher ingredients in them that can cause serious reactions. Secondly, an allergy can pop up at any moment without any warning. Even if you’ve been coloring your hair for twenty years on scalp, you could throw the exact same box color you’ve used onto your scalp and experience a major allergic reaction. Because this can happen, especially if you color at home, please be safe with your process and always do a patch test first!

10. Maintain your hair color by following these key tips. 

Now, you have your Jennifer Aniston highlights and your chic blowout as you step out of the salon. You’re ready to take on the world one fabulous step at a time, right? Hold on, hold on. There’s way more to color than washing it out and having it look flawless. The maintenance is almost just as important as who you choose to actually do your color.

The very first thing you must do to keep vibrant and dimensional color is to invest in a great shampoo. Grocery store brands will strip your color and leave your strands looking dull and damaged. You can check out my recap here to find out exactly why. For colored or highlighted hair (and really any hair that needs help with moisture and health), you must use a sulfate free shampoo. Sulfates won’t strip any of that gorgeous color you just paid for and they will also deposit moisture and protein into the hair to add to your hair’s health. Ask your hairdresser what brands she recommends and make this aspect of your hair color maintenance mandatory. I always tell my clients there’s no point in spending hundreds on a fabulous color if it only lasts a few weeks because you don’t maintain it in between salon sessions!

Another thing you can do that will make a huge different in how your color looks is protect it from heat, the sun and any elements that can dry and dull it out. When styling your hair in the morning, if you use any kind of heat tools, always use a heat protectant or spray to protect each strand. The line that I love and use in my salon, Kevin.Murphy has made the three most popular products that I use on most clients all heat protecting. I also use one of those three products on my hair every morning before I even think about touching a curling iron to it. A lot of products that boast heat protection also usually protect from UV rays and the damage of the sun. Just like with skincare and how we all wear sunscreen in our BB Creams and moisturizers now, the same needs to be true with hair. The sun can fade your color quicker than almost anything and since it’s actively doing that every day that you step outside, it’s important to make sure the product you use can provide a shield so that your color stays bright and beautiful!

The last thing I would suggest seems like a silly thing, but it makes a huge difference. I suggested this tip when I wrote about frizz on HelloGiggles, but it also works when it comes to hair color. It’s a commonly known fact by hairdressers that warm water or air opens up the cuticle and cool water or air closes it down. This is why you’ll notice hairdressers trying to keep your head and hair warm while color is processing; it’s so that the color really penetrates the cuticle as much as possible. So when you wash out your hair in the shower with your conditioner, use as cool of water as you can stand. If you need to, get out of the shower and immediately rinse your hair with cool water under the bathroom sink if you can’t stand some coolness in the shower. This is so crucial because it will ensure that your cuticle is completely locked down and shut before you start to manipulate the hair or step outside, making it very difficult for that pigment to leave the hair strand. And again, when you are finished styling your hair, go over the hair with a cool shot from your blowdryer. This will lock in your style and your color by shutting down the cuticle again.

So that concludes our series on The Ten Commandments of Hair Color! I hope you learned so much and enjoyed empowering yourself with all the facts you need to know to about getting the perfect color. I don’t know about you, but I’ve always needed to know why things work the way they do and I’ve always had a desire to completely and fully understand the elements of things I take part in to be comfortable jumping into it. Trust me, my beauty institute educators were really sick of hearing, “but why?” from me by the time I graduated. Now, however, they are proud to see where I’ve taken that pursuit of knowledge in my career and I’ve been so eager to pass all of that along to you and your friends!