Deciding to take the plunge into at-home hair coloring can be intimidating, so I encourage you to ask for help. And talk about your particular situation. Be frank about the kind of hair you have and how high-maintenance you feel like being; otherwise hair geeks might think that like them, you can think of no greater joy than barricading yourself in the bathroom for two hours a week to tweak your hair color.
Start by asking the person who cuts your hair for advice. Yes, salons often make a rigid distinction between cutters and colorists, but people who cut hair for a living know plenty about hair color. I mean, have you ever seen anyone working in a salon with virgin hair? They're getting their hair colored all the time. If you explain your situation--that you want to cover gray, but don't want to spend a fortune at the salon--you can get great advice about shades and techniques to try.
The people who work at Sally's Beauty Supply also know a lot. And people at MakeupAlley are extremely knowledgeable and helpful. And don't forget the 1-800 numbers printed on the boxes; the people who answer the phone are like the Butterball turkey experts, except about hair color. A friend of mine swears she is not completely bald (following two misguided attempts to go platinum blonde in a single week) solely due to Clairol's free help line.
Different kinds of drugstore colorThere are three kinds of hair color: temporary, semi-permanent, and permanent. We're going to skip right over temporary rinses. They're really not designed to provide full coverage, and they're water soluble. You need something that will last past the first rainstorm.
Semi-permanent color like Clairol's Loving Care coat your hair enough to last through anywhere from 5 to 10 shampoos. They're gentle because they don't use ammonia or peroxide to open the hair's cuticle. That means you can't use this kind of product to change your hair color, and you can't lighten your hair with them. If you don't have a lot of gray (less than 25 percent) or your gray isn't resistant to color, this kind of product might be all you need.
Semi-permanent colors add, but can't lift color from your hair. This means they'll only affect the lightest hairs on your head, leaving your darker hairs unaffected. That's why you should always pick a shade that's at least one shade lighter than you want your hair to turn out. Your gray hair will be tinted that shade, and the rest of your hair will be unaffected. This creates a nice highlighted effect.
Demi-permanent color Hair color geeks toss this term around a lot, but you don't always see it in advertisements or packages of color. Also, manufacturers don't use the term consistently--L'Oreal calls this kind of color "non-permanent." This category is actually a stealth version of semi-permanent, so you need to understand what it is and how it works.
Demi-permanent color doesn't just coat the hair; it penetrates the hair somewhat in order to deposit the color. To do this, the formula uses a peroxide developer to lift the cuticle and get the color to penetrate.
This means that even when the color part of the formula fades away, the developer half of it will have bleached your hair a bit. If you use a black shade of demi-permanent color on your black hair, you can't expect your hair to stay black when the color wears off. You'll find that it's lightened a bit, and with lightening comes the dreaded brassiness.
Also, depending on your original shade and the condition of your hair, some demi-permanent color will penetrate the shaft, sometimes permanently. So proceed with caution. Don't use a demi-permanent hair color in Angelina Jolie black or Lucille Ball red on dry, porous platinum blonde hair, and then expect it to shampoo out. It won't happen.
That being said, if you don't have that much gray, a demi-permanent color might do the trick. Clairol's Natural Instincts is a demi-permanent hair color that I used it for years. Call it my gateway hair color. The shades are gorgeous, it does a good job of covering gray, and it doesn't contain any ammonia, so it actually smells nice. And the conditioner that comes in the box is excellent.
Here's a semi- and demi-permanent color trick: when I was getting a semi-permanent base color at the salon, they'd have me sit under a dryer for about 20 minutes. Heat helps this process along, so if your semi-permanent color isn't looking rich enough, this is something to try.
And of course, you realize that the times they mention on the box are hopelessly optimistic when it comes to covering gray, right? I always kept my color on for 10 minutes longer than the longest time they suggested.
Permanent ColorIf, like me, you're more than 50 percent gray, you might want to take the leap to permanent color. I've never used a drugstore permanent color, but here's what I've heard:
- Revlon Colorsilk gets very high marks on MakeupAlley, especially for its brown shades.
- Clairol Nice 'n' Easy was designed to cover gray, so it's excellent for that. It's particularly popular for blonde shades. (Gray hair is even more difficult to cover if you're blonde, which frankly, is only fair, considering that blondes have spent years having more fun.)
- Frederic Fekkai gets high marks for every shade, but it should--the complete kit costs $30. Even if you're not going to spend $30, check out their site's video on how to select and apply hair color; it's very good.
If you want highlightsFirst of all, let me just say this: highlighting your hair at home is not for the faint of heart. Highlights are made with bleach, and bleach is always permanent. Also, with bleach, timing is critical. When you add pigment to your hair, timing is not all that critical--at least, when it comes to damaging your hair. Whether you leave your color on for 20 or 40 minutes, there's a limit to the amount of damage you can do. But bleach removes your hair's color starting with the blue end of the spectrum. Rinse it out too quickly, and you'll end up with orange hair. On the other hand, if you leave the bleach on too long, you'll fry your hair.
- The original home highlighting product, Clairol's ancient Frost and Tip now comes in different kits depending on whether you want to use a cap or paint on streaks. The latter is obviously your best bet if you decide to touch up salon highlights at home.
- Revlon's Frost and Glow comes in three different shades and gets rave reviews.
- L'Oreal's Couleur Experte is a kit with a base color and a highlighting shade for one stop shopping.
- Garnier Nutrisse Nourishing Multi-Lights highlighting kit got a rave review from my pal Badger, and her pictures look better than the pictures on Garnier's website, so check it out.
Dealing with roots
- Roux's Fanci-Full temporary rinse--yes, that stuff you used to see in your grandmother's bathroom--refreshes faded color and conceals roots. If you're using it just for your roots, it's best to decant a small amount into a spray bottle. Another trick is to pour a bit of the rinse into a zip-lock container, then use a sponge or brush to apply. You can keep a dedicated hair-touch-up sponge in the bag in your secret stash of hair color equipment. Next to your bong.
- Another product people like is Roux's Fanci-Full Touch-Up Stick.
- Or you could try a colored mascara ... although sounds a little ooky to me.
- I've already blogged about how much I love Clairol's Nice 'n' Easy Root Touch Up. Here's a tip: when I'm just doing my part and my temples, I don't end up using a lot of product, so I only mix up part of the formula. Then I keep the bottles, tray, brush and little gloves squirreled away in a Zip-Loc bag with my secret hair color stash. Next to my crack pipe.
Tricks to refresh your colorSunshine and shampoo will eventually fade even the most permanent hair color, so here are some trick to keep your color looking fresh.
- When you're touching up your roots, mix a little of your colorant in your usual conditioner. When you have only a few minutes left of processing time on your roots, apply the mixture to everything but your touched-up roots. Leave on for two minutes, then rinse as usual.
- Use a color depositing shampoo/conditioner. I do this about every third or fourth shampoo. (More would darken my highlights.) I've blogged about this elsewhere.
- Clairol's Shine Happy Glossing Treatment refreshes color and adds shine.
But let me just say this: when it comes to home hair color, the internet is your friend. You should figure out what you want to buy before you're confronted with walls of intimidating hair color. But some of the manufacturers' sites aren't all that helpful. Based on their site alone, I'd say that L'Oreal is a company to avoid. You can't even tell which of their colors are semi- and which ones are permanent. How is that helpful? Pfft.
Whereas Clairol? I'm ready to invite Clairol for Thanksgiving dinner, that's how much I love their website. So that's something to keep in mind.
The Daily Glow has a great primer on hair color
Marie Claire has great advice on picking a hair color
Hair Boutique has more advice on coloring your hair at home.
An explanation of peroxide, how it works, and what the pros know is here.
Killer Strands is opinionated and somewhat loopy, but has lots of great information.