Color Your Hair at Home with Confidence
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Color Your Hair at Home with Confidence

Our home hair-color handbook will help you look as though you stepped straight out of the salon.

STEP 1: Clarify Your Color Goals

There's a lot to love about today's home hair color, starting with the fact that you can get rich and gorgeous color without ever compromising the health of your hair. What's more, many contain conditioners that make coarse hair shiny and give fine hair plenty of bounce. So here, for your enjoyment (and information) is our goof-proof guide to at-home hair color that will garner you all the compliments you -- and your hair -- so richly deserve!

1. What's the difference between semipermanent, demipermanent, and permanent hair color?

Each term refers to how significantly the formula will change your current color (and cover gray) as well as to how long these effects will last. Are you interested in enhancing your current color or in trying out a new layer of color, such as a red tone on brown hair? If so, try a semipermanent formula, such as Clairol's Natural Instincts, $7.99, or a demipermanent formula, like L'Oreal Color Spa Moisture Actif, $6.49; both wash out gradually (five to eight shampoos for semi, up to 28 shampoos for demi) without any noticeable roots. If you're looking for a long-term change, or to cover gray hair, then you'll be happier with a permanent formula.

2. I'm not sure what color would look best on me. Do you have any pointers?

It's often difficult to get a good reading on what color best suits you, especially if you've been dyeing your hair for a long time and have lost track of your natural color. First, look at your hair in bright daylight, since many women underestimate how light their hair already is. Second, use your skin tone and eye color to guide you toward your best shade. It all boils down to determining whether you're "cool" or "warm" toned. Once you are clear on that, pick colors that are in those families. Still confused? Don't be.

  • You're COOL if... you have fair skin and blue or green eyes. Avoid gold, yellow, or red tones in your hair color, as they will make you look sallow.
  • You're WARM if... You have golden, olive, or dark skin and brown or dark eyes. Avoid hair colors with tinges of blue, violet, or white, as well as jet-black hair that will wash out your complexion.

Also, use the Web: Imagine sitting at your computer and answering a simple quiz that tells you exactly what color (and formula) you should buy. That's a reality now, since most major dye makers have such services on their Web sites. You can also usually see a quick video demonstration of color application. As a bonus, Clairol's Web site (www.clairol.com) allows you to upload your own photo and experiment with different hues.

3. I am overwhelmed once I get to the drugstore. Can I go by the color I see on the box?

Ignore the lady on the box. Consider the model's hair color to be a guide but not the ultimate barometer of how your color will turn out. Everyone's hair, by nature, will accept new color differently. Instead, use the color name as your shepherd. Typically they are divided into groups (black, brown, blond, and red) that are further divided into light, medium, and dark, and topped off with terms such as golden and ash to describe the color's tone. Use these descriptions, as well as the swatches on the box, to settle on the right shade. The boxes have even gotten more useful, such as L'Oreal's new Natural Match hair coloring kit, $11.99, which features a mirror on the top to allow for an easy comparison of your current color with the color on the box.

4. I'd love to have highlights. Is this too risky to try at home?

The best candidates for at-home highlights are women with virgin hair (that is, women who have never colored their hair) who want to add a few streaks that are just a notch lighter than their natural color. We like Revlon's new Custom Effects Highlighting Kit, $10.99, which comes with a built-in toner that fine-tunes your new streaks -- ensuring a natural look -- without affecting the uncolored hair. Avoid major wreckage by following these tips:

  • Be artistic: Make sure to space the highlights apart widely enough, working with a few strands at a time, so you don't end up with unflattering chunks of light hair. It's also a good idea, the first time out, to lighten just a few strands around your hairline. You can always add more.
  • Be patient: Leave on mixture for the allotted time. Rinse it off too quickly and you won't see any highlights; keep it on too long and you might end up with unnatural super-light strands.
  • Be careful: Lift the targeted sections up and away from the rest of the hair. Apply color sparingly at the root (the heat from your scalp makes it develop faster) and thicker on the ends. This technique will help avoid any scary splotches or tiger stripes, says Paul Cucinello, a color specialist at the Christopher Stanley Salon, in New York City.

5. Why is my gray hair so difficult to color? Gray hair is famously stubborn because of its composition. As hair loses its natural pigment, the strands simply reflect light, resulting in gray or white hair. Also, says Samuel Shriqui, a salon owner in New York City, "the texture also becomes coarser, making it more resistant to hair dye." Hair-color companies are paying closer attention to your needs, however, with new entries such as Clairol's Nice 'n Easy Gray Solution, $8.99, designed to better cover gray, leaving you with natural-looking color. And if you're interested in enhancing the color of your gray, try Pantene's new Pro-V Silver Expressions Shampoo and Conditioner, $6.49 each. The shampoo has a violet tinge, which helps counteract the yellowing that can plague gray hair; it also moisturizes and adds loads of shine.

STEP 2: Apply Like a Pro

  • If your hair is very thick or long, you might need two boxes of color. Don't be caught off guard with only half of your head dyed!
  • Don't skip any steps in the interest of saving time. "You definitely don't want to speed up the process," warns Brad Johns, Clairol's global color director and a top colorist at the Avon Salon & Spa, in New York City. "It's like making a cake. If you speed that up, you will ruin that, too." One example: Shake the color mixture for the full length of time listed in the product's instructions to be sure that all of the ingredients are activated and ready to do their job.
  • Distribute the mixture over your hair as if you were shampooing, but don't rub it into your scalp.
  • If your hair is already colored, apply the formula to your roots only (where the hair is not dyed), wait 20 minutes and distribute it to your ends so you're not overcoloring. Wait five more minutes before shampooing.

STEP 3: Keep Color Bright

Should I use color-boosting shampoos, conditioners, and other treatments?

Yes, it's crucial. Such treatments are packed with extra-hydrating ingredients such as shea butter and protein to replace lost moisture. By following a regimen that includes products specifically formulated for color-treated hair, you will be able to maintain that first-day vibrancy for even longer.

For daily use: John Frieda Luminous Color Glaze, $9.99, utilizes a blend of mild dyes and shine-enhancing silicones to condition and add shine. Use it after shampooing and conditioning. Available in Sheer Blonde, Brilliant Brunette, or Radiant Red formulas.

For weekly use: Dove Advanced Color Care Reviving Mask, $5.99 each, strengthens color-treated hair. Goldwell Color Glow Color Mousse, $16.50, in five shades, maintains your color's vibrancy.

As needed: Redken's Blonde Glam Color-Activating Treatment, $13.95, wakes up blond tones, while Clairol's Natural Instincts Shine Happy, $6.99, revives any existing color. Use it in the shower like a shampoo; wait 10 minutes and follow with conditioner. Available in March.

HELP! How to Fix a Color Disaster

Uh-oh. Your excitement over your new color turns to despair when you look in the mirror. The most common mistakes, say the experts, are colors that come out unnaturally dark, orange, or brassy. Remain calm -- you actually have a lot of options.

  • If your new color looks like shoe polish, use a clarifying shampoo (colorists love Prell Original Rinse Clean Solution, $3.19), which will help fade the excess color, especially if it has been less than 72 hours since you've dyed your hair. (You have a 48- to 72-hour window before the new color locks into your cuticle. Conversely, if you love your color and want to make sure it lasts, don't shampoo until after this period is over.)
  • If your color is too orange, you may be able to color over it with another formula. Call the hotline listed on the hair color box first, however, to determine which is your best formula. Deciding for yourself could create a bigger problem -- and can damage your hair's health.

Originally published in Ladies' Home Journal magazine, February 2006.

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