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How to Master Hair Coloring at Home

Nervous about home hair coloring? Fear not. Simple techniques and advanced technologies make it easy to take matters into your own hands.

"When hair color is perfect, it looks like water on a sunny day -- equal parts movement, dimension, and shine," says Eric Muroski, a colorist at the Marie Robinson salon in New York City. Alas, between hormone shifts and environmental exposure, hair tends to lose both pigment and luster with age. Lucky for us, perking up a dull hue doesn't take much -- not even a salon visit.

"Home hair-color kits have come a long way since the days of a streaking cap and a knitting needle," Muroski says. "Not only are the kits themselves easier to use, but the color has gotten more vibrant and longer lasting." And despite persistent questions about the potential link between hair color and cancer, most available evidence -- from more than a decade of human studies -- does not support such a link, according to the American Cancer Society. 

"Plus, we're more aware of what colorants are potential sensitizers, allergens, and irritants -- and these have been removed or replaced with safer alternatives," says cosmetic chemist Joe Cincotta.

To make home hair color look good, you do need a few tricks up your sleeve. "When you're looking for a new shade, think about what nature does for you -- or has done in the past," Muroski suggests. 

"Look back at old pictures to the palette of your childhood, when hair color tends to have a lot more natural dimension than when you've aged. The shades in that mix will still likely work best with your skin tone." You should also stand outside "to see which colors emerge when the sunlight hits your hair," he says. 

They're good leads when you shop the hair-color aisle. If you're simply trying to cover grays, you can just match your current shade -- unless, that is, you're blond. "If you're blond or a very light brown, you want to go a shade darker for full gray coverage," Muroski says.

Before you pull out the rubber gloves, the first question you need to ask is: Am I going darker or lighter?

Going Darker

Whether you want to add just a hint of richness or go noticeably deeper, you can get pro results at home. But if it's a dramatic change you're after, approach the coloring process gradually to keep it believable (and avoid the coloring catastrophes of lore).

Henna
Derived entirely from shrub leaves, henna is an eco-friendly choice, but it isn't for everyone: Use it only if you're hoping to warm up and redden your hair a bit: "At-home hennas are full of red tones," Muroski says, "so they aren't good for simple darkening." If you want to try henna, avoid over-reddening by leaving the solution on for 5-to-10-minute increments. Note: If you're blond, skip the henna altogether, unless you want pumpkin-color hair.

Semipermanent Color
Semipermanents are low-commitment and nondamaging, with pigment molecules small enough to penetrate the hair shaft, but usually no ammonia or peroxide to permanently alter its structure and make the new color "stick." Within 8 to 12 shampooings, you should be back to your normal shade, unless, of course, you happen to be blond. "If you're trying out a semipermanent brown or black on light hair, the color isn't going to go away so quickly," Muroski warns.

Demipermanent Color
Though it contains a small percentage of peroxide to enable a greater degree of pigment penetration (expect results to last six to eight weeks), demipermanent color is still only minimally damaging. But stay within a shade or two of the color you have now, advises colorist Rita Hazan, owner of the eponymous New York salon. "You can always go darker after the first round."

Going Lighter

Lighteners contain a melanin-oxidizing (i.e., bleaching) agent -- most commonly peroxide. Though color lifters need not ravage your hair, they can dry it out, so use moisturizing conditioner (often included in the box) and wash minimally.

Highlights
Unlike all-over color, which leaves a solid line of demarcation as your hair grows out, "properly weaved-in highlights leave no such line, making them one of the most natural-looking color options," notes John Masters, owner of the organic New York City salon and hair-care line of the same name. You can even use highlights to make your entire head look lighter over time, Hazan says. Adding a few subtle highlights gradually will create an overall lightening effect, with minimal damage. Place extra streaks in the top layers and around your face to mimic lightening from the sun.

All-Over Permanent Color
This is fine for home use if you want to go only a shade or two lighter than your natural hair color, the pros concur. But going from dark brown to blond or honey to platinum is best left to the experts, lest you wind up with the all-too-common orange effect. If you want more dramatic lightening at home, consider going a shade or two lighter all over, then adding highlights, Muroski notes.

Tips for Coloring

If you're using permanent color, don't wash your hair for one to two days before coloring, Muroski says. "Your scalp will build up a natural oil barrier that helps prevent irritation." If you're using semi- or demipermanent color, shampoo and dry your hair just beforehand, but skip conditioner. "This puts the hair in its most porous state, allowing it to soak up the most color," Muroski explains. When you color, start the timer as soon as you begin applying the product, Hazan says. Never leave the colorant on longer than recommended. "It won't get richer," Muroski says, "just inkier." A brighter future awaits.

Live Free and Dye
Gentle care before, during, and after coloring helps protect locks from excessive damage. Use our Hair-Coloring Toolkit to ensure that you're taken care of throughout the entire process. 

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