How To Color Your Hair At Home Without Damaging It Forever

Just when it looked like most of the U.S. was on track to reopen businesses like hair salons, spikes in coronavirus cases across the nation have put many states' reopening processes on pause. Sadly, this means you might not be running back to your hairstylist's loving embrace for a hair color refresh quite yet. Still, there are ways you can safely color your hair at home, especially if you can't stand looking at your grown-out roots for a second longer.

When you can, you should leave permanent hair color jobs to a professional hair colorist, because as badly as you might want to bleach your roots or dunk a box of black dye on your head, impulsively jumping into a drastic dye job on your own can do more harm than good. You risk irreversible damage and potentially hundreds of dollars for a color-correcting service. Tempting as an impromptu bleach session may be, fried-off hair is simply not the vibe. But let's be real: If you're here, you're probably gonna color your hair no matter what anyone tells you. Trust me, I get it.

While coloring your hair at home is a last resort, it's important to approach the process carefully. To help you along the way, I tapped pro hairstylists Michelle Cleveland, celebrity hairstylist and owner of Hair Addicts Salon, and Stephanie Brown, celebrity hair colorist at IGK Salons, for their expert guidance on coloring your hair at home, so you don't hate the end result.

OK, first things first: What does hair color even do to your hair?

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Ever wonder why your hair looks angelic and shiny when you have it colored at a salon and... not like that when you use a box dye? It's because you're using two different dyes with wildly different formulas. "Typically, over-the-counter box dye is made up of low-quality dyes and additives, as well as high amounts of ammonia, MEA, and metallic salts," Cleveland says. "Professional formula is designed to specifically protect the hair during the oxidation process with higher-grade ingredients such as chelant, which protects against impurities that can build up on the hair."

Unfortunately, professional-grade hair color is usually only made available to licensed professionals. However, that doesn't mean harmful box dyes are your only coloring option at home. Safer alternatives like color-depositing conditioners, demi-permanent colors, and semi-permanent colors are easy ways to refresh your current color or try a new color without damaging your hair forever. And even though you can't get your hands on professional color without a license, you can purchase professional-grade hair upkeep products, which will help support your stylist and salon in the process. "If DIY home hair color is working out for you, that's great, but you can still support your hairstylist by purchasing professional-grade shampoos, conditioners, and styling products," says Cleveland. It doesn't hurt to contact your salon to see if buying products directly from them is possible. "If you are going to save by choosing a less-expensive color application, you should most definitely up your product game."

According to Cleveland, hair coloring is safe for any hair type — if it's done by a professional, who's trained to understand how hair dye reacts with different hair types. That said, if you must color your hair at home, don't be afraid to tap your usual hairstylist for advice that's specific to your hair type, and be prepared to compensate them for any consultations — even virtual. "Listen to your colorist," says Stephanie Brown, celebrity hair colorist at IGK Salons. "If they tell you [a product or process] is going to damage your hair, listen to them, because they know what they're doing. Also, if your hair is a little drier or more fragile, know you may not be able to go as light as you would like without damage."

If you don't opt for a virtual prep sesh with your stylist, you might consider supporting them in other ways, given that the risk of salons re-closing is still possible with the unpredictability of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. "I always love a tagged Instagram post or just word-of-mouth promoting me," says Brown. "Also, you could just reach out to check on your stylist — I really loved that during quarantine, too. Some salons are also doing GoFundMes, or you can buy a gift certificate for a future service."

What's the difference between the types of hair-coloring products?

Hair coloring products differ in how much (if at all) they penetrate the hair cuticle. "Permanent hair color is meant to raise the hair cuticle (tight shingles around the outside of the hair strand), so that it can enter inside the center of the hair and deposit the oxidative color deep into the hair strand," says Cleveland. "This should be done on natural hair only or, as some call it, the regrowth or root area."

Demi-permanent and semi-permanent hair color products alter hair color, but largely by coating the outside of the hair, rather than penetrating the strand. While a demi-permanent hair color requires a developer to work, making it possible to cover up grays or blend hair color, a semi-permanent hair color requires no developer to deposit the color. (Products like toners or hair glosses would fall under the semi-permanent realm.) That said, both of these options provide temporary color, often lasting around 10 washes for semi-permanent colors and about 20 for demi-permanent colors.

Color-depositing conditioners are arguably the safest way to play around with hair color at home. They do exactly as they sound: deposit color safely to your hair by coating the strands, conditioning and moisturizing your hair in the process — keeping it relatively healthy. While you can't go from, say, dark brown to silver hair with a color-depositing conditioner, you can achieve subtler changes and tone hair, like going from light pink to a more vibrant pink or from baby blonde to a platinum blonde.

So which type should I use at home?

Cleveland says you should opt for a temporary hair color, like "a demi-permanent or color-depositing conditioner," if and when you have to color your hair at home, as "both will leave no permanent traces in the hair since neither of these products actually go any further than outside cuticles on the hair." That said, it's crucial to research any product you're thinking about using before blindly picking something up at the store. "Be sure the brand you are choosing does not contain metallic dyes or henna, unless that is specifically what you are looking for," says Cleveland. "These types of ingredients can make it extremely difficult and dangerous should you decide to go over it with bleach in the future, as it will cause a chemical reaction."

How do I actually color my hair once I pick a product?

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Before you color:

Before dumping anything all over your hair, it's best to do a skin patch test and a hair strand test with the color by testing a bit of the color formula on your arm to assess how it reacts (and so you can see if you're allergic to the product). Then, test the formula on a small patch of hair at the nape of your neck (following any provided instructions). Doing so will help you gauge how well the color takes to your hair and how or if it reacts with any existing color in your hair.

If you choose a semi-or demi-permanent color:

The process for coloring your hair at home will change depending on the type of product you choose, which is why Cleveland urges you to "read the manufacturer instructions before application, so you don't make any mistakes." If you opt for a semi- or demi-permanent product, follow the included instructions. Though your directions may suggest taking dye to clean hair, both Cleveland and Brown recommend coloring hair while it's a little dirty if you choose a more intensive or permanent coloring product, as the natural oils can help protect your strands from excessive damage.

When you're ready to apply color, put on protective gloves and apply it evenly with a tinting brush ($4, Ulta Beauty). If you can, enlist the help of someone else to ensure the back of your head is coated properly. "It's never a bad idea to get a second set of eyes on your application when considering doing the back of your head," says Cleveland. Once you've coated your hair, clip it off your neck and back and wait as long as the instructions say to (usually about 30 minutes). Then, rinse until the water runs clear.

If you were getting a professional color job, Brown says your colorist might use a professional-grade product, like Uberliss bond strengthening products, Olaplex products, or the Brazilian Bond Builder, in the color mix to "keep your hair healthy and less damaged." Thankfully, Olaplex has a range of at-home products — like the No. 3 Hair Perfecter ($28, Sephora), the No. 4 Bond Maintenance Shampoo ($28, Sephora), the No. 5 Conditioner ($28, Sephora), and the No. 6 Bond Smoother Reparative Styling Creme ($28, Sephora) — meant for use at different points in the haircare process, all of which drastically improve the look and feel of hair. Uberliss' Original Bond Sustainer ($15, Ulta Beauty) can be used post-color to strengthen and moisturize hair with ingredients like coconut oil and aloe vera. Brown is also a fan of deep conditioning treatments to combat damage, like the Davines Minu Conditioner ($33, Davines), which protects and illuminates color-treated hair, making color last longer in the process, or the IGK Offline 3-Minute Hair Hydration Mask ($38, Sephora), an intensive, nourishing treatment that softens and hydrates color-treated hair.

Cleveland echoes Olaplex's efficacy, but she cautions against adding too many other products into the mix without vetting them heavily first. "I would recommend researching the manufacturer of the product you are purchasing before adding any additional products to the mix," she says. "You may do yourself more harm than good."

If you choose a color-depositing conditioner:

The process for using a color-depositing conditioner is decidedly easier than a semi- or demi-permanent color. You'll want to closely follow the instructions included with the conditioner you choose, but generally speaking, all you need to do is follow up your normal shampoo with the conditioner, leave it on for about 10 minutes, rinse it out, and style your hair as you normally would. Because this product conditions your hair in the process, you typically don't need to add in additional products if you don't want to.

What common mistakes should I look out for?

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"The biggest mistake I've seen with DIY home hair color is banding, the term stylists give to darker bands of hair that are created when a client is attempting to apply the color on their own," says Cleveland. "It's near impossible to get a good grip and view on your entire head when doing color yourself, so it's inevitable that you will drag the new color application over the existing. This is what creates a darker band [on the hair]."

Whatever you do, according to Brown, do not try to highlight your hair at home. Highlighting hair involves a number of additional steps, and there are "too many risks involved." That's why she advises sticking to easier projects, like a single-process color or covering roots. She also says choosing the correct color can be hard, and people will often pick an at-home color that's either too light or too dark, making the end result look blotchy, unnatural, or generally not at all like the picture you saw on the box. Therefore, it's best to choose a color within a few shades of your current color. "One of my favorite brands to recommend to people while in quarantine is Madison Reed," says Brown. "The brand asks a lot of questions [on the website], so you usually end up choosing the best match for your single process."

OK, I'm ready to do this. What hair color products should I buy?

There are countless hair color products available to you, but it's best to stick to less permanent products if you're doing the job at home. Also, it's a good idea to research any product heavily before you buy and look for those with conditioning properties or hydrating ingredients that'll be kind to your hair. Peep the products below for ideas to get you started:

We only include products that have been independently selected by Elite Daily's editorial team. However, we may receive a portion of sales if you purchase a product through a link in this article.

Semi or demi-permanent colors:

Color-depositing conditioners:

Strengthening and conditioning products: