Stylists Reveal Their Best At-Home Color Tips

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It’s a tale as old as hair-coloring time: Schedule a salon appointment or take the DIY route?

“Ideally, you’d want to consult with a professional colorist who can point you to shades and formulas that will work with your skin tone, as well as your hair type and porosity,” says Tiffanie Richards, colorist at New York’s Nunzio Salon. “That way, you’re sure to get the best possible outcome.”

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While getting “the best” is always a bonus, Richards also admittedly lives in the real world and realizes her advice is not always the most cost-efficient, nor time-productive, option.

“If a client is going to color their hair at home, I recommend Natural Instincts because it’s less pigmented than most and allows you to do root touch-ups without having to be as precise as a professional. If you overlap on the previous colored hair, it won’t create a band or become color-saturated, which can get ‘inky-looking,’” she says.

“But I do feel pretty strongly that you should never attempt to do highlights at home. In the salon, we have access to different developers, heating devices and different toners or glosses. These things are typically needed to achieve a beautiful overall hair color.”

Celeb hairstylist Philip B.—who has seen his fair share of “severe damage and breakage” from at-home color—is also a fan of the roots-only route. “I recommend playing it safe. For brunettes looking to cover gray, I’ve heard great things about Clairol Root Touchup in Medium Ash Brown. It takes 10 minutes and blends with any brunette hair color.”

Whatever you do, he says, don’t try to push your hair more than two shades lighter or darker than your natural color and, if you’re using a permanent color, stay away from metallic bases. “They can have a damaging chemical reaction inside the hair shaft and cause extreme breakage. Some temporary colors also have metallic bases, so be aware and always check the ingredient deck.”

Besides the damage, there’s also the risk of getting an undesired color, which—spoiler alert—might require a trip to the salon in the end, says New York hair color expert Beth Minardi.

“It remains rather difficult to be a truly informed shopper. The most predictable, and safest, way to color hair at home is to choose a shade rather close to one’s natural tone,” she says.

“In my many years coloring hair at my salon and as consultant to several major color manufacturers, I have learned that most people think that their hair is darker than it really is! So, when they read the guidelines printed on hair-coloring packages, they miscalculate their current shade and are not starting their treatment at the true starting place.” 

So, Minardi advises, if you’re a brunette, start with a shade you believe to be a bit lighter or warmer than your current shade. And, if your hair has been colored in the past, avoid the “simply apply roots-to-ends” advice, which she says typically results in the hair lengths developing to a darker shade than the hair closer to the scalp.

“If you have medium or dark brown hair you cannot be a ‘one-step’ blond. The pales blonds of permanent hair color were designed to cover gray hair on those who are naturally blond or those who have very light brown or ‘dishwater blond’ hair with blue or gray eyes. Those whose natural color is deep brown will transition to a bright orange or ‘school bus yellow’ if they attempt to lighten their rich brunette brown to blond. This is best done via pre-lightening and toning at a salon, or via blond highlights, which are created by wrapping selected strands in bleach.”

Besides that, Minardi tells her clients to look before they leap. "Go to a store that sells wigs! Try several on. And, when you go to the store for ‘try-ons,’ wear the makeup shades and lip color that you usually wear. It can be rather enlightening.”

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