Hair Color 101: Every Term and Technique to Know Before Your Next Appointment

Hair Color 101: Every Term and Technique to Know Before Your Next Appointment featured image
This article first appeared in the Fall 2022 issue of New Beauty. Click here to subscribe

For many of us, our hair color is a key piece of our identity. I’ve been many shades of blonde throughout my life and never strayed to “the dark side,” though I’ve often envied my friends who take a more chameleon approach and make drastic changes depending on their mood or the season. The world of hair color is vast and complex, and the list of salon services continues to grow as trends evolve. Here’s what to know before your next appointment.

Single Process vs. Double Process

One of the most requested color services, “a single process is one color service during one session, and the color can be done all over the hair, or just a root touch-up,” explains celebrity colorist Tracey Cunningham. “A double process is when two color services are required in a session to achieve the client’s desired look, such as highlights with toning, which is very common.” For example, blondes who bleach their roots to get super platinum and then need another 20 to 30 minutes of toning after the lightening process, adds Shvonne Perkins, master colorist for Madison Reed.

Going Dark to Light

There’s also a service for color correction, which takes the double process a step further. “In situations where someone is going from dark hair to very light hair, they may actually undergo two back-to-back applications of bleach, which is a multi-hour appointment and usually more expensive than a double process,” Perkins says. Celebrity colorist Chad Kenyon adds, “When going from dark to light, it can take an unexpected journey to get to the desired results, aka multiple color sessions. I always explain this to my clients during their initial consultation, which is super important. I ask them to show me inspiration photos of precisely what they want to achieve, and what they don’t want.”

Balayage Basics

A French technique used to lighten the hair, balayage means “sweeping,” and tends to blend more naturally with the hair’s base color. “It got its name from sweeping strokes, or lightly freehand painting highlights, and though it’s best on lighter hair, it can be done on any color,” says celebrity colorist Rita Hazan. The roots are left alone and color is applied from the mid-lengths down, creating a sun-kissed, multidimensional effect, adds Lee.

As a balayage artist, Kenyon paints hair freehand all day. “This means I do not use foils when creating the highlights,” he says. “Every balayage artist paints with their own technique: some use cotton and plastic wrap to separate the painted pieces with lightener on them from the hair they don’t want to lighten; others freehand like I do. I use clay-based lightener instead of bleach, which forms a protective shell on the outside of the hair. The clay also creates the perfect consistency with which to paint. I love customizing clients’ hair color so that it looks unique and individual.”

If balayage is done properly, the hair should grow out seamlessly with no hard lines of demarcation, and as a result, only two to three salon appointments per year will be needed to freshen it up. For this reason, balayage has a reputation for being lower maintenance than traditional highlights, but Hazan says that’s not always true. “It depends on the color and technique,” she explains. “I would not recommend it for textured hair. I also don’t think you should go into a salon asking for balayage specifically— I think you should show pictures of the color you like and then let the colorist decide which technique is best. Balayage is a technique, not a color.”


What is a base break?

According to celebrity colorist Nikki Lee, a base break is when a root color is used to slightly lighten your natural hair color—it breaks up darker roots to help fade the line of demarcation. “It’s good for those who want their natural color in between their highlights to appear lighter, or those who want to warm up their natural hair.”

What is foilyage?

Though not technically balayage, foilyage involves using the same sweeping technique to apply lightener or bleach to the hair, but then each section is wrapped in foil, like traditional highlights, rather than cotton or plastic wrap. “Using foils will allow for more lift because the foils create heat,” says Lee.

Gray Matters

Nowadays, there are several options available for covering gray hair, from full-coverage permanent color that generally lasts four to six weeks, to demi-permanent color that blends grays without fully covering them and lasts up to 24 shampoos. Though full-coverage remains the most common choice, “some clients prefer the demi-permanent method because it makes the grow-out process more gradual and softer,” Perkins says. “However, not all gray hair accepts color easily, and most hair-color products have shades that are specifically designed for maximum coverage to support hard-to-cover hairs. Our Madison Reed Radiant Hair Color Kit offers ammonia- and PPD-free neutral and warm shades with additional pigment for this reason.”

Gloss Boss

Glosses can be either transparent or tinted with demi-permanent pigment (not dye), and can be mixed with developer to adjust your specific hair color. They help to refresh the tone of the color, as well as add shine, dimension and silkiness—think of them like a topcoat over nail polish. They last about a month, slowly fading with each shampoo. “The great thing about glosses is that they don’t open the hair cuticle—they preserve the health of the hair and don’t add porosity,” adds Perkins. “So, you’re getting the benefit of the shine and tone without overpowering and drying out the mid-lengths and ends. Gloss is not always automatically included in color treatments, but it is always recommended, so be sure to ask your colorist. A gloss after a root touch-up is the best way to make your hair look salon-fresh.”

Kenyon, who always does a gloss after highlights and root or base color touch-ups for clients, says that “even if the overall tonality of the hair looks great, a clear gloss will give the hair super shine. A salon gloss is always the way to go—leave glossing to the pros.”

Is a glaze the same as a gloss?

Though they may sound different, Kenyon says glosses and glazes are essentially the same thing. “I tend to hear gloss more in Los Angeles and glaze more in New York City,” he notes. “Generally, they sit on top of the cuticle to tone, refresh and add shine. Some brands also make demi glosses that ‘semi-penetrate’ the hair and can even blend grays.”

2 Color Trends to Try This Year

Cunningham says the “cashmere blonde”—a soft blonde that mixes cool and warm hues—and “expensive brunette” trends that went viral last winter are still very popular. “Expensive brunette appears like it is all one shade of brown, but it’s babylights around the face, down the hairline and through the part, and then a lighter brown over them,” she explains. “It looks multidimensional and beautiful.”

At-Home Color Care

Wash Cycle

“You don’t want to spend time and money on gorgeous color and then have your shampoo strip your hair shaft and make your color go dull sooner than it should,” Cunningham says, noting that sulfates are the key ingredient to avoid. Though sulfate free shampoos get a bad rap for not lathering well, Kenyon likes Olaplex No.4 ($30) and says “the lather is luxurious.”

Lee adds that it’s best to only wash color-treated hair two times a week if you can manage, and to wash with lukewarm or cool water, as hot water can dry out the hair and fade color.

Toning shampoos can be helpful to eliminate brassiness. For those with blonde and gray hair, look for purple formulas, and for brunettes, blue shampoo can banish orange tones.

Style Smart

Excessive heat styling can ruin the molecules in hair color, causing it to dull and fade. “Avoid using hot tools when possible, and always use a heat protectant,” says Lee. “In Common Magic Myst 4-in-1 Elixir ($35) is my favorite.”

Bond Repair

“Color treatments can damage and break the disulfide bonds in the hair, so you want to use bond-building products like Olaplex No.3 ($30)—once a week—that help relink the bonds to repair the hair,” says Cunningham.

Glosses add shine, dimension and silkiness to the hair— think of them like a topcoat over nail polish—and last about a month.


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