How to Dye Your Hair At Home

1/6 Stephen Lee
At-Home Hair-Color Cheat Sheet
Last year, cash-strapped women flocked to drugstore hair-color aisles. And even though things are looking up in the financial sector, only a certain clientele has migrated back to the salon. "The women who come to me are looking for the salon experience," says colorist Rita Hazan, owner of the Rita Hazan Salon in New York City. "Women who color at home just want to get the job done."

Not that she blames them. Home hair dye is much simpler (and more effective) than it used to be. The latest formulas are easier to apply, take less time, and have lower levels of harmful ammonia and peroxide, plus the new conditioners can restore hair cuticles after coloring. "The directions inside the box are clearer now, and the help you can get from the companies over the phone has been elevated," says Hazan. With a little bit of know-how, at-home formulas can impart rich color and mirrorlike shine, and leave your hair incredibly healthy. Follow this advice and you'll quickly consider at-home hair dye one of the best beauty products out there.
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What It Is:
The illusion of sun-kissed streaks that add dimension and depth to the hair—precisely where you want it. No sun is necessary, as the bleaching of your base shade is what provides the luminous boost. And fortunately, the biggest worry with home highlights is placement, not pain. "Over-the-counter highlighting systems are very gentle," says colorist Kyle White of the Oscar Blandi salon in New York City. "They won't provide as much color lifting as you'd get in a salon, because beauty companies don't want you to burn your scalp." While every box kit comes with its own application tools (combs and brushes), colorists agree that the best way to streak solo is to lighten quarter-inch pieces only around the face and at the crown. "Trying to give yourself a full head of highlights is like trying to give yourself a face-lift," says White. "You just can't do it."

How It Works:
As with any hair color that permanently lightens, ammonia lifts the cuticle and peroxide bleaches your natural pigment. It simultaneously tints the strands, and color molecules expand in size until they cannot be dislodged from the shaft during washing.

Dye Duration
Until your roots are showing (usually eight to 10 weeks) or your hair is rehighlighted

Who It's Best For:
Anyone who wants bold, chunky highlights or natural-looking sun-kissed strands. "Highlights give even artificial hair color dimension and tonality, which makes strands appear thicker and more natural," says White.

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What It Is:
An ideal introduction for hair-color virgins, this low-liability dye (also known as nonpermanent or level 1 color) acts like a stain. It can camouflage salt-and-pepper strands (if you are up to 20 percent gray) and gradually washes out. "Semipermanent color allows you to go darker or add tone and shine to your shade," says White, "but it won't lighten your hair." Formulated without ammonia or peroxide, it's the least damaging of all dyes.

How It Works:
The dark color pigment is deposited onto the surface of the hair shaft without lifting the cuticle, so your natural hair color is safely maintained inside the shaft.

Dye Duration:
Six to 12 shampoos

Who It's Best For:
First timers; women who want to boost their natural shade but aren't looking for permanent change; those looking to cover a few grays; risk-averse experimenters who want to test-drive a darker color

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What It Is:
Demipermanent color (also called tone-on-tone or level 2) is marginally more opaque than a semipermanent dye, provides more lasting results, and is your best bet if you are up to 50 percent gray. It isn't permanent, but it can stick around for quite a while, depending on how porous your hair is. "Clients come to me saying, 'This color was supposed to last only two months, but it's still dark!'" says Hazan. "I liken it to spilling red wine on a white T-shirt. As you wash it, the intensity fades, but the stain may remain."

How It Works:
A touch of peroxide (2 to 5 percent, depending on the brand) allows pigment to penetrate the hair shaft without removing your natural shade.

Dye Duration:
12 to 24 shampoos

Who It's Best For:
Women with damaged or overprocessed strands who want to infuse their shade with depth and glossiness, cover a larger number of grays, or go darker. Those who dread being beholden to a hair-coloring timetable will also like demi dye; the color fades gradually, so there's no line of demarcation as hair grows.

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What It Is:
If you know the exact shade of hair color you wish you'd been born with, permanent dye (sometimes called level 3 color) is the answer. But, like love itself, it requires commitment (the color lasts long-term and can't be washed out) and faithfulness (you'll need to set aside time to recolor your new hair growth every four to six weeks).

How It Works:
Ammonia or monoethanolamine (MEA) opens the hair shaft, and peroxide erases your natural shade from your hair's melanin. This chemical interaction bonds your new shade to the cortex by causing color molecules to expand until they are too large to wash away. The lifting of the cuticle makes hair more susceptible to damage from the sun and chemical processes, but it's the only formula that significantly lightens (other than highlights).

Dye Duration:
Until your hair grows out or is recolored

Who It's Best For:
Brunettes who dream of having more fun as blondes; women who want to go lighter, are more than 50 percent gray, or simply want a new hair color

6/6 iStockphoto/Thinkstock
The Green Scence
How "green" can you go and still get head-turning hair? Turns out, organic hair color doesn't exist outside of natural plant-based dyes like henna. "To cover grays or go lighter, you need to use conventional hair-color technology," says cosmetics chemist Ron Robinson, founder of The good news? A recent report from The Journal of the American Medical Association
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