The Unseen Pitfalls of Home Hair Coloring

Miller's Hair Studio woman getting her hair shampoo

Color is a powerful beauty tool

Color is a powerful beauty tool that can instantly make you feel like a completely different person. Whether you’re looking to conceal stray grays or go for a full head of color, the right shade can elevate your look.

But, if you’re thinking about coloring your hair at home, here are some things to keep in mind.

1. It’s Not Customizable to Your Hair

The beauty of a new hair color can make anyone feel empowered and confident—but the horror of a botched dye job is enough to leave us all feeling anything but. And as salons reopen and we all start attempting to dye our hair at home again, it’s important to remember that DIY color is not without its risks.

Box dyes are “one-size-fits-all,” meaning that they don’t take into account the unique qualities of each person’s hair. For example, if your hair is dry or damaged, the color may not be able to fully penetrate it and reach all the strands. This can cause the color to look patchy, uneven and dull—not exactly the look you’re going for.

Another common problem is that people don’t apply the dye evenly. Christine Arndt, a colorist at Baja Studio in NYC, says that most people don’t apply enough dye to fully saturate their hair, resulting in a splotchy, less-than-stellar result.

Arndt recommends starting with three-day-old hair, because the natural oils will help to protect your scalp from the chemicals in the dye. She also suggests working with semi- or demi-permanent colors, rather than permanent ones, because they fade more gently and are a little less drying. Plus, they’ll last a lot longer than a full foil color would (meaning you won’t have to deal with those expensive touch-ups quite so often). Still, even the best at-home color can only get you so far.

2. It’s Messy

Whether it’s a runny dye dripping down your back or your hairline stained with black lipstick, there’s nothing worse than a botched DIY coloring job. According to both Chelsey Pickthorn, owner of the salon Pickthorn in Brooklyn and Emaly Baum, a colorist based out of New York City, it’s crucial to take time to prepare for your dyeing session. That includes taking steps to protect your home and clothing from the inevitable spills and splatters. For example, it’s a good idea to lay out old towels you don’t mind ruining (and even a few garbage bags) and wearing something you don’t care about getting ruined by the dye.

It’s also a smart idea to have a second box of dye on hand, especially if you have shoulder-length or longer hair. This will give you the extra coverage you need to ensure your entire head is covered. Plus, if you end up having some unused dye left over at the end of your color process, it’s a great way to keep your roots from growing too fast.

It’s also important to remember that when it comes to hair dye, what you see on the box is often different from what you get. This is due to the fact that the developers used in most box dyes are designed to lift your hair to a certain shade, regardless of what your current color actually is.

3. It’s Expensive

Home hair dye is a premade formula and it usually comes in three different types: permanent, semi-permanent, and demi-permanent. These formulas either penetrate the hair cortex for lasting color or they coat the exterior layer of your hair and sit there for a shorter period of time.

It’s also important to note that the type of color you choose will impact your results. For example, a demi or semi-permanent color is reversible and it will wash out with your next shampoo, but a permanent color will leave behind a stain in the shaft of your hair that is not reversible.

Using box dye to cover gray hair, match a color you already have or make a subtle change in your tone is typically doable, Baghaei says, but it’s not a good idea to try to go significantly darker or lighter at home. The risk of getting a brassy or orange tone is high, and you will likely have to spend more money at the salon to fix it.

The cost of salon hair coloring depends on the type of color you are getting, the amount of gray coverage and your stylist’s skill level. A qualified hairstylist has spent years gaining knowledge and experience so it’s not surprising that salon colors can be more expensive than home dye. However, salon hair dyes are much safer than home hair dye and they can also help prevent damage to your hair.

4. It’s Not Safe

The chemicals found in most home hair dyes can be damaging to the hair strands. Many are known carcinogens, and prolonged exposure can cause skin, eye, and lungs irritations. These toxins can also damage the integrity of your hair, causing breakage and dullness.

In addition to this, there’s a risk of allergic reactions. The best way to prevent this is by testing the color on a small area of skin before applying it (like the bend of your elbow) and following the instructions on the box.

If you’re going to go for a more drastic change than covering grays or adjusting your tone, salon colors are always the safer option. “Salon color is formulated to be less harsh and more gentle on the hair, so it will leave your hair in better condition,” says Baghaei.

If you still want to try your hand at DIY coloring, experts recommend using semi or demi-permanent formulas. These don’t penetrate the internal layers of your hair strands like permanent dyes and instead sit on the external layer, which can be washed off after a few shampoos. It’s also a good idea to invest in purple and blue shampoos, conditioners, and treatments to cancel out brassy tones and keep the color looking fresh.

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