Understanding Hair Color

Miller's Hair Studio

What your color will look like before you even step into the salon

Ever wonder what a cosmetologist is talking about when they mention “levels” and “tones?” Understanding hair color will help you make the best decisions about your next shade change.

Level and tone are the background pigments that determine a hair color’s hue. This article will teach you how to decode these numbers and letters to know exactly what your color will look like before you even step into the salon!

Levels of Hair Color

When you want to change your hair color to something fun, bright, or daring you need to have a clear understanding of your hair levels and tones. If you don’t, you can risk a chemical nightmare – from uneven or patchy color to your hair breaking off.

The level system is a universal system used by professionals to determine how light or dark a shade will appear. It runs from 1 (jet black) to 10 (lightest blonde). Some color lines have up to 12 levels.

Your natural hair color is what’s called your base level and is a good starting point to determine the best shade for you. It is also a good way to know how drastic of a change you can make in one coloring session without causing undue damage.

If you are a level 2 for example, you have a dark coffee brown that is a neutral to warm tone. You would be able to pull off many shades of colors on your level 2 base. On the other hand, if you were to go down to a level 1, you would be going to platinum blonde which is very damaging to your hair and could leave it dry, damaged, and brittle.

The same goes for a level 9 versus a level 6. The latter will likely need to use a lot of toner to get a natural looking lighter shade on their hair.

In general, a level 3 will be the darkest brunette while a level 6 will need to do significant lightening in order to get to a lighter, more golden or blond color.

Another thing to note is that your natural hair color has a mix of warm and cool undertones which are determined by the pigments within it. When you are coloring your hair, your stylist will always choose the best shade to compliment your existing tone, rather than overpower it. This is why it’s crucial to always consult a professional before you do any color at home. They can help you achieve your dream look safely!


If you want to change your hair color without drastically altering your appearance, the best way is by implementing a few shades lighter or darker than your current shade. Drastic changes require a lot of bleaching and toning which can damage the hair, and they are also harder to maintain. That’s why it is important to choose a shade that suits your character and can be easily maintained with regular touch ups.

When choosing a shade, it is a good idea to consider your surface skin tone, undertones, previous coloring and your usual makeup and clothing. Then you can start experimenting with different colors. To make the process easier, you can use a virtual try-on tool that lets you experiment with different shades of the same hue.

Before you buy a box of dye, check out its color chart to understand the level and tone of the shade. The number that is printed on the hair dye’s box represents the level, while the second number – which is sometimes separated by a dot or a slash – represents the tone. The slash indicates that the shade contains more than one tone, and you can find out what those tones are by looking at the chart. The most common tones include warm and cool hues. Gold, copper and red add warmth to your hair, while blue and violet cool it down. In addition to these, you can also find neutral tones such as ash and beige.

It’s important to note that not all brands use the same coding system. For example, Garnier uses numbers while other brands use letters. Nevertheless, knowing the basics of how to read a hair color chart will help you navigate through the various options on a brand’s website or in a store.

It’s not recommended to mix tones together when coloring your hair because it may lead to muddy colors. It is also not a good idea to mix two different color levels because it will cause your hair to fade warm even if you are going darker. So be sure to consult a hair color expert before you attempt to do so.


It’s easy to get the wrong shade when you color your hair. This isn’t just because your natural hair color may mix with the dye pigments (which it does) but because the shades you choose and the tones in them can be confusing. Understanding how to read a hair color chart is essential and can help you and your stylist get the right results every time.

When a shade is listed on a hair color chart, it will have a number followed by a slash or decimal point, a dot, or a slash and dash. The first number is an indicator of the level of your current hair color, and the second number is an indication of the tone. For example, 4.62 Dark Garnet Red, or the Madison Reed shade 7NCR, is a neutral copper red that is cool in tone.

The tones of a hair shade are created by combining warm and cool tones, creating contrast and adding dimension to your hair. These tones are also what determine whether a particular shade will work well for your skin tone. For example, a cool tone will cancel out any orange or red undertones in your skin while a warm tone will neutralize blue or green undertones.

As your hair lightens with each coloring treatment, these underlying tones can become more visible and affect the overall appearance of the hair. For instance, blondes that color their hair with a warm golden blonde may end up with an unwanted yellow or brassy undertone. Similarly, when brunettes dye with a cool brown, they can end up with an unwanted greenish hue.

Using the principles of the color wheel and color theory can prevent these unwanted tones from occurring. During the coloring process, a hair colorist can add a complementary tone to the formula to counteract any unwanted undertones in your hair. For example, if you have a warm orange undertone in your hair and want to color it with a cool red, a colorist can mix in some blue to balance the color and neutralize the warmth.


The moods of hair color refer to the undertones and intensity of your hair color. When you walk into a salon, your stylist will analyze the tone and depth of your base color to help guide you on what color will be best for you. This is one of the reasons why it’s always a good idea to talk with your colorist about what you’re looking for and the results you’ve had in the past.

When discussing your hair color goals, you should be able to clearly describe the tonal range that you’re interested in and how it will relate to your skin tone and eye color. It’s also helpful to talk about your lifestyle and how you want to look.

Understanding the basics of hair color will help you feel more empowered and confident in making a big change to your look. I hope that this post has been helpful to those of you considering a new color. For more information about how to prepare for a big coloring change, check out this post: What to Expect Before Getting Your Hair Color Done. Thanks for reading and I’m always here if you have any questions or comments. You can leave them in the comments or email me directly at elizabeth@thefrenchbeautyblogger.com.

%d bloggers like this: