Hair Color & You: A Guide to the First-Time Dye

So you’ve decided to dye your hair! Or, maybe you haven’t quite decided yet. Maybe you’ve always wanted to do it, but you’ve been intimidated by the commitment. Maybe you just don’t know where to start, or how to maintain it, or, well, anything about life with colored hair.

Wherever you are in your hair-dyeing journey, worry not! I’ve been dying my hair on and off for over a decade, trying out just about every color in the rainbow along the way, both on my own and with professional help. I’m here to quell your fears, give you some tips, and welcome you with open arms into the world of wild and wacky hair colors!

                                                           Presenting your humble hair-dye guru for the day! 

Do some prep work before you dish out the dye

Much as I encourage people to try out the hair colors of their wildest dreams without worrying about what people might think, I do have to say: there’s some preparation best done before you make the leap. If you skip this and just barrel right in, you’re more liable to damage your hair or end up with a color you hate. So here’s some things to do before you make the big commitment to a new color…

  1. Test for sensitivities and allergies! Especially if you’ve never dyed your hair before, you don’t necessarily know how your hair and scalp are going to react to the process. If you’re going to bleach your hair (which I’d recommend for anyone whose natural hair is darker than a light blonde), test the bleach on a small section of your skin before you go working it right onto your scalp. Consider doing the same with the dye you’re thinking about using, and do some research into the ingredients it contains - most irritation from and allergic reactions to hair dye comes from a chemical called PPD, so if you have a known sensitivity to it or react poorly to the test, you should consider using a vegetable- or henna-based hair dye instead.

  2. Consider starting small! If you’re dying your hair for the first time, the thought of changing your whole look entirely and dramatically can be overwhelming. But here’s the thing - you don’t have to go to that extreme right from the start! You can keep the color contained to just a small section of your hair; a streak or two is a quick and easy way to start, or if you’re feeling a little bolder, consider colored bangs (at one point my go-to look) or coloring just the innermost layer of your hair for a gorgeous surprise when you flip it! Ombres are also, of course, very “in”, and you can easily substitute the common brown-to-blonde look with any colors you please - my next planned dye is going to involve a sapphire blue-to-bubblegum pink ombre! And speaking of colors, if you’re trying to make the leap to one that’s particularly bold, it can also help to instead start with something different than your norm, but a little more low-key - for example, going from brunette to rusty-redhead instead of straight to lime green.

                           Ye old photo of baby's first new hair color, before the days of pink-and-blue bi-color. 

  3. Really think about the color! Again, if there’s a color you’ve really always wanted to try, I’d encourage you not to let what-ifs stop you from making the leap. If you’re not sure, though, it’s really worth giving it consideration and research before you make a major change. Think about the long-term: will you still want the color in a month? How will it look when the color starts to fade? Will the color you want make it hard to find or keep a job? And, most importantly… will the final result make you happy? You may even want to try the color on temporarily so you can see how it looks before the final commitment, which can be done with hair chalk, spray-on dyes, wash-out hair tints, or - easiest of all! - a website like the Matrix Virtual Hair Color Try On.

  4. Decide between dying on your own or at a salon! There are pros and cons to both, and a lot of factors are going to be dependent on your personal situation. Are you living in a rental or other such place where blue dye stains on the tile will be a major issue? Do you have the auxiliary cash (up to a couple hundred at some salons!!) to pay for a professional to handle it? Do you have a lot of experience handling and styling your hair, or are you utterly clueless and terrified of messing things up? Either way, do some research and make that decision - if you do decide on calling in a pro, it’s particularly important to find a stylist you like and trust, and if you’re doing a particularly off-the-wall color you’ll need to be certain your stylist is able and willing to help acquire the necessary dye(s).

The Day of the Dye!

So you’ve done your research, done your prep work, and decided, yes, you really are going to go through with it! But what is that going to entail? Well, here’s what to expect when you start dying, and of course, some things you can do to make the whole process easier…

  1. Get ready for the big day! Once you’ve decided to go through with the decision to dye, you’ll need to start getting yourself ready! If you’re coloring your hair on your own, gather your supplies: bleach (make sure it’s the right intensity - the darker your hair, the higher intensity you need), permanent dye of your chosen color, applicator brushes and containers for both (which may or may not come with the bleach and dye kits), disposable or reusable plastic gloves, a cheap wide-tooth comb (to help get the bleach and dye applied evenly), cheap hair clips (to help section things off while you apply the bleach and dye), some sort of plastic cap to wear while your hair bleaches (either a disposable or reusable shower cap will do the trick, or you can just use a plastic bag and some bobby pins), some clothes to wear that you don’t particularly mind getting messy, color-safe shampoo and conditioner, Vaseline (which can be applied to your ears and hairline to minimize the chances of accidentally dying your skin) and of course, some heavy-duty cleaners for both yourself and your bathroom when things inevitably get messy. If you’ve decided on going to a salon, you can skip the supply run, but make sure your payment is ready - including a nice tip for your loyal and hardworking stylist! Either way, you’ll also want to make sure your hair is ready for the tough process ahead. Bleach and dye, no matter how gentle and natural and organic, will always damage your hair to some degree. You can minimize the damage by choosing gentle, sulfate-free shampoos (which are also what’s best for maintaining your finished color!), washing less frequently, minimizing how much you curl or straighten your hair, and of course, condition condition condition! If your hair is particularly dry, it might be worth it to invest in a hair mask or two before the big day. Finally, make sure you don’t wash your hair or put in a ton of product right before you go to dye it - natural hair bleaches best, and not scrubbing your scalp clean right beforehand will reduce irritation.

  2. Start with the bleach! For your dye job to really stick and last, it needs a properly prepared canvas - which means, unless you have very light blonde hair, you’re going to have to bleach it. This is because dye doesn’t add a new layer of color that completely obscures what was there before, but rather stains your hair to make the new color stick. If the hair is dark, then that original color is still going to show even through the dye, which means your new color is going to be much more subtle and appear to fade much sooner, since it’s mixed with your natural hair color. This is doubly important if your hair is naturally colored (ie.  you’re a redhead) or you previously unnaturally colored it (ie. you’re going from hot pink to a cool blue), because the colors are going to “mix” - which can make the final result much, much different than you expect! If you’re at a salon, the hard work will be done for you, but chances are you still want to know the exact process, and of course if you’re doing it yourself you’ll need to know how to proceed. First, you or your stylist will mix up the bleach, pull on some gloves, and section off your hair. You’ll want to start at the ends of your hair, as this will take longer to “lift” (which means “lighten” in hairdresser-ese), and work your way up to the roots as you go. Be sure to keep aware of any discomfort and especially burning, particularly as the bleach gets closer to your scalp, as that may be a sign that you or your hairdresser needs to wash out the bleach right away. Once the bleach is fully applied - which might take a couple packets’ worth if you’ve got long and/or thick hair - you’ll pop on that shower cap and sit for at least 30 to 40 minutes so your hair can lift entirely. (If you’re at the salon, that means sitting in one of those fancy dryer chairs for a while, so make sure you’ve got your phone or some reading to keep you occupied!) Once your hair has lifted, it’s time to wash out the bleach, and be sure to condition - your hair will need it! If your hair is particularly dark, you might need a few sessions of bleaching spread over a few days to get your hair as light as you need, as doing the whole thing in one go would damage your hair much too severely; otherwise, though, it’s time for the main event!

     This is the canvas on which your new 'do will be painted. (Say, think I could pull off the blonde look for real?)

  3. Time at last for color! You’ll want to make sure your hair is dry before you start on the color. If you’re at home and have the time, the ideal would be to let it air-dry completely to avoid any further damage to your lovely locks. Once that’s done, pop on some fresh gloves, put some Vaseline along your ears and hairline (which will help prevent the dye from sticking to your skin), section off your hair once more and mix up the color or colors you need. Much like with the dye, start with the ends of your hair and work your way up, making sure to apply the color evenly and thoroughly so that every last bit of your hair gets about the same amount of color. Again, depending on how long or thick your hair is, you might end up needing more than one helping of your chosen colors, so be prepared! Once your color is completely applied, twist it up on your head in a big, goopy bun, pop another shower cap over it, and prepare to kick back for a while! The longer you leave dye on, the better the color will transfer, so in most cases you’ll want to leave it at least 40 minutes to an hour. (As with the bleach, keep aware if you feel any discomfort or burning with the dye on, as that may be a sign you need to wash it out pronto!)

                          Note that bi-color looks may cause you to look like a very goopy jester during the dye.

  4. Finally, it’s time to rinse off and see the final results! If you’re doing this at home, be prepared… this is where a bit of a mess is inevitable! For best results, you or your stylist should use the coldest water you can possibly withstand comfortably, which helps to set the color in and strips it less quickly. Make sure you’re also using a color-safe, sulfate-free shampoo, and again, condition condition condition! Wash your hair thoroughly, making sure that all of the dye has been completely rinsed out. Finally, towel off (making sure to choose a towel you don’t mind a new tie-dye pattern on)... and voila, you finally have the hair color of your dreams!!

You’ve got the look - now how to keep it…?

Now this is the part that most how-to guides skip over, and that, unless you have a stylist walking you through the whole process, most people won’t even think of. How do you keep your hair looking its best even days, weeks, months after it was dyed? And, just as importantly, what things in your life do you have to adjust to keep every single surface in your house from turning that nice electric blue? Never fear, because I have some tips and tricks for you…

  1. Adjust your shower routine! The easiest way to ruin your new hair is to keep up a damaging hair routine that strips your new color that much faster. First and most simply, remember up above when I mentioned washing out the dye with cold water will help the color stick? Well, that’s true after the first wash as well! Try to use the coldest water you can withstand when you wash your hair (within reason, of course - you don’t have to give yourself hypothermia for the sake of fashionable hair!), and keep using that color-safe, sulfate-free shampoo to minimize how much color you strip. You should also cut down on how much you wash your hair, period - which, for what it’s worth, is healthier even for non-colored hair! If you’ve chosen a color that fades particularly fast, or else want to keep your hair touched up some between dye jobs, you can also buy or make yourself color shampoos and conditioners! There are various brands already out there containing slight tints of certain colors that will help refresh your look, or you can add a few drops of dye to your favorite products to achieve the same result!

  2. Be ready to live with a little staining! No matter how many gloves you wear, how much Vaseline you put along your hairline, how well you scrub out every last bit of dye from your hair, the facts remain the same: you’re going to end up with some color in places you don’t want it. Even something as simple as running your hand through your hair a few days after the dye job can leave you with color-stained fingertips, especially if you chose a particularly bright color for your new look. (I’ve gone with some degree of sapphire-blue hair since 2015, and can always count on looking like I’m either developing frostbite or have just murdered a Smurf for the first couple weeks of a color-refresh.) The best thing to do is simply accept it as fact, but there’s also a few things you can do to minimize the impact of those stains! Have some makeup or baby wipes on hand, for example, and give any stains on your forehead or ears a nice scrub with them - the discoloration won’t completely vanish right away, but it’ll lighten up quite a bit. And for those colorful fingers, I always recommend planning on a nice manicure right after I’ve colored my hair. Not only can you make your nails match the rest of your new look, but that fresh coat of paint will distract from and cover up any staining!

  3. Take a little extra care to protect clothes and furniture! Just as a little staining of the dye on your body is inevitable, so is some on the things around you - at least, if you’re not prepared. Chances are, you’re going to wake up the day after your dye job and see a colorful imprint of your hair on the pillowcase. If you leave your hair wet and it reaches down to your clothes, you might end up seeing some transfer. Towels, no matter what you do, are doomed entirely. But that doesn’t mean you have to submit to a life with hot pink stains on every surface in your home! Just a little prep work can do wonders. For example, put a towel down over your pillowcase until your hair has stopped “bleeding”, or wear an old fashioned head-scarf to bed, or even get yourself a cheap pillowcase specifically to use right after you color your hair. Designate a “hair-dye towel” and use that to dry off whenever you wash your hair post-coloration. Pull your hair up into a loose bun or braid while it’s drying to keep off your nice clothes (which, bonus points, will also give you some lovely gentle waves in your hair once it’s dry!) These things are especially important if, say, you’re going to travel with your hair freshly colored. You might not care if your pillowcases end up turning a little off-color, but chances are the AirBnB you’re staying in will! And those fresh, white hotel towels will soak up any color like a sponge… get used to packing a spare towel or pillowcase or head-scarf when you travel, for courtesy’s sake!

                                               Ah, the sacrifices I make for cute hair and clean pillowcases. 

  4. Rock it!! All too often I hear people say they would love to try something wild and crazy with their hair color, but bemoan that they’d look silly, that they’re too old to do such a thing, that people would stare… and I say, that’s an awful reason not to do something you’d enjoy! Sure, someone might gawk when you walk in with your brand-new do, but chances are, it’s not because they think you look silly. Just the opposite, they’re probably thinking exactly what you used to think when you looked at someone with their hair colored: “Wow! I wish I could pull that off, but I could never…” There is no such thing as someone too old, too serious, too anything to enjoy the freedom and self-expression that comes from hair color. All you need is the courage to try - and as soon as you put on that dye, you’re there! Don’t look back or doubt yourself or let anyone tell you that you’re not the type who can do it - take that gorgeous new look and strut your stuff! 

All Photos Courtesy of Max Eastman.