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How to Color Your Hair Without Going Overboard

Sometimes it takes a little more than a shoe swap to satisfy our craving for something new. Maybe a swipe of lipstick will do the trick for a night, or a new bronzer will give you the extra glow you’re looking for, but for a beauty update that’s more permanent, look straight to your locks—the color of them, that is. We’re not talking neon streaks or all-over purple, but rather the ways we can use hair color to make the most natural and subtle of changes to our overall look. Leave it to HC to provide you with a bunch of tips on how to do it right!


Decide which color is right for you

The first step, and probably the most important one, is choosing your color. Deciding on the right color is something that seems easy based on your desired look and color preferences, but professional colorist Jose Portilla points out that it’s not as simple as that.

When you dye your hair, you want to be sure you’re choosing a color that will complement your features. To do this, Portilla suggests grabbing a magnifying mirror and looking at your eye color. “Look at the colors that make up your eye and use them to inspire not only your hair color but also makeup and clothing colors,” he suggests. “Decide whether your coloring is cool or warm. The darker your skin/hair/eye color, the warmer you are; lighter skin/hair/eye colors are cool. For example, most brunettes throw reds in their hair because that’s what naturally occurs in their hair.”

Hair color is classified with levels and tones: on the hair color scale, 1 is the darkest, and 10 is the lightest. When deciding what color to dye your hair, Jose suggests determining your natural level and warns to “never go more than two levels higher than your natural hair color. I’d recommend talking to a professional first if you want to go lighter than that.” An awesome aid in figuring out your color level and determining your desired outcome is the website eSalon, which asks you specific questions about your natural coloring and hair care practices to determine the right color for you. And as long as you’re using the scale to choose your color, any boxed brand will do the trick.

If you’re going lighter

If you’re a 6/7 on the hair color scale, it might not be the best idea to jump right over to a 9 with an at-home box-dye. You never know how your hair will react to the color, no matter how pretty the model on the box looks. Jose says, “Never take someone that has brown hair and try to box-dye it blonde. You’ll end up with orange hair.” Risks involving orange hair and damaged ends can be lessened if you go to a professional to do the job, but be sure to divulge your color history with anyone you’re trusting to take you lighter. Additionally, “know your limits and boundaries,” says Jose. “…Don’t walk out as a Blake Lively if you’re a Megan Fox. Less is more… always!”

If you’re going darker

If you’re in the mood to darken things up, a glaze can be the perfect option. They’re demi-permanent, meaning they fade over time, so you’re not making a huge commitment. Glazes are formulas that add non-permanent color to the hair while reflecting light. They are available with or without color for either a subtle color change or simply a dose of shine.

Glazes are also pretty easy to do. “Glazes can be done at home,” Portilla says. “Demi-permanent color isn’t supposed to change your natural hair color; it’s just supposed to make it look richer. With glazes, you can only go darker and they’re mainly used to add tone to hair. Therefore, the lighter your hair, the more variety you can have.” Instead of choosing permanent color, try a darker shade out by opting for a glaze. It’ll give your hair depth, along with a healthy shine.

If you’re adding red

If the color you want involves more red tones than naturally appear in your hair, it’s probably best to consult a professional. It’s hard to know just how much natural red will pick up reds in the dye when you’re DIY-ing from a box.  So if you’re going for more of a tonal change (i.e. from brown or blonde to red), be sure to go to a stylist for help. If he or she doesn’t mind, a stylist might be able to provide you with the formula or tips that you can use on your own to keep up with your color or do it at home next time.


Prepare your hair

Generally, one thing to keep in mind while coloring your hair is how you treat it before and after the chemical process. Contrary to what you may have heard, it’s important to have clean hair before you color it so that the chemicals don’t have to break through the grease and grime to get there. More important than this, though, is keeping your hair nourished and protected before and after your color treatment. Use gentle shampoo (to avoid irritating your scalp beforehand) and a deep conditioner afterwards. As you take care of your new dye job, be sure to keep your strands healthy with products meant for color-treated hair and thick, nourishing masks.


Throw in some highlights

Jose says unequivocally, “Don’t do highlights yourself. Go to a colorist.” Highlights are definitely tricky and should be handled by a professional, but they can add a beautiful and subtle dimension to your hair. Once again, less is more when it comes to highlights in order to preserve a natural, slightly sun-kissed look.

To ensure glowing perfection, Jose suggests bringing photos to your colorist to help explain what you’re after. “Pictures are always important, as is being aware of your personal style and lifestyle,” he says. “Sometimes, hairdressers aren’t as educated as they should be and don’t ask the right questions. Think about how much maintenance a certain look will require if you’re going for something new.” If you don’t see yourself being able to get a touchup every couple of months, don’t go for all-over, bold highlights.

Do it yourself

DIY projects are always fun, but not all of them can be as drastic as coloring your own hair. To ensure DIY dye-job success, begin with choosing the correct color by obeying the color scale. Jose warns, “The pictures on the box don’t necessarily mean that your hair will look like that when you’re finished. The outcome of a box-dye job really depends on what natural tones are in your hair already. Even though a color two levels higher than your natural color may not look pretty in the picture, it will most likely look good on your head.”

To ensure a positive outcome from a boxed dye, Jose suggests trying out colors with your friends. “Try a few strands on the back of your hair and go over them with boxed color to see how the color turns out and which works best,” he says. If a certain color ends up being a little off, you can easily cover it up and try again.

Fix any mistakes

Mistakes do happen, however, and there are ways to fix them. If you’ve already box-colored your hair or if someone’s already colored it and it doesn’t look how you want it to, don’t just lay more color over it. The biggest rule of hair color is that “color doesn’t lift color… meaning, you can’t layer color to fix it,” Portilla says. “You have to strip it and then deposit color back in. The easiest way to fix a botched dye job is to cover it by making it darker, which is least damaging to the hair.” Additionally, be careful if you’ve ever used red color in your hair, because it can affect the way future color will lay. Know that mistakes are fixable, but are also totally avoidable if you follow all the rules and tips we’ve laid out above. Consider them before you switch up your hair to ensure fabulous, natural-looking color that’ll add the perfect amount of subtle change.


No matter how subtle or drastic the change you choose to make, do your research and take your time. The last thing you want is to end up with brassy orange hair when you were expecting a sun-kissed golden blonde. Follow these guidelines to end up with a brand new look that’ll be just enough to get people wondering about what it is that’s different about you.

Lauren Kaplan is a senior majoring in English and Dance at Emory University. She is originally from New Jersey, and has loved living in Atlanta for the past three years. Lauren thinks most fondly of her two favorite places - her childhood camp, Camp Wayne for Girls, and Margate on the Jersey shore - from which she has derived a love of friends, family, and the beach.
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