In this post, let’s talk about the big orange elephant in the room: brassy hair.  If you are an avid DIY hair colorist, the odds are that you’ve probably ended up an undesirable result at some point.  Undesirable could mean many different things, but orange hair is the first thing that comes to mind.  The bad news is that it’s effortless to end up with brassy hair.  The good news is that you can totally tone it down with a hair toner.  Here is the ultimate guide on how to use a hair toner for brassiness.

As an avid DIY hair colorist, you may have ended up with an undesirable result. Let's talk about how you can use a hair toner for brasiness..

So here’s the thing: hair color is not some magical cream you put on your hair that makes it turn out exactly like the box says it will.  There are a lot of factors that contribute to the end result of your hair color, whether you are using bleach or dye.  For example, your starting color, how many times you’ve altered your hair, the condition of your hair and your hair texture are all things that can change the course of your new look.

Where Does Brassy Hair Come From?

Unhappy woman with orange curly hair.

In order to learn about using a hair toner for brassiness, you first need to learn some background info.  First off, let’s talk about the color level system.  In the hair industry, the value of hair color is measured on a scale from 1-10, level 1 being black and level 10 being platinum blonde.

Hair color level chart.

Depending on how dark your hair is, to begin with, there are certain stages that your hair has to go through to get to the level 10 lightest blonde.  When lightening your hair, the first color molecules to come out are the blue molecules, which tend to come out pretty quickly.  However, the next stage is the red/orange molecules, which take much longer to come out of your hair.

Basically, you will be left with reddish-orange, orange, yellow or pale yellow, after you lighten your hair.  However, if you are using dye instead of bleach, it will deposit some color into your hair to fight the brassiness.

Some Things to Remember:

  • If you have hair that has been previously colored, no matter how long ago, it will take a lot more work to lighten, and cannot be lightened with more hair dye (see: The Golden Rule of Lifting Hair Color).
  • Using dye will not lift virgin hair as much as bleach will.  Depending on what level of developer you are using, and how dark your hair is you can safely lift your hair up to 4 levels.  High-lift colors can take it a smidge lighter, but if you want to go super light, bleach is your best bet.
  • When bleaching your hair, you should always use a toner for brassiness.  Even if your hair gets super light, toning it will give it a more polished look.

Hair Color Theory 101

Many different colors of hair dye in bowls with brushes.

So now that you know where brassy hair comes from, we should talk a little bit about color theory.  It is necessary to your understanding of how hair toners work.

Color wheel to use with a hair toner.

This is the color wheel. Every color on the wheel comes from the three primary colors: red, blue and yellow.  When you mix yellow and blue, you get green (directly in the middle of yellow and blue).  Similarly, blue and red make violet and yellow and red make orange.  Green, violet and orange are what we call, “secondary colors.”  When you take it one step further and mix violet and blue, you get blue-violet, etc. (these are known as “tertiary colors”).

Most of that is not important when learning how to use a hair toner for brassiness.  However, there is a key takeaway you can learn from looking at the color wheel.  Colors that are directly across from each other on the color wheel are called “complementary colors,” and they can either intensify or neutralize each other.

What is a Hair Toner?

Picture of woman's hands mixing dyes for hair in black bowl. Closeup of hairdresser's equipment on pink plank table background.

Now that we know that complimentary colors neutralize each other, let’s talk about what hair toners are.  Pretend you just bleached your hair and now it’s a vibrant yellow color.  We can neutralize yellow tones by adding it’s complimentary color, purple.  Usually, purple-based toners and dyes are known as a “platinum” color.  In other words, platinum blonde is just hair that has been bleached and toned with a purple toner.

So basically, toners work by depositing the complimentary color into the hair to neutralize the undesired tone.  They will not make the hair any lighter, and they will not miraculously give you the color you want.  You need to have realistic expectations and understand that all they do is tone down the unwanted colors.  If you are looking for a lighter shade, you will need to lighten your hair again at a later time.  Please remember that going light is a process that may take several weeks to achieve.

How to Use a Hair Toner for Brassiness:

Young serene woman coloring her hair with brush - white background

The first thing you should do is determine what undertones your hair has.  Do you have orange or yellow tones?  Here’s a sweet corrective color chart I found from the  Killer Strands Hair Clinic website:

Corrective color hair chart to find color undertones.

When using this chart, you’ll want to look at the middle column, “undertone exposed when lifting.”  Next, move directly to the right column to see what base color you should use to neutralize the unwanted tone.

Like I mentioned above, purple toners work with yellow hair.  Similarly, you’ll want to use blue-based, or “ash” toners to counteract orange tones.  Likewise, green-based toners work against reddish tones, although these are typically harder to come by.

You have a few different options to try when using a hair toner for brassiness:

  • Purple shampoo is a popular choice to keep your hair looking fresh in between processes.  It works by depositing purple pigments into your hair each time you wash it.  Remember that purple shampoo only benefits hair that has yellow undertones.  If your hair is more orange, this might not benefit you.  An affordable, yet effective option is *Clairol Shimmer Lights.
  • Ammonia-based toner works by depositing color molecules into your hair; these are the most commonly used types of toner.  The *Wella Color Charm line has a fabulous collection of toners that are popular with the DIY hair color community.
  • Just use plain-old hair dye as a hair toner for brassiness.  Find out how to read the color numbers/letters to see what the base color is and then follow the manufacturer’s directions.

*indicates an affiliate link, meaning that I make a small amount of commission if you purchase the product with my link.  I promise that I would only recommend products that I love and use on my own hair.  Thank you for supporting HolleewoodHair 🙂

One more thing to note…

Last but not least, you don’t have to have brassy hair to use a toner.  If you can get your hair to a very light pale yellow, you can pretty much tone with whatever color you want.  For example, pale yellow can be toned into champagne blonde, strawberry blonde, ash blonde, or pretty much any other shade of blonde hair.


Your Turn:  Did you enjoy this post?  I’ll love you forever if you share it with your friends on your favorite social media website…

Do you have any hair color questions that you want to talk about?  Do you feel confident with your skills to use a hair toner for brassiness?  I’d love to read your feedback in the comments section below…

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As an avid DIY hair colorist, you may have ended up with an undesirable result. Let's talk about how you can use hair toner for brassiness..

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With an extensive knowledge of hair color science and over 12 years as a licensed cosmetologist working in the hair industry, Hollee feels the need to share her passion for beauty with the world.  She specializes in hair color science, hairstyles, hair hacks, hair knowledge, and how things work in the hair industry.  She enjoys sharing her expertise and helping people achieve their personal hair goals.

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