The Definitive Guide to DIY Hair Color

Let’s talk DIY hair color…

So you need to color your hair, but don’t want to pay salon prices.

Or maybe you’re just strapped and need a quick touch-up until you can get in with your hairstylist. Or perhaps you love the idea of being creative.

Whatever the case, DIY hair color is an excellent option for you. However, it’s not as simple as just slapping on some color and calling it a day.

I mean… people make a lot of money to master the ins and outs of hair color. That being said, it’s always best to have a professional do your hair since you can seriously damage it if you don’t know what you’re doing.

The good news is that with some common sense and the information I’m providing, you should have what you need to excel with your at home hair color goals.

So without further ado, here is the most comprehensive, definitive guide to DIY hair color that you’ll find anywhere on the internet.

So you want to do your own hair but don't know where to start. Here's the most comprehensive guide to DIY hair color that can be found anywhere on the internet!

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DIY Hair Color Supplies

Before you even get started, here are the supplies you’ll need:

**You may or may not need these next supplies, depending on what route you go:


The Dangers of Box Color

Skull and Crossbones

There’s no doubt you know that box colors are bad, but do you know why? Let’s break it down.

  • The results are unpredictable; there’s a tiny chance that your hair will even look like the color on the box.
  • As I mentioned before, there’s a lot more to DIY hair dye than “setting and forgetting.” It needs to be formulated particularly for your hair.
  • They usually contain an excessive amount of PPD (aka Paraphenylenediamine) which commonly causes allergic reactions on the skin.
  • They often contain metallic salts. 😱

Let’s elaborate on the metallic salts a bit more.

Each time you use a box dye on your hair, it coats the hair shaft with more and more metallic salts, which makes your hair feel rough and crunchy over time.

The worst part of all is that metallic salts don’t play nice with other chemicals. If you try to change your hair color in the future, bad things can happen.

To be more specific, bleaching or removing color from hair that has metallic salts on it will start to smoke. Yikes.

Hair on fire animated gif meme.

Just don’t do it.

You’re better off using a high-quality DIY hair color that you can easily purchase from Sally Beauty Supply.


The Anatomy of Hair

To know how DIY hair color works, it’s crucial that you understand the basic anatomy of hair.

Anatomy of Hair
Cross-section of a hair shaft

Hair is composed of three sections: the medulla, cortex, and cuticle.

  • The medulla is the innermost part of the hair, and its function is unknown (some people don’t even have a medulla).
  • The cortex makes up the bulk of your hair and houses keratin and hair pigment.
  • The cuticle is the outermost scaley layer of the hair shaft. When hair is healthy, the scales lay flat on top of each other to protect the inner parts of the hair.

Virgin Hair

So you want to do your own hair but don't know where to start. Here's the most comprehensive guide to DIY hair color that can be found anywhere on the internet!

Virgin hair means that the hair you’re working with has never been touched with chemicals.

This means that if you colored your hair six months ago, the three inches of hair that’s grown since then is virgin, while the previously colored hair is not.

It’s super important to be truthful about this because virgin hair reacts differently to hair color than previously colored hair. Just remember that you can lie to your hairstylist, or even to yourself, but your hair will always tell the truth.

Box color hair meme.

Types of Hair Color

So you want to do your own hair but don't know where to start. Here's the most comprehensive guide to DIY hair color that can be found anywhere on the internet!

There are several different types of hair color, and they’re all completely different. It’s important to know the difference between them all to choose the best for your needs.

Permanent

Permanent hair color is meant to last.

It’s the most commonly used hair color, and it’s likely that this is what you want. Just make sure that you’re certain about the color before applying it because it’s hard to undo.

Permanent color is activated when you mix developer with it. Developer works by lifting the scales of the cuticle and penetrating the cortex with color molecules, changing the color of the hair.

This makes permanent hair color the best choice for grey coverage.

It’s also worth noting that permanent color works best on virgin hair. In fact, if your hair has been previously colored, you CANNOT take it lighter without bleaching it first.

Read more about this phenomenon here: THE GOLDEN RULE OF HAIR COLOR

Demi-Permanent

Demi-permanent color also uses developer, but the color is meant to be shorter-lasting. A typical demi-permanent color should wash out entirely within 4-6 weeks.

Reasons to use a demi-permanent color:

  • This is a good option for someone who wants to test a hair color without the long-term commitment.
  • It fades as the hair grows, which means that there will be no visible outgrowth.
  • It’s far less damaging than permanent color and can be used to refresh the previously colored hair.
  • Since it does not fully cover grey hair, it’s a popular option for grey blending.
  • It can be used as a glossing treatment.

Even though it uses developer, you still can’t take hair lighter with a demi-permanent color, due to the absence of ammonia.

No products found.

Semi-Permanent

Semi-permanent hair color will wash out within six weeks.

Since it doesn’t use developer, it works by allowing color molecules to adhere to the outside of the shaft. Depending on the porosity of the hair, some molecules may even penetrate inside, causing the color to last a bit longer.

Since it doesn’t alter the hair, it doesn’t cause damage. It can be used as many times as needed with no repercussions. It also won’t lighten your hair… at all. If you want a more vibrant shade or if your hair is dark, you may have to lighten it first.

It’s important to note that the more often you use semi-permanent color, the harder it will be to remove if you change your mind.

Last, but not least, most vibrant, punky and pastel colors only come in semi-permanent options. In other words, if you want blue hair, this is the color type for you.

Temporary

Temporary hair color will wash out the next time you take a shower.

It comes in sprays, chalks, gels, rinses and pretty much any other type of application you can think of. This is the option you’d choose if you just want to add some temporary color to your hair for a day or change your hair for a costume.

It doesn’t change the hair at all and will completely wash out (although if your hair is extremely porous, it could stick for a couple of days). It works by coating the hair shaft with color, and the color molecules are too large to penetrate into the hair.

This method doesn’t cause damage and can be used over and over again.

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Bleach

So you want to do your own hair but don't know where to start. Here's the most comprehensive guide to DIY hair color that can be found anywhere on the internet!

Bleach is used to lighten the hair.

To use bleach, you’ll need to mix it with developer, which raises the cuticle enough for the bleach to get inside the cortex (where the color molecules live). The different levels of developer provide different levels of lift, but we’ll get to that in a minute.

Once the bleach gets into the cortex, it dissolves the melanin inside. The longer you leave bleach on, the more colorless your hair will appear. However, bleached hair, at its lightest level, will be a pale yellow color.

Bleaching your hair is usually necessary to get the lightest shades so don’t be scared to use it. However, you NEED to use it with care and extreme caution.

If you bleach hair over and over again, it will melt off. If you need to do multiple processes, it’s imperative that you allow plenty of time for it to heal in between. On that note, deep conditioning is non-negotiable. I highly recommend the Joico Kpak Reconstructor.

It’s best to use bleach sparingly, with a lower-level developer and ALWAYS take extra care to keep it healthy afterward.

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Color Theory

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”).

Let me tell you why this is important…

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.

Use this concept to your advantage.

If your hair tends to run brassy, it’s best to choose a color with a blue (ash) base to counteract the orange of your natural hair. Likewise, yellow hair can be neutralized with a purple base.


Base and Target Levels

Now 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.

The levels of hair color

You first need to determine what level your starting color is and what undertones it has.

Next, you’ll need to find out what your target level is, which is probably in the name of the color you chose. For instance, 8N is a level 8 with neutral undertones (check out my guide on reading color labels to learn more).

Now, you’ll need to determine if you are going darker or lighter, and how many levels of lift you need.

For example, if you are a level 5, but want to go to a level 2, you’ll be going three levels darker.

On the other hand, if you’re a level 5 and want to go to a level 8, you’ll need to lift your hair by three levels. Remember that only permanent color and bleach can lift the hair.

If you want to use a demi-permanent or semi-permanent color, you have to choose one that’s the same level or darker.

Are you keeping up? Good.

Drastic Changes

So you want to do your own hair but don't know where to start. Here's the most comprehensive guide to DIY hair color that can be found anywhere on the internet!

If you want to go up several levels, you’ll likely need to use bleach. A high-lift blonde might work, but will only lift around four levels and only on virgin hair.

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 ones, which tend to come out pretty quickly. However, the next stage is the red/orange molecules, and they take much longer to get rid of.

Reminders:

  • If your hair has been previously colored, it will take a lot more time and work to lighten than virgin hair.
  • It’s possible that the bleach will leave your hair brassy or yellow, which would require the use of a hair toner (more about that later).
  • Hair color isn’t magic… it’s science. Don’t try to bend the rules of the universe.

Volumes of Developer

So you want to do your own hair but don't know where to start. Here's the most comprehensive guide to DIY hair color that can be found anywhere on the internet!

Now that you know what color you want to use and what level you want to go to, it’s time to choose what developer should be mixed with your color.

*This is only necessary for permanent hair color or bleach. Demi-permanent colors will have a special developer to be used with that particular product.

  • 10 Volume (10V / 3% peroxide) developer will deposit color, making the hair darker that is was. It can also be used when one level of lift is desired and works by barely opening the cuticle enough to deposit pigment.
  • 20 Volume (20V / 6% peroxide) is the most commonly used developer. It should be used to lift 1-2 levels.
  • 30 Volume (30V / 9% peroxide) will lift the hair up to 3 levels higher and is often used with bleach.
  • 40 Volume (40V / 12% peroxide) will lift the hair up to 4 levels. It is often used with lightener or high-lift blondes. Some high-lift colors even require double-40V for extra lift. Do keep in mind that 40V used with lightener can be tragically damaging if used incorrectly.

💡TIP: 20V developer is best for grey coverage and 10V is often used with toners.


The Prerequisites of DIY Hair Color

So you want to do your own hair but don't know where to start. Here's the most comprehensive guide to DIY hair color that can be found anywhere on the internet!

When DIY’ing hair color, I can’t stress enough that you need to take the necessary precautions to make sure it’s successful.

Hair Condition

You should first make sure your hair can handle the color before taking the plunge. If it’s already damaged, it probably won’t even hold the hair color, and you should take steps to repair the hair first.

There are some easy tests you can do to check the condition of the hair, but you should also go with your instinct. If your hair seems overly dry and dull, it might be best to wait.

Strand Test

Until you’re 100% sure what the result will be from the color you’re using, you should ALWAYS do a test strand.

This allows you to see what the color will look like before applying it to your whole head. It also allows you to see how your hair will react to the color.

To Do a Strand Test:

  • Select a small section of hair that can easily be covered up it if things go south. Make sure it’s big enough to see the end-result but small enough that it blends in.
  • Mix a tiny amount of color and apply to the test strand, making sure to thoroughly saturate it. Process according to manufacturer’s directions.
  • Rinse and dry. Use the results to determine if you will continue or not.

Patch Test

As I previously mentioned, there are certain chemicals in hair dye that can cause nasty allergic reactions. If you’re sensitive, apply a small amount of color to your skin behind your ear.

Let it process as usual, and it will tell you if you’ll have an adverse reaction to the color or not.

So you want to do your own hair but don't know where to start. Here's the most comprehensive guide to DIY hair color that can be found anywhere on the internet!

Filling

If your hair has been previously lightened and you’re now going more than two levels darker, it’s necessary to “fill” or “repigment” the hair before applying the color.

This isn’t something most people think about when it comes to DIY hair color… but don’t worry, I gotchu covered. Skipping this step will likely result in a dull, lifeless color.

When you lighten your hair, you remove red, copper and gold tones from the hair. If you want your darker color to be a rich and vibrant, you first need to add these tones back in.

There are several different ways to formulate the filler, and it usually depends on what color line you are using. You’ll typically just want to go with a warm demi-permanent color that is one shade lighter than your target level.

Bellatory has a killer guide that explains how to come up with a general formula. I highly recommend giving it a look if this is a step you need to take.

Pre-softening

So here’s the thing about grey hair… it feels really course because the hair follicle stops producing sebum, making it really dry. This also gives it a rough surface, which color molecules have a hard time penetrating… especially near the roots.

The good news is that you can “pre-soften” grey hair before applying color, which helps open the cuticle beforehand. It’s actually super easy to do.

  • You just need to apply 20v developer to the resistant parts of the hair before coloring it.
  • Process for 5-10 minutes.
  • Wipe it off (there’s no need to rinse).
  • Apply the color as you normally would.

You’re welcome.


Coloring Techniques & Application

So you want to do your own hair but don't know where to start. Here's the most comprehensive guide to DIY hair color that can be found anywhere on the internet!

There are several different coloring techniques you can use, but for DIY hair color purposes, I suggest going with the basics. Either way, I’ll cover them all for you.

All-Over Color

If you want to color or bleach your entire head, this is what you need to do:

FIRST, mix the color/bleach and developer in a color bowl. Then…

Going Lighter With Color On Virgin Hair:

  • Section your hair into four equal sections (front right, back right, etc.).
  • Apply optional color barrier cream to the hairline, making sure not to get any on the hair.
  • Taking 1/4″ subsections, start applying color 1″ away from the scalp (body heat makes the color process faster which could give you hot roots) and work through your hair, stopping at about 3/4 of the way down the hair shaft (leaving the porous ends exposed).
  • After 50% of the processing time, apply to the roots and ends; make sure hair is fully saturated.
  • Process, rinse, shampoo, and style as desired.

Going Darker With Color On Virgin Hair:

  • Section your hair into four equal sections (front right, back right, etc.).
  • Apply optional color barrier cream to the hairline, making sure not to get any on the hair.
  • Start by outlining partings and hairline with color.
  • Taking 1/4″ subsections, start applying color from the roots to 3/4 of the way down the hair shaft. Do not apply to the porous ends yet (unless the hair is extremely healthy).
  • After 50% of the processing time has passed, work the color through the ends and make sure hair is fully saturated.
  • Process, rinse, shampoo, and style as desired.

Bleaching Virgin Hair

When using this method, MAKE ABSOLUTE SURE that you are using bleach that can be used on the scalp. If it isn’t made for scalp application, it can and will burn your skin.

  • Section your hair into four equal sections (front right, back right, etc.).
  • Taking 1/8″ subsections, start applying bleach 1/2″ away from the scalp and work it through to the porous ends. DO NOT COMB HAIR in this fragile state.
  • When you get to 50% of your desired result, apply to the roots.
  • Process until the desired level is reached, rinse, shampoo, and deep condition.
  • Style as desired.

Root Touch-Up

Touching up your roots is similar to an all over color, except you only want the product to be on your new outgrowth for most of the processing time.

Coloring over previously colored hair will give you an undesirable result and bleaching over bleached hair can melt your hair off.

This guide also assumes that you’re using the same color that your hair already has on it. If you want to use a different color, you’ll have to formulate it differently to match the color you already have. Byrdie has a great article about blending your roots to a new color, and you can read it here.

If the previously colored hair is darker than your target level, you will need to lighten it before applying the new color. Using a soap cap (diluting bleach with shampoo) is a great way to create a fresh canvas to work on.

Touching Up Roots with Color:

  • Section your hair into four equal sections (front right, back right, etc.).
  • Apply optional color barrier cream to the hairline, making sure not to get any on the hair.
  • Start by outlining partings and hairline with the color.
  • Taking 1/4″ subsections, apply color from the roots to the line of demarcation.
  • Process until there are 5 minutes left, then comb through to your previously colored hair.
  • Finish processing, rinse, shampoo, and style as desired.

Touching Up Roots With Bleach:

  • Section your hair into four equal sections (front right, back right, etc.).
  • Start by outlining partings and hairline with bleach.
  • Taking 1/8″ subsections, apply color from the roots to the 1/16″ from the line of demarcation (bleach swells while processing and overlapping can cause breakage).
  • Process until hair is desired color, rinse, shampoo, deep condition, and style as desired.

Here is a video from The Barber Academy San Jose that outlines more information on these techniques:

Virgin Hair Lightening and Haircolor Retouch CA State Board – The Barber Academy – 2017

Balayage/Ombre

If you want to go to the balayage route, I advise you 100% to have a professional do it.

So you want to do your own hair but don't know where to start. Here's the most comprehensive guide to DIY hair color that can be found anywhere on the internet!

Just sayin’.

But if you’re 100% dead set on giving it a shot, here is a phenomenal tutorial by Kait Nichole.

DIY Balayage Highlights at home!! | HAIR PAINTING TUTORIAL

She uses a balayage painting board and brush set like this one here to slay the technique.


Dip Dye

Dip-dye might be an easier route to go for DIY hair color. It’s pretty similar, but with a hard line. It looks best when dying the tips a punky color like pink or purple.

How To: Dip Dye Your Hair!! | by tashaleelyn
Credit: Tasha LeeLyn

Foiled Highlights

Again, this is something that’s pretty hard to do on yourself, unless you just add a few highlights around the top of your head.

But, also again, if you can’t talk yourself out of it, here’s a fabulous tutorial from ellebangs.

DIY Highlight Placement Tutorial Video

Cap and Hook

I really don’t like the idea of you highlighting your hair with a cap, since it can quickly go bad. But if you want to give it a shot, just make sure to use a higher-quality cap and go slow.

How to use the Magicap | The Ultimate Highlighting Cap
Credit: Capital Hair & Beauty

Processing

DIY hair color is not a “one size fits all” type of thing, and every color line works differently. When it comes to processing, you should always follow the manufacturer’s directions.

Let the color process for the amount of time specified in the directions. Only add heat if it says to (with the exception of semi-permanent color – heat can be added to make it last longer).

When it comes to bleach, you’ll want to check it often and rinse when your hair is the desired level. There’s no set minimum time to process bleach, but I wouldn’t let it go longer than 45 minutes. Again, a test strand will help you determine how long you should process it for.

It’s also crazy important to not add heat to bleach unless directed by the manufacturer. Trust me… it could be devastating if you take matters in your own hands.


Toning

So you want to do your own hair but don't know where to start. Here's the most comprehensive guide to DIY hair color that can be found anywhere on the internet!

So remember when I said that lightened hair always ends up being some shade of yellow or orange at the end? Well, that’s not the shade most people want.

So you’re probably wondering how some people get platinum blonde right? Surely, it’s possible to get other shades than yellow.

This is where toner comes in.

Remember when I also said that complementary colors on the color wheel neutralize each other?

So pretend you just bleached your hair and now it’s a vibrant yellow color. We can neutralize yellow tones by adding it’s complementary 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’ll need to lighten your hair again at a later time.

How to Use a Toner:

First, determine what unwanted shade your hair currently is (hint: it’s probably yellow or orange). Look at the color wheel, and find what color neutralizes that shade (blue neutralizes orange and purple neutralizes yellow).

There are several different types of toners, and they are all different. However, all of them work by depositing neutralizing tones into your hair. When you find a toner, your best bet is to follow the manufacturer’s directions on how to mix and process it.

One of the absolute best toners for DIY colorists is the Wella Color Charm line, which can be purchased at Sally Beauty Supply. T18 is perfect for orange hair, and T28 is good for yellow.

To use this toner, mix one part toner with two parts 20v developer, apply to towel-dried hair and develop for 30 minutes.

Wella Color Charm Toner Chart

After-Color Care

So you want to do your own hair but don't know where to start. Here's the most comprehensive guide to DIY hair color that can be found anywhere on the internet!

So now that you have a rockin’ color, you have to take care of it.

Things like the sun, chlorine, harsh shampoo, etc. will strip your color, so be aware of that. If you go swimming, wash your hair directly afterward. If you’re going to be in the sun all day, cover up with a hat or use a UV protection spray.

Not washing your hair every day, and using sulfate-free products are things you could consider. And if you really want to make it last, you could even consider washing with lukewarm water.

There are color depositing products that work well for red and brown hair, and purple shampoo is always a good choice for blonde hair.

I highly recommend using products designed for colored hair and deep conditioning your hair once per week.

Last, but far from the least, I want to introduce you to Olaplex. This is the only product on the market that has been proven to rebuild broken hair, and you need to use it if you have bleached hair. Read more about it here.


Final Thoughts

Final Thoughts Icon

DIY hair color can be a fun and exciting time and can save you bundles of cash if done correctly. While having a professional do your hair is always the best option, I also believe that you’re fully capable of learning the skills needed to do your own hair at home.

With some basic hair knowledge, practice, and this comprehensive guide to DIY hair color, there’s no reason why your dye job won’t be a total success. Be patient, and don’t cut corners. I know you’re gonna kill it.

Until next time,

Psssst…. Are we connected on Instagram yet? Follow HolleewoodHair for exclusive hair tips, videos, beauty hacks, and other awesome things you won’t be able to find anywhere else!

YOUR TURN: Do you feel confident in your ability to do DIY hair color? Do you have any other questions about something I missed? Drop it in the comments section below!👇🏼👇🏼👇🏼


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