How to Read Hair Color Numbers and Letters

Let’s talk about hair color numbers and letters!

You know how when you look at a box of hair color, and the shade is something like, 6NN, or 8A? Well, did you ever think to yourself, “what do the numbers and letters mean in hair color?

Not only is it interesting, but it’s kinda important for you to know how to read the hair color chart numbers so you can choose the perfect hair color for your needs.

Sound intimidating? Don’t worry… it’s actually quite simple, and the hair color number system is universally used between almost all hair color lines.

This article will teach you exactly what you need to know when trying to decipher the hair color numbers and labels! Read it. Save it. Love it.

💡TIP: Save this article to your Hair Color board on Pinterest so you always have it handy when you need it! 👇🏼👇🏼👇🏼

Do you know what the number/letter combination on hair color means? Learn how to read hair color numbers and letters with this easy guide!

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How To Read The Numbers In Hair Color

Hairstylist with book of hair swatches.

Let’s start by talking about the numbering system.

Most hair colors are numbered on a level system between 1 and 10. Level 1 is black, and as the number gets higher, the color gets lighter.

In other words, it has to do with the lightness or darkness of the color.

While some color lines go up to level 12 (for high-lift blondes), the basic numbering system goes to level 10, which is the lightest shade of blonde.

All other numbers represent the hair color shades that fall in between. For instance, level 4 is medium brown, and level 7 is medium blonde.

Hair Color Number Chart

Hair color numbers/level chart system.

Hair Color Letters

Hairstylist showing a client book of hair swatches.

The letter associated with the hair color refers to the base tone used in that particular color.

  • A – Ash
  • B – Blue
  • BV- Blue-Violet
  • C – Cool
  • G – Gold
  • M – Mahogany
  • N – Neutral
  • NA – Neutral Ash
  • NB – Neutral Brown
  • NN – Natural/Neutral (no excess warmth)
  • O – Orange
  • OR – Orange-Red
  • P – Platinum/Purple
  • R – Red
  • RR – Really Red (red without brown)
  • RB – Red-Brown
  • RC – Red-Copper
  • RO – Red-Orange
  • RV – Red-Violet
  • V – Violet
  • VR- Violet-Red
  • W – Warm

A few More Things You Should Know

Hairstylist mixing hair color in a bowl.

It’s important to note that some color lines may use their own unique tones to differentiate themselves from the competition. In other words, they won’t follow this system to a T.

💡TIP: You can always check with the manufacturer if you’re unsure.

Or you can usually tell what the base color is by the name of the color. For instance, “light ash blonde” usually translates to a higher-level shade of blonde with blue-based ash tones.

The other important thing you should note is that if the color has double tones, like RV, it means that the first tone is more prominent, and the second is added to complement the first.

For example, RV (red-violet), means that the color has mostly red tones with a bit of violet.

So when you put it all together, 5RV means a level 5 shade of Red-Violet (with more red than violet). 10G means a very light golden blonde.


FAQ Icon
What do the numbers mean on hair color?

All hair colors are numbered on a level system between 1 and 10; as the number gets higher, the color gets lighter. For example, level 1 is black, level 5 is medium brown, and level 10 is lightest blonde. All other levels represent the shades that fall in between those colors.

What do the numbers and letters mean in hair color?

The number-letter combinations refer to the levels and tones of the specific hair colors. The number is measured on a scale from 1-10 (1 being black, 10 being lightest blonde). The letter refers to the tone and base pigment of the color. For instance, 7V would mean a level 7 shade of violet.

Are hair color numbers universal?

While most hair color lines follow this scale, some brands stray away from it. Please make sure to check with the brand before making any decisions.

Final Thoughts

Final Thoughts Icon

So there you have it… the basics of hair color. Now that you know how to read hair colors and numbers, do you feel empowered?

You should be… you pretty much just learned a secret language. Plus, you have absolutely no idea how important it is to know what level and base colors you’re working with so you can properly formulate the color.

If you don’t take all this fun stuff into consideration, you could end up with a real hot mess.

But after reading this ultimate guide, I’m confident that you now know exactly how to read hair color numbers… and you’re well on your way to perfect hair!

Until next time,


Your Turn: Do you now feel comfortable reading the hair color numbers? Do you have any questions for topics I didn’t address? Drop your thoughts in the comments section below! 👇🏼👇🏼👇🏼


74 thoughts on “How to Read Hair Color Numbers and Letters”

  1. I’m trying to recreate my diScontinued ION color 9N-HM Nude, or what color is CURRENTLY the closest one??
    Thank you!!

  2. Hi I am 30 yes as a top colorist. Worked in NYC for John Saahag on Madison Ave. Than opened my own salon called Steve Robert salon. FOR MANY YEARS UNTIL I SOLD THE BUSINESS. LOVE DOING COLOR

  3. Hi i Bought ion permanent hair color in rose and i understand everything you said but on the box it says 8r-hm i dont understand what the hm stands for?? Please Help???

  4. The lertter is same, like B is brown and also B is blue, C is cool and c is also copper… I’m confusing, please could you defines it..


    • I am colori my dark brown hair that is pep with a little grey mostyl i am want to cover the grey a dark brown and slight carmally coUlor is a 4n prod ok

      • Use an ash tone to cancel out the orange when your lightening and the client pulls alot of brass TONES

    • If i want to get warm color suach as 7wg it is hard to find that color i use goldwell which does not have that color so what shoukd i get i have gray Hair and even when i mix the 7 n with 7 g still easily loose the gold and become ashy so i was searChing by google and said i shouLd Use 7 wg which Hard to find that coukd you help me

    • Hi… I understand that I should use 20 volume developer to cover the gray. Is that correct?..
      But my biggest concern is to keep the red out. I’m light to medium brown. I been trying all different suggestions and still have red in the sun. Can you help?

      • Why would you have red in your hair unless you are using too light of a base color that you are pulling red. Are you using an ash and a little neutral in your base. Well do your base and than when you are ready to do the ends you can add a green concentrate the the remaining color in the bottle and apply to ends. That will kill the red. Or even a drabber eliminates warm tones.

      • The underlying PIGMENT in BRUNETTES IS RED i believe all the way to a level 5 or 6. A raw level 7 is straight up orange.
        People say things like; “i pull red or i pull gold.” Thats not really a thing. All hair at each level has the *same* underlying pigment. Again level 7-usually a light brown to dark blonde has an orange underlying pigment. It can either be intensified with a color adjacent on the WHEEL, or neutralized by the opposite on the wheel. Often times people choose a dye THATs too light FOR their base color and end up with hot roots and warm tones because that LIGHTER dye can not be seen deposited on something darker. Whats left is the developer action only. A 20 volume can lighten hair all on its own. So a dye that is too light will just EXPOSE the underlying pigment at that current level.
        If you dont want ANY red at all in your hair then you have a few different options. it can EITHER be lifted past a level 7 and then toned with a level lower in An ash base mixed with a natural or NEUTRAL shade at the current level. So Your formula would look alot like this (2 ounces of 6aa+ 1 ounce 7N) Your double ash is extra cool and your neutral or natural should be a higher ratio of cool then WARMs. Check the color lines breakdown before BUYING.
        Your other option, if you dont want to process, is to get a green shampoo AND/or conditioner. It will take several uses probably before you see the difference. I sometimes will put it in my hair just when its barely damp that way my hair shaft actually has room for a “deposit.”
        And last but certainly not least, if you dont mind being a DARKer brunette then you could always drop from a level 6 to a level 4 or 5. they are usually green based ash instead of blue. The green will neutralize the red and you will have a cool dark BROWN. keep in mind that ASHy/ cool colors are Absorbed by the eye whereas the warmer tones are reflected. This will always make an ashy/cool color seem quite a bit darker than it actually is.
        *******Levels 1-5 usually have a red underlying pigment and can be neutralized with green. Levels 6-8 are ORANGE and can be neutralized with blue. Levels 9-10or12 are yellow to almost white and can be neutralized with violet.*******
        -this is a generalization for virgin hair.
        Not knowing history, level, CONDITION, or target color makes it hard to give a personalized answer.

  6. Ion has a color called 1C-HM Darkest Charcoal. What would the C-HM mean? Also going to ask a question for a friend. What color would my friend get if she mixed Ion 1C-HM Darkest Charcoal with Ion Hot Red Intensifier and CHI Shine Shades Liquid Color Additive Red together?


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