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.

πŸ’‘TIP: Save this article to your Hair Color board on Pinterest so you always have it handy when you need it! πŸ‘‡πŸΌπŸ‘‡πŸΌπŸ‘‡πŸΌ

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.

πŸ’‘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! πŸ‘‡πŸΌπŸ‘‡πŸΌπŸ‘‡πŸΌ


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

  1. There was a hair color from madison reed i loved, but unfortunately, my hair is so thick i’d need like 3 kits just to Cover it all! So needless i cAn’t afford that. It was called SardInia red 6ncg. If i went to sallY’s, i was wondering what i shades to buy so i could replicate the color as close as possible. It does say its a rich auburn with Hints of copper anD gold. I’d appreciate any feedback, and thank you!

  2. Aw, no entirely.. I get it for Sally’s ION product. But Wella sold in Sally’s is like a foreign code language. Or I’ll come across a site with “fancy brands” available to non-professionals (Joico became my “cult favorite” after trying my first bottle of their conditioner one fateful day in Ulta.

    Every now and then I come across a website selling ‘professional brands’ and one had some Joico, Matrix, and Redken colors. Lumishine…. So I’ll pop over to their site and their color system doesn’t entirely follow. And because I didn’t study it like you – it truly IS chemistry! AND art! – I can’t make sense of thier “rules”. They say they provide the basics to get any color and all colors play well together, etc. But that 4VV slot doesn’t exist!

    (my current trend – using ION demi with = parts 4VV + 5VV and I come out of the shower with almost black hair. Nature of the product and nature of my hair)

    Also, I stumbled upon “Behind the Chair” (I think?) on YouTube one sleepless night and was blown away at this guy’s mad skill. He was talking to a group of stylists in this video, who were tight-lipped at first. He warmed them up saying “hey, I’m not competing with you, I’ve done the shows, etc. My job is now brand ambassador for [I don’t remember the name, it was a year ago…].” He then explained this color brand and how to prevent hot roots (which I’ve actually gotten from a demi @ 10V – don’t ask me now!). Then how to mix and get any conceivable color.

    A Sallys employee told me she went to school at Aveda, and they have – in art terms – basically just the 3 primary colors and have tho whip up the swatch from those. So those are examples of where I’m still baffled.

    I just found your site tho! So gonna have a look around. You explain things without unnecessary lingo and made things clear that I’ve spent years on youtube and product sites trying to figure out! The page on Toner is next! The toner mystery…..

    Oh – and maybe you answered this, or maybe it’s a potential post. My hair girl (before I became to broke to afford anything more than a cut anymore πŸ™ ) said color stops oxidizing after a point. Is this true for Sallys products? The Chi line is now available and they make a point of saying their product stops developing the hair after a time.

    Ok, off to finish my order with Ardell Gray Additive! LOL! That’s how I landed here! :o)

  3. I tried BLeaching my hair and of course I got the crazy orageyellowred color. My roots ended up being darker because I did my hair from the bottom to to the top and only Put it on my roots for about 15 minutes. I tried using an ash blonde dye to get it to look somewhat presentable to go in public and that helped. But now I don’t know what I should do w it. I like the color of my bottom hair but my roots are like a dark reddish orange MAYBe. How can I go about getting my hair all the Same color and get this orangish look taken care of. I wanted it a red color at first but now I think I like a lighter brown/dark blonde. I’m still trying to Decide. WHAT is going to be the easiest to get to and how!! Lol!!

    • It sounds like maybe your roots just didn’t get light enough. If your hair is in good condition, I would probably bleach them again with a low-level developer or even try a soap cap (shampoo, bleach, and developer) to gently lighten them a bit more. Bleaching over bleach isn’t preferable, so make sure your hair is in good condition first and be gentle with it. However, roots are usually pretty healthy and fresh, so I think they can handle a little more. You could probably even try lightening them with a high-lift color. Hope that helps πŸ™‚

  4. Hey. My hair is all natural light to mousy brown. I’ve only been able to do darker hair color from SALLY’s. if i wanted to go lighter I’d have to go to salon and spend almost $200 to go blonde. I have really thick course nappy curly hair. If color doesn’t go darker it does not lighten without special product without going red, orange, or worse. didn’t go to salon huge mess. So I know that I can go medium brown with letter N. What can I use to go little wilder with out just medium brown. Please help me out with this. 38 and single starting over for first time since I was 20 years old. Thanks April.

    • Are you wanting to go with a new color? Maybe doing a warmer color would be fun and easier to achieve since your hair pulls a lot of warmth.

      I’d definitely love to help… I just want to know what your goal color is, how long you’ve been coloring your hair, how often you color it, what color you use, etc.? Once I find that information, I can help you formulate a goal! πŸ™‚

  5. I have red in my hair from a previous color that has been bleached twice, yet wont compl lifT.would a 9nb cover that up or do i need an ash? Im afraid of ash because i dont want the blonde to go green.

    • I’m guessing that a lot of your hair is super blonde, but there are just a few sections that have some red in it right? If that’s the case, you can always use a 9nb on your blonde hair… but then mix it with some ash color before covering the red sections. Does that make sense? It’s kinda a lot of work but that’s why color correction is usually so expensive in the salon. Hope that helps!

    • I coloured my hair and it has a golden yellowish colour how can I tone this down. Do I go lighter the colour 10 was what I used. Or should I use purple shampoo

    • Has your hair been previously dyed before? Or is the dark brown your natural color (meaning it has never been dyed)? That’s important information to know before formulating what color to use.

  6. This article is awesome! I have been trying to figure this number system out for years! Now that I have this knowledge I can finally get the right results instead of the brassy red color that my hair seems to love to pieces. Thanks is much for this great tool..


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