A DIY Guide to Hair Dye

I had mixed up a lovely concoction of all-natural henna dyes from a package I’d purchased at a local organic store. The dye had worked before and turned my hair a lovely deep blackish-brown. I was bored one night, around 11 p.m., and had nothing better to do so I decided to color my hair. Big mistake.

Hennas are highly fickle, and very temperature sensitive. I had colored with this particular dye on a warm summer day several years ago. This time it was a drafty March evening and instead of deep black-brown, I removed the towel and my shoulder-length hair was transformed from mousy brown into a patchy navy blue.

I share this with you, brothers and sisters, as a cautionary tale. Hair dye can be a lot of fun- a quick and cheap way to change your look or appear younger by covering grays. Like most fun, though, it is not without an element of danger. However, by following a few clear steps and taking a few precautions, you should be able to color without fear.

There is a rainbow of perfectly good natural and chemical dyes out there for home colorists. But care- and strand tests- are the watchwords for a successful experience with any of them.

The first step in successful haircolor is simply picking the right color for you. This means that you will have to admit some truths to yourself about your own hair color. If you are blonde, be careful not to choose a deep, purply or burgundy color like eggplant or an orange-based color like setter red. These colors are designed to create color casts on darker hair. They will turn blonde hair into clownish shades of violet, orange and fire-engine red. Second, for you wistful brunettes out there, no off-the-shelf hair color will actually lighten hair, unless it is a bleach. So if you have medium-to-dark hair, all that a beautiful platinum FÃ?©ria is going to do is give you some unfortunate highlights. Bleaching should really only be attempted by professionals- and to clarify, walking into Sally Beauty Supply and grabbing the “professional strength” bleach does not make you a professional.

A word on DIY highlight kits: don’t. I have had several hairstylists tell me that the results are so artificial that the commercials featuring perfectly highlighted models should be banned as false advertising. Most haircolor will create a cast of color on your own hair, so if you have highlights anyway, it will bring them out. But messing around with the tricky little combs and bleachy solutions that come in the highlight kits is a recipe for disaster. If you’re doing it a home, keep it simple.

Hair dyes come in four grades of permanence. There are temporary colors out there, but they are quite a lot of bother for just a couple of shampoos. Semi-permanent is a good starting point, and many natural colors out there fall into this category. It will last about 3 to 6 weeks. Long-lasting semi-permanent color is closer to permanent, and most commercial dyes labeled “semipermanent” actually are of this variety. Most commercial semi-permanent dyes will last about 24 shampoos, or about a month. Permanent dyes will last until you cut the hair, but they do fade, so keep in mind that a permanent dye will still need to be touched up about every 3 months or so.

A big reason people have trouble with at-home haircolor is actually a very simple one. It’s the same reason many of us can’t program the VCR or figure out how to get your stereo to play random songs from all five discs in the changer, rather than just one. We don’t read the directions. All at-home dye products come with detailed directions to keep you from going all Jackson Pollock on your own head. Read them through- all of them, from the first step to the final blow dry- before attempting at-home haircolor. This is particularly important with natural dyes, as I learned. If it says to keep the hair wrapped and warm while the color develops, you had better listen.

There is a key step in the color process that many DIY colorists skip. The strand test is key in determining whether a color will look great or lead you down the Carrottop path to destruction. Think of this minor inconvenience in the same way you would think of calling your utilities companies before digging in your backyard. Is it better to wait a few minutes before starting the dye process, waiting for your little strand to develop, or is it better to dig right in and reap the consequences? Don’t question the strand test. Just do it. Additionally, a patch test of dye on the skin is a good idea for people who have allergies. You certainly don’t want to find out that you are allergic to ingredients in your hair color when your scalp is coated with the stuff.

While you are doing your strand test, you can gather the proper supplies for the color process. You will need at least a couple of towels that you don’t mind getting permanently damaged. You should wear something that you don’t care too much about. Maybe this is the best time to have some delicious revenge on that lame “I (Heart) Yorkies” T-shirt your great-aunt bought you. At any rate, you will want to cover up anything that you don’t want to get dye on- this will include porcelain sinks, tiles and any bathmats or rugs you have. Dye has one purpose- to color stuff- and it does this job very well on everything it touches.

Most store-bought dyes come with gloves, and they are pretty serviceable ones at that. But you might want to grab a package of dishwashing gloves or a box of latex gloves if you buy natural or organic color. They rarely come with their own.

To prepare yourself, you will want to put some thick moisturizer around your hairline and on your ears. Permanent dyes will take several days, even with daily showers, to come out of skin unless you have properly prepared the area.

Haircolor needs to be mixed. Most commercial brands include a color, a developer and a post-color conditioner. Follow the instructions carefully and do remember, hair color is a chemical, not hair paint. The color that comes out of the applicator bottle will not reflect the color that your hair will come out at the end of the process. Many haircolor gels and cremes are purple or reddish, and henna can range from black to green. Also, keep in mind that haircolor is a volatile chemical, and you can’t save it for later. If you have short hair, you will not use it all, but don’t attempt to mix a smaller portion than what is included in the package. The color and developer is formulated to mix in the portions provided, and you shouldn’t mess with that magical chemistry. If you have very long or very thick hair, it might be worth it to pick up two packages of color and mix them both up.

Follow the application directions carefully. Most chemical haircolor is pretty straightforward and will not require exact temperature conditions to develop correctly.

Most packaged haircolor will give you a range of development times. A good rule of thumb is that if your hair is very thick or dark, you should shoot for the higher development time and if you have thin or light hair, to go for the shorter time. Remember that the consequences for overdeveloping tend to be less problematic than underdeveloping- kind of like overbaking or underbaking a cake.

After developing, the best plan is to shower to get the dye out- it is the most thorough way and is less messy than trying to get your entire, dye-coated head clean in the kitchen sink.

So what if, even after following these careful instructions, you blow dry and find yourself in a situation like mine, with hair the color of a cheap suit?

Well, I am fortunate enough to have a friend who is a colorist. But there are other solutions and quick fixes that can at least tide you over until you can get professional help.

First, for henna dyes like mine, you can fill a mister bottle with rubbing alcohol and spray your hair down, rinse and spray again until all of the color is out. This is a very time-consuming process, very messy, and only works with natural colors, but it works. Chemical dyes are more problematic. You can fade the color with a strong, chemical shampoo like Prell, which is made for very oily hair types, or you can try the old hot-olive-oil trick to speed up the fading process. Most commercial dyes have a 48 to 72 hour window before fully locking into the cuticle, so you can usually make it to a pro in time to at least partially reverse the dye process and get to a more favorable shade. After those 48 hours, you will definitely need to seek out a professional to undertake a color correction. This can be expensive and time-consuming, but it is the only way to fully reverse a bad permanent dye job with chemical color.

However, by following instructions and taking the correct precautions, at-home hair color shouldn’t have to be a dangerous undertaking. Think of these tips as a motorcycle helmet or an acrobat’s net; you can have fun with your hair color and be safe about it, too.

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