Hair Color 101

Choosing a hair color
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Have you ever heard your hairdresser talking about your hair color and wondered what planet she was living on? It's not just you: Hair color can be confusing. Color names geared for the consumer are rather artful and subject to interpretation (think "cafe au lait"). Technical color designations, on the other hand, typically consist of numbers and letters that describe nuances about the color in a language only your hairstylist seems to understand.

Here, we dissect the very basics of hair color, what your hairdresser knows, and how you can be more informed when speaking to your stylist or choosing your next color.

What Hair Color Is—and Isn't

First, let's define hair color. Basically, it's a formulation of pigments and chemicals designed to enhance or change your hair's color. Don't call it "dye," though.Those in the beauty industry never refer to hair color as "hair dye." As beauty school instructors tell their students, "You dye an Easter egg; you don't dye hair." 

Defined as your hairstylist communicates it, the term hair color refers to the combined level and tone of a person's hair. These are two distinct elements, and they're crucial for you to understand to get the hair color results that best match your desires.

Hair Color Level

The "level" of a hair color is its relative lightness or darkness.All hair colors have levels, whether you're talking about your natural color or choosing a new one.

Standard hair color levels are defined on a scale of 1 to 10, with level 1 being the darkest, blackest color and level 10 being a very light blond color. The scale is understood throughout the beauty industry and is used across brands and formulations. Here are the 10 standard hair color levels:

  • Level 1: Black
  • Level 2: Darkest (almost black) brown
  • Level 3: Very dark brown
  • Level 4: Dark brown
  • Level 5: Brown
  • Level 6: Light brown
  • Level 7: Dark blond
  • Level 8: Medium blond
  • Level 9: Blond
  • Level 10: Light blond

In addition, the very lightest platinum-blond colors are often referred to as level 11, 12, or even 13.

Hair Color Tone

After establishing the level of your natural or desired hair color, you'll next have to figure out its tone. Hair color tones generally fall into three standard categories: warm, cool, and neutral. When hairstylists discuss color, or if you are choosing a color from a swatch book, the tones are often indicated with a letter. Here are examples of standard color tones:

Cool Tones

  • A: Ash
  • B: Beige
  • B: Blue
  • G: Green
  • V: Violet

Warm Tones

  • C: Copper
  • G: Gold
  • O: Orange
  • R: Red
  • W: Warm
  • RB: Brown/Red
  • RO: Red/Orange

Neutral Tone

  • N: Neutral—neither warm nor cool

Tones are often combined in hair color formulas to create the perfect shade. For example, an auburn color is achieved by combining neutral or warm tones with red tones. Red hair color can be made cool by adding violet tones to the color formula. Sometimes, hair colorists achieve the right color combination by mixing different color tones together; they receive training in school or through color manufacturers in creating these custom combinations.

Hair color companies typically offer colors that feature ready-mixed tones, as well.

Combining Level and Tone

A hair color's technical name is a letter-number combination that denotes its level and tone. For example, a warm brown color would be defined as a "7W." The number indicates the hair color level (dark blond), and the letter indicates that the tone is warm. Here are a few other examples of hair color as defined by  level and tone:

  • 8A: Medium ash blond
  • 4RV: Dark red/violet
  • 6C: Light copper brown
  • 5N: Neutral Brown
  • 9W: Light warm blond

Determining Hair Color Level and Tone

Figuring out a hair color level is pretty simple once you get the hang of it. Your opinion might be a level off from the next person's opinion, but generally speaking, the level is fairly obvious. Hair color tone, however, is not as easily defined by the eye.

What one person may see as "red" the next person may describe as "copper." This is where pictures and swatches come in handy to ensure that everyone is speaking the same language.

The most important thing to remember when discussing hair color with your stylist is that hair color is not flat (or, at least, it shouldn't be). It's a complex interplay of depth and temperature that can enhance or detract from your skin color and features. Communicating with her using the terms "level" and "tone" helps her understand what you want. Likewise, understanding the two will help you choose wisely from the rows and rows of colors at the store if you go the do-it-yourself route.