Hair Color 101

How to Speak and Understand Hair Color Level and Tone

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? Hair color can be confusing. It's typically a series of numbers and letters that describe your hair's color. Here are 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.

First, let's define hair color.

Hair color is the combined level and tone of a person's hair. You may also apply the chemical "hair color" to your hair to change your hair's color. In the beauty industry, we never refer to hair color as "hair dye". As one of my beauty school instructors once said, "You dye an Easter egg, you don't dye your hair."

Hair Color Level

Hair color stars off by identifying the "level" or darkness of the hair. Whether you're talking about your natural color or choosing a new color, the first step is to understand and choose how dark the hair is. 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. 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

The lightest platinum blond colors are often referred to as level 11, 12, or even 13.

Hair Color Tone

After establishing the level of one's natural or desired hair color, next the tone of hair color is defined. Hair color tones can be put into three standard categories: warm, cool, or 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 standard examples of color tones:

N: Neutral. Neither warm nor cool

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

Tones are often be 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, but the hair color companies typically have pre-created colors that feature mixed tones, as well.

Combining Level and Tone

When defining a hair color, the level and tone are combined into a letter/number combination. For example, a warm brown color would be defined as a "5W". The number indicates the hair color level (brown), and the letter indicates that the tone is warm. Here are a few other examples of hair color defined by the level and tone:

8A: Medium Ash Blond

4RV: Dark Red/Violet

6C: Light Copper Brown

5N: Neutral Brown

9W: Light Warm Blond

Determining a hair color level is pretty simple once you get the hang of it. Your opinion may be a level off from the next person's opinion, but generally speaking, the level is pretty obvious. However, hair color tone 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 very handy to be sure that everyone is speaking the same language.