When to Color Your Hair at Home

And When to Leave it to the Professionals

Young Woman Having her Hair Dyed at a Salon
Cavan Images/Iconica/Getty Images

Home hair coloring can be a scary thing, but it's not always bad or dangerous, as long as you go into the experience with a little knowledge.

A Little Education About Home Hair Coloring

Home hair coloring (also known as hair dye or box color) can be purchased at the drug store or discount store. It's typically very inexpensive ($5.00 - $20.00) and comes with instructions on how to apply the color at home.

The color is usually easy to mix with little to no measuring and comes with no options to alter the strength.

The color itself isn't very different from the color used by professionals in the salon. Although, it is typically a stronger formulation than salon hair color because the color has to be strong enough to work on anyone's hair that picks the color out at the store. This means the formula is the same no matter how thin, thick, coarse, dark, light, highlighted, color treated, or chemically processed your hair is at the time of application.

It is important to understand that the color of hair on the girl on the box is not the exact color that your hair will turn out. It is approximate and will vary based on your natural hair color and tone, the condition of your hair, other color or chemical processes done on your hair in the past, and even the temperature at which the color processes on your head.

A Few Tips to Remember Before You Color Your Hair at Home

  • Choose a temporary, semi-permanent, or demi-permanent color whenever possible over permanent. It's like the difference between using a sharpie or a pencil on white wall. Sure, you can get the sharpie off, eventually, but the process is much harder than trying to get pencil off.
  • Colors described as "warm", "honey", or "gold" are warm colors. Colors described as "ash" or "beige" are cool hair colors. "Natural" or "neutral" are right in the middle of warm and cool. Most people choose neutral and warm colors over cool hair colors. Warm hair colors have yellow, red, and orange undertones. Cool colors have green and blue undertones. Learn more about understanding the language of hair color here before you choose your desired color.
  • Read ALL of the instructions prior to using the color. Then read them again. Call the toll-free number or visit the website listed on the box if you are at all confused. At the end of the day, it is far better to spend an extra 10 minutes reading the box than to spend three hours having your orange hair fixed.
  • Purchase two boxes of color if your hair is long or very thick to ensure that you get even coverage. If you don't use the second box, you can always return it or use it next time. Apply the product generously to ensure full coverage.
  • DO NOT wash your hair prior to coloring your hair. The natural oils on your head protect your scalp and help protect your hair from damage. Hair product is okay to apply color over.
  • Home hair color can be messy. Get some old towels out (because they will likely get ruined), wear an old shirt that you don't care about, and watch for drips and spills. Hair color will stain just about anything it touches (even the semi-permanent stuff).

    When It's Okay to Color Your Hair at Home

    When your hair coloring goals meet these criteria, you get the green light for home hair color:

    • When you are covering a little gray: when you don't want to change your natural hair color, rather just cover the gray. However, the more gray you have, the harder it can be to get a nice color result. If you have more than 25% gray, you may consider professional help. If you have over 50% gray hair, color at home at your own risk.
    • When you want to warm up your hair's tone: for example, if you are changing from "mousey brown" to a "honey brown", or from "ash blond" to "golden blond". Changing tone to a warm color is pretty easy.
    • When you want to go just a bit darker or lighter: changing your color one to two shades darker or lighter is a fairly safe home hair color occasion.
    • When you want really red hair: Just be sure that you are not trying to go from a medium brown to a light strawberry blond. As long has your hair color level is about the same, going red can be fun and safe to do at home. Again, I'd highly recommend trying semi-permanent color at least the first time, as it can be quite the crapshoot as to which tone of red your hair will actually turn out.

    When To Seek Professional Advice

    Professional stylists have a vast knowledge of hair color tones, levels, and how to achieve them. We learn every possible scenario that can make a great hair color, and we learn how to fix hair color that just doesn't go right. While hair coloring is a science, it's not exact and even the safest hair coloring can go wrong with no rhyme or reason to it. In these situations, I'd highly recommend consulting a professional before you risk a home hair color disaster:

    • Lots of Gray: When you have 50% or more gray hair, I highly recommend a professional color service to be sure that you get equal gray coverage and that your hair does not take on unwanted tones that commonly occur with gray hair.
    • Big Changes: Anytime you want to make big changes to your hair color, it's advisable to seek professional help. Going from blond to brown can easily create a mossy green tone to your hair color. Changing your locks from dark brown to blond can be a direct path to orange hair.
    • Highlights and Lowlights: Anytime you are bleaching (highlighting) hair you are risking a lot of damage, breakage, splotchy spots, and orange tones. Highlighting and lowlighting techniques can be quite tricky and time-consuming. Bad results can be very difficult and quite expensive to fix. It's best to leave this type of service to the pros.
    • Recent Surgery or Major Health Changes: when your body has been through stress, surgery, strong medications, or even pregnancy your odds are good that your hair color won't take well (or even at all). Just be sure you tell your hairstylist about your recent health changes so adjustments in your color formulation can be made, if necessary.
    • Unknown Color Already On Your Hair: permanent hair color (even if it fades) stays in your hair shaft until you cut it off. Long hair can be several years old at the ends. If you have hair color already on your hair you may want to seek a professional's help before throwing more color on top. It's not always clear how your new color will react with the old. In this case, if you do attempt a home hair color, it is VERY important to do a test strand prior to coloring all of your hair. Better safe than orange hair, I always say!

    What To Do When Home Hair Color Goes Bad

    Sometimes, no matter how careful you are, after the color is rinsed your hair just might not turn out the way you envisioned. Perhaps you didn't intend to have a purple hue to your blond locks, or maybe the bright red glare of your "golden light brown" wasn't exactly what you thought was going to happen. It happens. Do not try to fix it yourself. Do not pass go, do not collect $200. Call your hairstylist. Explain what happened (be brutally honest), and then let her fix the job. Really.​

    The real issue with an at home color that goes bad is that $8.00 box or hair color can easily turn into a $150 (or more) fix. Color correction services at a salon often start at $100 - $200 per hour, at a minimum.