How to color your hair like a pro — at home

The pandemic doesn’t need to mean pandemonium for your hair color. We’ve got you covered.

By Didi Gluck
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We’re coming up on a year in quarantine, and if you haven’t decided to use this time to go gray (woo-hoo, you’re free!!), you’ve probably been coloring at home to varying degrees of success. According to a Garnier survey, 30% of women dyed their hair at home during quarantine (85% of whom were coloring specifically to cover grays) — and more than two-thirds of women plan to continue to dye their hair at home after the world returns to some semblance of normal.

Interestingly, many women who turned to home color also turned to Instagram and YouTube to learn exactly how to get the job done right. With this in mind, we put together this compendium of at-home coloring tips from salon experts for those who already color at home — or are simply home-color curious.

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How to choose the best shade

“Most of the trouble that people run into coloring at home has to do with their color choice,” says Nikki Lee, a celebrity hair colorist for Garnier. If you’re reading The Plum, you are probably old and wise enough to know to look for the shade you’re after on the side of the box, where it says, “if your hair is…it will look like this,” as opposed to the picture on the front of the box. But here’s where it gets interesting. If you’re like many women over 40, you’ve earned a lot of gray hair by now, and you might not actually know what your virgin color looks like anymore. Lee advises examining your roots very carefully and focusing in on the bits between the grays, which are the hairs you should be matching to the chart on the side of the box.

As for all those tricky extra qualifiers on the box, “My rule of thumb for most people is, if you stick with a neutral tone, you’re pretty safe. And if you prefer no warmth at all, then move to an ash tone,” Lee says. Another good idea when choosing your color is to stick to something that matches your last salon dye job, since chances are your colorist knew what she was doing.

The hair color company Madison Reed has several ways to make sure you ace your shade. If you go into one of the company’s “Color Bars,” the colorist who does your hair will log the formula they used in the company’s website so that you can buy it to use at home. And if you can’t get to a Color Bar, the company also offers an online color-matching service on its website (replete with color consultants). Garnier also recently launched a shade-selecting function on its site to help you more accurately pick your color.

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How to choose the best formula

“If you are at least 50-percent gray, you are typically going to want a permanent color,” says Tiffanie Richards, the lead colorist at the Nunzio Saviano salon in New York City. Unanimously, all the colorists we spoke to said that the hair color formulas found in a box are similar to what  they use in salons. (In fact, according to the pros at Schwarzkopf, who make this reporter’s favorite home hair color, Schwarzkopf Keratin Color, home colors are formulated to yield the same results you’d get in a salon.) What may be different is the amount of colorant the pros use and, of course, the way they apply it (more on that in a moment). “You might get one tube of color in a box where we’d use a tube and a half at the salon,” says Richards. So, consider buying two boxes if your hair is long.

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How to apply home hair color

“Start applying the formula where the grays are,” says Nicola Clarke, a colorist at John Frieda, U.K., who took Madonna’s hair pink several months ago. Colorists tend to focus on your hairline, roots and temples (where most people’s grays are concentrated) first, so that these pieces get 5-10 extra minutes to process while they finish applying the formula to the rest of your hair.

Since people’s ends tend to be more porous and absorb more color than their roots, colorists recommend leaving color on the hairline, roots and temples longest and “pulling it through the ends” for just the last five minutes of processing time — or risk over-saturation (as in, you meant to go brown but ended up shoe-polish black; or you meant to go blonde but ended up white-orange). To further avoid over-saturation and “banding” (visible stripes of new color), Clarke recommends covering the mid-shafts to ends of your hair with a deep conditioning treatment (such as Virtue Restorative Treatment Mask) to keep this drier, more porous hair from absorbing too much color.

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How to cover resistant grays

If you’re having trouble with those wiry grays that seem impossible to cover, Lee recommends making sure they stay well-coated with color by placing a strip of aluminum foil over them while they process. This will ensure they don’t pop through the color mixture, and it also adds a bit of heat, which helps bake the formula into your strands.

If you stick with a neutral tone, you’re pretty safe. And if you prefer no warmth at all, then move to an ash tone.

Nikki Lee, celebrity hair colorist for Garnier

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When to head to the salon

Remember Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000-hour rule? “It’s quite complex to explain something you’ve been doing professionally to your client’s hair for years,” says Clarke, which is the reason some stylists hesitate to recommend coloring at home. But Clarke says that home color is generally surprisingly foolproof. That said, there are some home-color crises that require a pro’s touch. For example, if your hair is starting to break post-color, it’s probably a sign that you’re over-layering bleach on your hair. “You’re not going to get that hair back, so it’s probably best to get a professional’s take on what to do next,” says Clarke. Another situation that merits a salon: If you need to make a dramatic color change quickly. “If you want your pink out so you can go blonde over the weekend, definitely see an expert," says Clarke.

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