A Hairdresser's Daughter on How to Dye Your Hair at Home

First and foremost, this story calls for a little epilogue. My mother is a hairdresser. I grew up in a salon. I then preceded to spend all but 4 years of my life in the same city as aforementioned mother/hairdresser leaving me an incredibly spoiled princess with more than a passing understanding of the complicated, chemical process of hair color. I am not, for these reasons, a huge fan of home hair-dyeing. But desperate times call for desperate measures, and the solid inch of gray roots (not to mention summer's gift of about three inches of brassy, destroyed ends) led me to take the desperate step of dying at home. I did this knowing, from a lifetime of experience, that my hair holds onto color about as well as a quadruped can hold a greased object. That's helpful to know because key decisions revolve around the porosity of the keratin on my head. Including the fact that it will most likely not survive the chlorine/sun soaked dog days of summer. Nothing like an out clause. 

That said, if you have never died your hair before seek professional help. Also if you're going lighter (yes - people do actually break their hair off) plus it's way way harder to fix a botched home job than to do it right the first time. The hair "lifting" process as they call it is not for the faint of heart, and well worth the time/investment if that is the route you choose to pursue. 

Here's what I had going for me. I know my hair really well. I pay attention to the colors my mother uses - which are in fact uniform for both professional products and home kits. I know that a level 4 will make my hair this dark, which doesn't seem to remind me that it freaks me out every single time I do it. It's ok though because my husband loves it, and it makes people tell me I look well rested/ask if I'm wearing better makeup. 

Since I know my hair tends to suck up color really well, but then lose it very quickly, I decided to go for a level 4, which is a color my mother knows better than to give me. I swear I will never learn my lesson about how much I don't like my hair this dark, but my husband loves it and sometimes we just do things for the people we love. Anyways, when my mom does my hair she does a level 6. If you look at a color chart they will tell you a 4 is a "medium brown" but there is nothing medium about the brown in this picture. A 6 is technically dark blonde, but when you put it on my processed, greedy hair it actually turns what you would think medium blonde would be. This is really the thing that messes up most people who try to DIY. Everything is always darker than you think it will be. If you've ever dyed your hair before the cuticle is already "open" meaning it will suck up the color and give you something more dramatic than you expected. If you've never dyed your hair before see above. The numbers are technically on a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 being black and 10 being a very light white blonde. This chart makes a lot of sense without taking into account at all what crazy thing your own unique and special snowflake hair will do. Here's my best advice for picking a number: go 1-2 shades lighter than you think.** It's so much harder to lighten up overdyed hair than to go darker. But really, if you insist on dying your hair at home, just copy whatever your hair dresser has done in the past. Just ask her what color she is using. She'll tell you. Look for the same number when you buy that box of color.  She would obviously prefer to do it for you, but she knows people have their reasons for making this decision and she would much rather you at least don't completely ruin all her hard work. Phew. Onward. 

The letter next to the number describes the color family - I honestly have no idea what they really mean but have come up with my own interpretations of them. G is "golden" or "go away do not touch this one" because golden is just brassiness, which I despise. If you are trying to go red, use a C for copper, or an M for mahogany. I honestly don't even understand why they make this color family. If your goal is a "buttery, golden color" seek professional help because you will never be able to accomplish this at home. N stands for "neutral" or "natural" which means absolutely nothing. This letter makes no sense to me. I'll use it if I want to keep a little bit of my hairs warmer tones, aka it's brassy as all hell. If I need to deal with brassiness it's "A" which means A+ you have a low chance of messing this up, or Ash if you want to get technical. Ash is such an unflattering term though when really it just means lots of blue and violet tones to cancel out brassiness. Pick an A or an N. Ignore all other confusing descriptive words on the box, as they are based on the same insane color wheel that makes this hair color a "dark blonde". 

Clearly picking the right color is about 90% of a reasonably successful home dye job, so I have one more factor to throw in here. It can be really hard to tell from reading the boxes but it's important and I've developed a trick over the years of rebelliously trying to dye my hair myself. This factor is the "lift" aka strength of the activator/lightening agent included. It's also known as the "developer." This ranges from a 0 percent solution to up to 7 levels of lift. That's that blue powder you see being mixed into serious (professional) lightening jobs. DIY kits tend to start at 0, also known as a "gloss" which just slides uselessly off my hair, to the equivalent of a 40 percent solution. For home jobs I try to never go higher than a 10 percent lift, because I want it to last but not that long. Also, I don't want to fry my hair - the higher the developer the more likely to damage those follicles. Remember that ** above? Well here's where I respond to it. The higher the developer, the more likely to develop brassiness, aka my arch nemesis. Less damage, less brassiness, less risk of something out of control or unexpected happening... sounds great, right? Well, unfortunately, they don't just tell you the number on the package. They just try to use more confusing descriptive words, with no consistency across brands. Fun. So what do you do? Use the pictures on the side of the box. They won't give you any real sense of what the hair color which actually turn out to be, but they will tell you how strong the developer is. Only choose colors where the after color swatch is darker than the before swatch.  Since it's impossible to lighten hair with low levels of developer, this is the best way to get the lowest possible number in your home dye kit. 

I wish I was done with the section on picking the color, but I'm not.  Single tone, flat color looks horrible on everyone. In my opinion, it's the single biggest risk of a home darkening dye job. Even the shiniest, healthiest hair will look dull without some tones.  I also have a lot of highlights in my hair, not mention the grays, and the ombre. I feel relatively safe applying a layer of color on top and not having my hair turn all one color. If you're afraid of this try looking for words like "multi-dimensional", "rich", "tonal" somewhere on the box. Also, don't buy the cheapest box they have. 

Last, but definitely not least, is the formula. Patchiness is the other major problem with home dye. Getting the back of your own head is basically impossible. Creams are the worst. I always, always use a foam because it's easy to work it through your hair to ensure the most consistent coverage. 

Phew, OK, let's talk about application. Don't apply to freshly washed hair. This is true of all hair colors salon or home, but you need a little oil to balance everything out. It kind of fills in the super damaged parts which tend to suck up more color and cause weird patchy effects. Before I applied this color I put a full handful of coconut oil in my hair, twisted it up in a topknot and slept in it. After not washing it for four days before. It should be fine to just not wash your hair for a day or two before, but I love doing this deep condition step. Look how shiny this poor abused hair is. 

I like to apply the color naked. It's a mess. Prepare yourself. Hide your valuables. Put a dark towel down. Have some soap nearby. Coat your skin with something (I actually used a face mask! pure genius I am) to prevent drips from dying your skin. Most people use aquaphor or petroleum jelly. 

Start at the front of your hair and divide it into four sections. Work quickly, you don't want some hairs sitting for twenty minutes when you try to reach the back. Apply to the roots of the first section,  closest to the part then work towards the ear. Start on the other side from the part, applying just to the roots. Work the back, splitting it into sections. Work it all the way through (I just use a brush or long tooth comb. ) Apply more. Use the whole bottle. You're trying to ensure you coat every single little strand of hair on your head. Do what you need to do to make that happen. Massage your head a lot. 

Set an actual timer and follow the instructions on the box. Look at the back with a mirror. Test a strand starting 5 minutes before the timer goes off. If it looks good, ignore the timer and wash it off. Do not leave it on for longer than it says on the box. 

When it comes time to rinse it out, wash it with shampoo. It doesn't say to on the box but who cares. Rinse it until the water runs clear. Change the angle of your head and do that again (surprise! you probably didn't get it all the first time!) Repeat until the water actually runs clear. Apply the conditioner in the box because it's super heavy but awesome. Leave it on for at least 20 minutes. Get out of the shower so as not to waste water. 

I let my hair air dry after because I felt like it had been through enough. I put a ton of leave in conditioner, two kinds of balm (1 and 2)  and an oil in it. I had to wash my hair again three days later (ugh, sucks!) but these pictures capture the freshly done look. 

I think this is the longest article I have ever written and I still feel like I'm forgetting something. Despite all of my knowledge and experience I still feel like I missed a spot in the back. I am really enjoying the ten minutes when my roots and tips are the same color. I hope my mother doesn't kill me for writing this.