Home hair color: Glamour on a budget

9 Nov

My former hairdresser once told me hair color is like crack: It’s highly addictive and people keep coming back for more.

Just like a crack habit, having your hair colored at the salon will also cost you.

The price of salon hair colors is highly varied, and it basically depends on where you live, what salon you pick and who’s doing it. I once paid $50 for a salon hair color, and I was being cut a deal. On average, professional hair coloring can cost nearly or even more than $100. If you live in a major metropolitan area, plan to spend hundreds of dollars.

That’s why I take matters into my own hands — and pay a fraction of the cost.

Apparently, more hair color fiends are going to the drugstore to support their “crack habits” instead of salons. According to this New York Times story, 15 percent of 1,000 American women who have had their hair colored professionally said they now color at home. The recession is seemingly giving the home hair color industry a boost: Clairol Root Touch-Up sales have increased by 20 percent during the past year.

I have had colored hair since the sixth grade, and almost all of what I have done is at-home color. I have dyed my hair anything from platinum blonde to black (literally). Has every color turned out perfectly? Hell no. I have had some serious disasters along the way. Nonetheless, I know my way around the salon dye bottles very well — and I have seriously, seriously learned from my mistakes.

Before you rush out to the drugstore, keep a few things in mind:

There are certain things you do want to leave to the professionals.

Bleaching: DO NOT TRY THIS AT HOME! I personally learned this the hard way. My naturally dark blonde hair was dyed black a few years ago, and I got tired of the black. Growing it out, though, made me look like a skunk. Reader’s Digest version: I looked like hell. The last professional job I had done was when I had to pay up to undo this flat-out mess.

I have never attempted to do highlights, and I never will. I would advise you not to try this at home. I won’t say they’re as difficult and potentially disastrous (although I may be quite biased here) as bleaching, but screwing up will give you polka-dotted hair. I’d also advise never doing anything involving a pull-through cap at home. There’s just way, way too much room for error here.

If you’re a beginner, drastic color changes — namely going from really dark to really light — shouldn’t be done alone. The worst color to try and get at home is blonde. Don’t try to go to a different blonde shade unless your hair is already blonde or a really light brown. You risk turning your hair orange.

By the way, if you have colored red hair and want to go blonde, just wait until the red grows out or fades away. Going from red to blonde is misery even if you go to a professional. I went from red to blonde in high school, and I was at least smart enough to go to a pro then. It was still hell. My hairdresser had to put me through two rounds of color corrector because my hair came out road cone orange on the first try and neon yellow on a second.

Natural redheads: Please just buy a nice wig if you must have blonde hair.

Choose your color wisely.


Sure, the photos and swatches are a good guideline. But do you remember art class from way back when? When you mixed yellow with blue, you had green. You had orange when you mixed yellow with red. It’s the same thing with hair color. Your outcome will largely depend on what your starting color is and what you’re adding to it.

Beginners, take note of this: Browns are quite often beginners’ best friends. Brown isn’t boring. There are tons of different shades, light and dark hues, a little mix of red or blonde every now and then. The possibilities are endless. My biggest piece of advice on choosing a brown color is going with a shade lighter than what you would want. Sometimes, brown turns out darker than what you wanted. I had one brown color come out almost black. But at least black is a color some people naturally have.

Here’s the seriously positive thing about browns: You can almost never go wrong. You are less likely to get an orange, purple or some other kind of screwed-up outcome than you would with red or blonde.

If you MUST choose a red or blonde color, the general rule of thumb is avoiding extremes. If your day job is playing in a Twisted Sister tribute band, the extreme colors may be your best options. The rest of us should play it safe.

For blondes, avoid those platinum/nearly white shades. Reds: Avoid super dark shades, especially if your hair is light. Also, avoid really extreme reds. Both of these have the potential to turn your hair into a really weird color. Sometimes, even the picture on the box should show you this color is way, way too extreme. Going with a medium/dark ash blonde may not give you a blonde result, but it may at least lighten up your hair and/or give it a subtle gold tint. Light/medium AUBURN shades can give you a red hue that still looks natural. Like the toned down blondes, it could also give your existing color a reddish tint.

Black is a color for which you will seriously have to wait to fade. If you get tired of black, you will either have to pay a pro to bleach it out, then re-dye it or wait for it to grow out. The former will cost you. The latter will make you look horrible. Unless black is your natural color, and you’re trying to cover gray, I’d seriously stay away from it.

Try a semi-permanent if you’re a first-timer or if you’re a frequent user.

Semi-permanent hair colors are great if you like to change colors often (like me). They’re very gentle, and those uber-strong conditioners almost all of them contain will generally leave your hair in BETTER condition when all is said and done.

These colors, though, are few and far between. My guess is that more people use permanent hair colors these days, judging from the number of them versus semi-permanents. However, Clairol makes both a semi-permanent AND a temporary (even less commitment), both with which I have had good experiences. The Web site for Clairol’s semi-permanent, Natural Instincts, even offers a guide to products/shades that can help you pick the color you need. This brand also has men’s color.

The temporary color is called Loving Care, and it was my first hair color. Loving Care does not offer as many options as Natural Instincts or permanent hair colors, but it may be a good option for the more skittish. You can find more information and shade palettes here.

Just as a side note: These Clairol Web sites also offer instructions for use. Yes, you do get an instruction guide in the box, but it may not hurt to look at what is involved before you spend money on color. This also helps if you lose the instructions.

Natural Instincts is about $10 a box here now, and Loving Care is a little less. Keep in mind that prices tend to vary with location. So, how much are you paying your salon?

For beautiful hair, be a skank for a while:

Color adheres better when hair is oily and nasty. After washing your hair, wait a day or two before coloring. You may want to do this during a weekend or any other time you’re away from work or other places where looking presentable is a must. I also suggest wearing a ponytail or slicking your hair back into a simple, claw-clipped updo. They’re both good ways to at least partially hide skankiness.

It’s also a good rule of thumb to avoid any styling products beforehand, too. Think about your poodle perm Aqua Net ‘do you had in 1985. Would you want to mix even MORE chemicals with that?

Assemble your arsenal.

Make sure you have these things in hand and ready to go: The color and any other thing that goes with it (activator creams, conditioners, etc.), the gloves that should be included and YOUR INSTRUCTIONS. Next, make sure you have a wet washcloth and one you won’t miss if it gets ruined. You’ll need this ready to go immediately, in case this stuff gets on your skin or on things like the floor, sink, etc. This stuff does stain. Also make sure you’re wearing the rattiest clothes you own, and have two towels that totally look like hell. You’ll need one to wrap around your neck and another to dry your hair after rinsing.


Once you get the hang of this, you can safely move on to permanent color. Just like the semi-permanents, these generally have super conditioners that leave the hair in better condition from when you started.

There are three particular brands I personally like: Clariol’s Nice and Easy is probably the best bang for your buck. I bought a box of it yesterday for about $7. The shade selection is great, and this color is as simple to use as any. The Colorseal conditioner that comes with it has apparently become popular enough to sell separately. Nice and Easy also offers Root Touch Up, which is advertised to work on any matching color — even ones that come from salons or are made by other brands.

Loreal’s Feria blends the hair color with your natural color. You may get a shade totally different from the box, but it will generally be a color you’ll really like. Just be careful with their “Power Reds” colors. That name is a serious understatement. Really contemplate whether or not extremely, extremely red hair is right for you!

Clairol’s Perfect 10 is my other favorite. Perfect 10 develops in 10 minutes, when most other colors take anywhere from 15-25 minutes. Color comes out of a comb, which is great for reaching the hair’s roots. The selection is not as broad as Feria’s, but it does offer a wide variety of natural-looking shades.

Both Feria and Perfect 10 are about $10, give or take. They are some of the pricier home hair colors. But once again, how much are you paying the salon?

Here are some Web resources I’ve gathered for your home hair color journey:

Choosing colors: http://tinyurl.com/y9zscxg

Tips for home hair coloring: (This site recommends not going more than two shades lighter or darker, by the way): http://tinyurl.com/yft6fzx

How to recover from hair color disasters, both personal and professional: http://tinyurl.com/59t2e7

If you have any other Web site suggestions for home hair color users, feel free to post the links on my comments.


One Response to “Home hair color: Glamour on a budget”

  1. Amanda November 10, 2009 at 10:35 am #

    I love coloring my hair, too. I like Garnier, too. I bought a box Sunday with a coupon for $3.33 (on sale at CVS).

    I do have to say, though, that I used to feel the same way about going blond or lighter (as my hair is a dark brown). I don’t do reds, so that left me really stuck with different color brown. Then I tried Revlon’s Frost and Glow (http://haircolor.revlon.com/aspx/frostglow/FrostGlowProductInfo.aspx) and it’s truly amazing. It comes with a pull through cap, just like in a salon. It’s a two person job to get the back of your head. The formula is pretty fool proof, as long as you keep it on for the entire 50-60 minutes. It gave me amazing highlights. The second time I used it to touch up the roots, I went a little overboard and got really blond, but it was apparently a big hit! If you’re looking for highlights, I recommend this product. And it’s a great price — I think Walmart sell it for less than $10.

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