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The Pro's Guide to DIY Hair Color

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The Violet Files

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Getting flawless hair color from the comfort of your own bathroom has never been easier—or more necessary. Here’s exactly how to do it, according to the experts.

Written By
Maura Lynch

Of all the things we’ve gotten acquainted with in these months of isolation — jigsaw puzzles, carbs, Zoom — our natural hair color is undoubtedly the least pleasing. But, hair-wise, if there’s anything more distressing than gray roots, it’s a botched home dye job. Luckily, there’s never been a better time to learn how to color — and care for — your own hair. Top colorists from across the country have pivoted from jam-packed salon appointments to virtual masterclasses for clients and Instagram followers alike. Adrian Wallace, a colorist at the Rita Hazan Salon in NYC, has even demonstrated his technique for regulars via FaceTime, using his five-year-old daughter as a model (without using dye, of course). “We can’t offer much to the world right now,” notes Christine Thompson, LA-based master colorist and co-founder of Spoke & Weal Salons. “But we can certainly advise in this small and comforting way.” Consider this the DIY dye cheat sheet we never knew we needed...until this exact moment.


If you can, skip over any dye labeled permanent. While they’re fantastic in that they can both mask grays and lighten hair (and are in fact the only type of dye that can lighten hair), “if you miss the target on one of these, the result is much harder to fix,” notes Thompson.

For a more foolproof option, look to demi-permanent hues. They wrap color around the hair shaft without actually permanently altering it — which means they can cover those slivers of silver but not, say, turn your dirty blonde icy-cool. Thompson points to the Christophe Robin Temporary Gel for this approach. It geniously disguises grays for five to seven washes, and it does it without the laundry list of chemicals that typically accompany dyes, including the irritant PPD (paraphenylenediamine).


“Most boxed dyes are at least one shade darker than what they claim,” explains Wallace, which is why he always recommends going one shade lighter than your desired hue. (Do this by following the swatches on the back of the box, not the eerily cheerful and misleading model on the front.) Thompson agrees, but notes that the Christophe Robin formula is the exception: “Go level for level with this.” Tone — warm, neutral, or cool — is also key here. Since most at-home dyes process on the orangey side, Wallace says to stick with ash or neutral varieties, unless you’re one of the few who actually wants some red in there.


“Ninety-five percent of the time, you’re only going to do your roots,” says Wallace. Besides being (usually) unnecessary, recoloring all of your hair is also way more complicated. Thompson recommends spot-treating, applying color “only to the visible areas of regrowth.”

If you’re looking to conceal grays, start at the area where they’re most apparent. For most, Wallace says that’s around the hairline; consequently, that’s also where they’re most resistant (i.e. toughest to dye). By touching up here first, you’ll give the dye more time to process to provide complete coverage. Just make sure you coat any strands you aren’t coloring in a thick conditioning mask to prevent dye from dripping where it doesn’t belong.


There are those rare situations that require a total hair-color refresh. Maybe your roots have grown in and your lengths have faded to something unrecognizable. In this case, do your roots like normal and then “run the color through the rest of your strands for no more than five minutes before you wash it out,” says Wallace. Unless you’ve never colored your hair before, your ends require far less processing time than your roots. Thus, laying color on already colored hair for too long will result in an uneven shade, not to mention unwanted damage. That’s why Aura Friedman, a colorist at Sally Hershberger Salon in NYC, says to take the precaution of wetting your lengths with water for this part. “The water acts as a buffer and evens out the porosity of your hair, so when you pull the color through it doesn’t absorb as rapidly,” she notes.


Post-color, wait at least two days before you shampoo — a good cadence for maintaining color long-term anyway. If you wash sooner than that, says Wallace, still-vulnerable dye molecules are likely to slip out, making fade an inevitable reality.

When you do ultimately wash your hair, you’ll need to be judicious about the formulas you use. It may sound obvious, but it bears repeating: You need shampoos and conditioners designed specifically for color-treated hair. This includes sulfate-free shampoos designed to gently cleanse and not strip, conditioners blended with special antioxidant filters to curb fading and brass, and overall more moisture-rich concoctions, as Wallace notes that “any hair coloring process tends to leave hair drier and more fragile.”

This last part is why treatments are so crucial. Friedman frequently sends clients home with Olaplex No. 3 Hair Perfector. The pre-shampoo mask restores strands’ bonds, which break during the coloring process and can lead to a dull, raggedy quality in hair (not exactly an ideal canvas for beautiful color).

Beyond simply repairing damage, though, treatments are also a great way to correct tone. To bring down brassiness, Friedman says to use a purple-toned conditioner. To counteract fading, go with a color-depositing treatment that matches your shade. For this, both Friedman and Thompson recommend Christophe Robin’s Shade Variation Care masks, which come in five tones to troubleshoot virtually any gone-astray color — all while giving hair intense moisture via buriti oil and almond butter.

All of this work will have been for naught, though, if you partake in the triple threat of sun, salt, and chlorine, which is bound to beckon come summer. Even just one of those, says Thompson, can wreck your color. Most of us aren’t exactly spending a lot of time outdoors these days, but when you do venture beyond your doorstep, give your strands a generous application of a protective treatment like the Leonor Greyl Pre Shampoo Oil. It adds instant lustre and shields strands from color-fading environmental damage, care of antioxidant-dense botanicals.