Having seen the recent proliferation of bad hair dye jobs, especially among young males, I have decided to post a few pointers on how hair coloring works.

I realize it is not part of the male culture to ask other males on how to dye your hair successfully. And, of course, the male ego makes asking females about hair coloring absolutely prohibitive. But reading a write-up on the topic is acceptable as long as no one knows. So, go ahead, read on.

The strangest thing about it is that while males would like to dye their hair in a subtle way, so it is not obvious the hair has been dyed, most invariably end up with orange hair, which screams miles away: "Look, Everyone, I dyed my hair!"

Before you dye your hair, you should ask yourself: "Why exactly do I want to dye my hair?"

I once asked a young certified nursing assistant who came to work with orange hair why he did it. His answer was: "Girls like blond hair." Very bad reason, certainly for him.

In his natural state he was a very good looking fellow. He was of French descent. His natural hair color was very dark brown, almost black. His skin was dark (for a Caucasian, the Mediterranian type). His facial features were liked chiseled from marble. Indeed, he reminded me of the Greco-Roman statues of ancient gods I saw in Rome. In fact, he went by the initials A.J., and I used to tease him it stood for Apollo Junior.

If he could just take an objective look at himself, he'd know girls were finding him attractive just as he was. Not only was he good looking, he had a very pleasant personality. Everyone liked him.

The orange hair made him look somewhat worse because it detracted from his near perfection. Indeed, the girls, whom he thought preferred blond hair, were making remarks about it and fun of him. Behind his back, of course.

So, really, please, start by asking why you want to change your hair color. Make sure it is because you want to change it, not because you think someone else would like you more.

Now, suppose he had asked that question, and decided he wanted to change his hair color. And why not? Then he should have asked the second question:

"What color should I go for?"

Every single young man with orange hair, when asked what color he used, told me: "I just chose the lightest blond I could find."

Very Big Mistake!


Let's consider just what it is that the hair dye does. In other words, how it works.

Contrary to what many believe, the hair dye does not penetrate inside your hair and replace the color inside your hair with a new color.

Hair is virtually impenetrable. Think about it: If hair were easy to penetrate, every time you wash your hair, take a shower, go for a swim, some water would get inside your hair and eventually replace the pigments inside it. Your hair would become colorless and transparent.

But that does not happen. Just look at any person with shoulder length hair. The hair ends are of the same color as the roots (at least if it is not dyed, of course). So the part of their hair they may have been wearing for two years has preserved the same color as the new growth has.

Indeed, hair dye essentially is paint. It covers your hair with a different color on the outside. And the lighter the dye the more transparent (or at least translucent) it is. Hence, the final result, which is nothing more than a visual illusion, is a visual combination of your natural hair color and the dye.

Because of this, you can always go darker. Even if you're naturally platinum blond, you can go all the way to goth, and it will work because the dark dye will completely cover up your natural color.

Alas, it does not work the other way! You can go lighter, but only about two-three shades lighter. Anything more, and you end up with a very unnaturally looking color, and most likely a good shade of orange (or brassy).

If you really want to go much lighter, you need to bleach your hair (and then dye if necessary). That is you need to strip your hair of its pigmentation. There are chemicals, such as hydrogen peroxide that will pentrate your hair and bleach it.


Because your hair is virtually impenetrable, the bleach can only work by damaging your hair. Your hair will become brittle. Is that what you want? If it is, go for it, but don't say I didn't warn you.

The third question you should ask yourself is: "Will my new hair color match my skin color?"

You may think of your skin color just in the terms of race, e.g., white. But nobody has white skin, though albinos come close. Everyone's skin, regardless of race, is brown. It's just the amount of brown that makes us appear "white", or "black", or something else. In reality we are anywhere from very light brown to very dark brown.

To make matters more complicated, there is also a variable amount of red in our skin (and hair, hence the orange result). Not just in redheads, everyone. We redheads just have more of it than the rest.

The combination of these two colors produce a large amount of skin shades. To stick with my own race (since I am more familiar with it), white people's skin can be peachy, creamy, ashy, olive-like, etc. Your hair color should match your complexion (unless you want to make a statement, or are looking for a deliberate contrast effect - but in that case, make sure it is deliberate, i.e., you know what you are doing).

The easiest way of classifying skin shades is to cold and warm. If your skin is cold, you may want to choose a cold hair color. If it is warm, you may choose a warm hair color. And if it is very warm (such as pink), you may opt for red (though, in that case, chances are you already are red, and very proud of it unless you are a child, in which case you probably hate it).

How can you tell whether a hair dye is warm or cold? Most hair dye manufacturers make four kinds of hair dye as far as temperature is concerned: Cold, neutral, warm, and red.

The colds typically, but not always, contain the word "ash" in their names, e.g., light ash blond, ash brown, and such.

The warms typically contain either "gold", or "golden", or "honey" in their names, e.g., deep golden blond, or light gold brown, or honeycomb.

The reds contain words like "red", "reddish", "auburn", and "mahogany", e.g., light reddish blond, reddish brown, etc. Though, they often use other names, such as "flame", or "sunrise", mostly for marketing purposes.

By the way, if you choose a different temperature, you may need an entirely new wardrobe and accessories. For example, if you go red and your glasses are in a silver metallic frame, you need a new frame - gold. (Trust me, I'm a redhead, silver looks awful on us.)

And the neutrals? Well, they usually have none of the above, e.g., pale blond, medium brown, and such. Occasionally but not always do they have "soft" in their names.

By the way, every single hair dye manufacturer has a toll-free (in the US anyway) line to call and consult about what color is best for you. Just call them, tell them your natural hair color, your current hair color (if you have dyed already), your skin shade, and your desired hair color. If they try to dissuade you, that's because they know what they are talking about, not because they want to lose a sale! So, listen to them.

Still unsure? Dye your pubic hair, and, if you usually wear a shirt, your armpit hair and chest hair (if you have it). You'll see the result, and will be able to hide it from everyone else if it looks bad. Once you have found the right color, go for it, and dye your hair!

A few other things to remember when embarking on a major colour change:

If you are going to bleach your hair, don't wash it for at least four days first. Longer is better. Let it get skanky and greasy. People will not sit next to you on the bus, but, your scalp will not sizzle and burn, and the chances of blistered skin are reduced.

If you have very dark hair, it will take bloody ages to bleach down. You will almost certainly look like hell when it hits that light yellow tone.

It's worth the money to get at least the first bleach job done by a decent hairdresser. It's cheaper than a wig.

If you are planning on a deliciously unnatural colour, like blue or purple, you really do have to bleach it that pale first, even if you have naturally lightish hair.

Blue toned dyes, and others with plenty of blue in them come out of your hair very fast indeed. A couple of washes and you are looking faded and bedraggled. Dyes that are heavier on pink or red will last longer. But not by that much. Strangely, yellow based colours are the most persistent. And they will not fade and disolve evenly. Of course, with bleached hair, you don't want to wash it as often as you would have done with unabused hair.

Bleached hair loves conditioner. That miracle-fix-it-all-once-a-month stuff? Use it every time. Say farewell to brittleness and split ends.

Be prepared to walk around, dazzled by how your hair colour changes in different lights. Be prepared for little old ladies to scowl at you, and shop assistants to rush over and ooh and ahh, be prepared to have very long conversations in the pub about the qualities of different brands of hair dye. (my vote is for fudge colour box purple haze. Be prepared for purple smears on white pillow cases if you go to bed with damp hair.

After about a year, be prepared to see this strange colour as your natural shade.

now read this

I apologize whizkid but I am here to set the record straight.

Dyes work in a totally different way than hair color. so let's leave the dying for Easter eggs and textiles. Permanent hair color, AKA analine derivative tint, does penetrate into the hair strand. A hair strand is commonly made up of 2, and sometimes 3 layers:

cuticle layer exterior of the hair strand, resembles shingles on a roof
cortex layer inner spongy center of the hair strand (this is where pigment is contained)
medulla spine of the hair strand, generally found in Asian, Mediterranean, and Latin hair

When a volume of developer(Hydrogen Peroxide) is mixed with an aniline derivative tint and applied to hair, the alkalinity (pH 9.8) swells the strand of hair, lifting the cuticle layer. this allows our solution to penetrate and begin its magic.

First, natural contributing pigment is affected by being destroyed, weakest to strongest. The peroxide does this thru the catalyst of the tint. Blue pigment(eumelanin) is the first to go, thereby leaving reds and yellows behind to create orange. These guys are tenacious. After lifting has occurred, the synthetic pigment molecules have room to mature inside the hair strand. You see, they had to be small enough to get inside, now they need to be trapped within. Thru oxidation, these pigment molecules grow and reveal there true nature, hopefully eradicating the natural contributing pigments that were revealed during the lifting process. 30 minutes is generally the length of time for this process to occur. After which shampooing (pH6) and conditioning (pH 4) restores the acid balance of the hair, reduces the swelling and seals the cuticle layers down.

Now, dealing with tones, please review the Color Wheel. Opposites on the wheel compliment each other. Therefore, if you have a cool(pink, blue) skin tone {which most of us do, btw}, then orange(coppers, auburns, golds) would compliment your skin by reflecting warm tones onto the skin, creating a neutralizing effect. A very nice palette to work with make-up, which should match skin tonality.

I agree with heyoka on this, please save yourself money and trauma and book a consultation with a licensed professional before doing something compulsive with an item purchased over the counter.

This has been for educational purposes only.
BTW, I am a licensed professional hair designer and color educator.

Many editorial corrections added 6/6/06.

I've dyed my hair almost every color in the rainbow at some point in the last decade. A few thoughts:

Be prepared for people to look askance if you show up at the bank with cookie monster blue hair.

As noted above, be aware of what colors do and do not look good on you. Blonde was a very bad idea for me.

It's much easier to go darker than it is to go lighter.

If you have a job where you are not the boss, you might consider floating some trial balloons if you want to avoid a very uncomfortable first day at work with the new color.

The first day at work with the new color will be uncomfortable anyway if your cow-orkers aren't particularly hip.

If you choose a shocking color, be prepared to be good natured about the ribbing you will get from friends/relatives/random strangers. If you don't want to call attention to yourself, don't. If you call attention to yourself, don't get mad when people pay attention. It may not be the attention you want, but you pays your money and you takes your chances.

I had the best luck with Jerome Russell for darks (blues, purples, greens) and Punky Colors for lighter ones (reds, oranges, yellows, pinks).

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