Hair Toner & Color

Hair colors
Q: I studied cosmetology five years ago and I continue to do hair outside of my home with family and friends and my cup of tea is cutting. Nowadays everyone wants highlights in their hair, and I have a hard time just keeping them even throughout the strands.
When I get it done in the salon, I notice that the stylist will lift my color (being that I have almost naturally black hair) and then she'll wash out the bleach or whatever she uses to lift, and then puts in the color while my hair is still wet. My question is: Is she using a "toner", and if so, what’s the difference between a toner and just color?
Now the 2nd part of my question. Usually when I am going to highlight someone's hair, I have them pick up the color they want for themselves because I don't want to be responsible for ever putting a color in their hair they did not want. So, should I be telling them when they pick out a color or if its a toner that it should read "deposit only"? I want to add that I am a Hispanic and the majority of hair I do is on Hispanic women with very dark hair.
Thanks in advance for your expertise in this matter.

A: What the stylist is doing when you go to the salon for highlights is called a ‘two-process color’. When you are dealing with very dark shades of hair – especially among individuals of Latin, Asian, Middle Eastern and African descent – it is necessary to pre-lighten the hair in order to get a good color result. This is especially true if the desired color is more than just a shade or two lighter than the natural color.
The second stage of the ‘two-process color service’ is the “toner stage’. This just means that the stylist will then apply a color to give the pre-lightened hair the desired shade. You can use most any permanent color formulation in the toner stage as long as it is the desired color.
There ARE color products that are called “toners” which are deposit-only colors and are designed to be translucent to allow the natural variation of the hair’s natural color to come through. Of course, there are color formulas that aren’t listed as “toners” that are also translucent formulas for the same reason. The multiple uses of terms like “toner” are one of the more confusing aspects of what we do. So, in short, almost any hair color can be a toner if it is used in a two-process color service to give the final color result, these may or may not be considered “toners” based on their formulation.
There are specific toner formulas designed to create a gentle shift in color results, such as adding a strawberry blonde tint to naturally blonde hair or an auburn tone to a neutral brown shade, or to shift the color from a brassy shade to something more natural. These products may be used during the “toner stage” of a “two-process” color service.
For your second question, the answer depends on how light the highlights are meant to be compared to the natural or starting color. If the highlights are simply meant to be subtle, such as a medium blonde with highlighting that’s a couple of shades lighter, you can use a single-process color service with a lifting action color formula to get the desired results.
However, in any color service where you are going to be pre-lightening the hair, you can usually use a deposit-only color to apply the color for the result that is desired. While I will agree that the ultimate choice should be the client’s choice, there is something to be said for helping the client make the choice about the hair color to buy for application.
You are generally better qualified to determine whether the desired results can be achieved with a single-process, high-lift color application, or whether there needs to be a pre-lightening and toning for a two-process color service (in which case, a deposit-only color would be acceptable).
Photo: Africa Studio/Shutterstock
See also:
How to color hair
How long does it take for a toner to wash out?