At Home and Salon Hair Products

Girl with healthy long hair and hair products
Photo: Vitalii Smulskyi/Shutterstock
Q: I have medium brown hair. I started dying my hair around the age of 35 when I first started to go gray. I used store-bought L’Oreal dye and dyed my hair red. I have always had long, and extremely healthy, well-cared for hair. I never experienced any damage (none that I could see or feel anyway) from the store bought products.
About two and a half years ago I went to a "professional" salon in SoHo, New York for a color correct as I had gone to a salon and had my hair dyed professionally and didn't like the color he made it (Bozo The Clown orange). Well, I should have stuck with the “Bozo” look because this woman burned all my hair off my head! It was extremely traumatic. I lost my job because of it, even!
Well, now it is 2 1/2 yrs later and I basically look like my normal self again - thank god – but I want to dye my hair but now I'm incredibly paranoid about damage. I know nothing of hair damage because I have always taken care of my hair and always had soft, shiny, healthy, straight hair. What I went through traumatized me.
In my personal experience, store bought products seem mild and I feel it is the salons that use the harsh chemicals. What is your take on it? Are store bought products safe? Will they damage your hair? How often can you use them? After the initial dyeing do you just apply them to the roots? I'm scared of hairdressers now - are the salon chemicals really less damaging? Thank you for taking the time to read this and to answer my questions.

A: Sadly, it sounds as though you encountered two, less than experienced stylists in your efforts to use professional services. It’s entirely possible that the results you first got (the “Bozo” look) was due to an unexpected reaction because your hair has been previously treated with at-home color, but the stylist should have made sure he was aware of everything you’ve used on your hair. And he should have had the professionalism to prepare to correct his color mistakes.
The second stylist should also have been careful to pre-test the hair before doing anything to it, to prevent the damage you received. I cannot stress enough to my readers that before ANY salon chemical service (even if you’ve had it before) you should have a strand test AND patch test to make sure the hair will respond appropriately and that the chemicals won’t cause a reaction with your skin. These are the first things most stylists are taught in cosmetology schools because the emphasis is on safety. I don’t know that it is stressed as much in salons because these tests are often time consuming and for a salon business, time is money.
As for the safety of at-home products versus salon products, they each have their risks. The hair products sold for at-home use are generally milder, and are pre-measured and formulated to be safe for the widest range of hair types. This doesn’t mean that they can’t cause damage. People with very fine hair or hair that has been repeatedly color treated (specifically lightened) can become easily damaged (or more damaged) by even mild at-home chemical services.
Salon products, on the other hand, are usually stronger, but they are meant to be used by professionals who are trained in their use and licensed to be legally able to use them. There are some products available at beauty supply stores that are only purchasable by persons with a valid cosmetology license. In salons, the key factor to successful and satisfactory services is usually the skill and experience of the stylist performing the service.
Color correction is an excellent example. The methods of color correction can be learned easily, as can the basic theory, but the practice takes an eye for color balance and is much more of an “art” (as is styling the hair). Anyone can learn to do color correction, but to be really good at it takes skill and experience.
The potential damage inherent in both salon and at-home products vary. You need to be aware that you can easily damage your hair with some at-home products if you fail to use them correctly. So, always read the package instructions and try to make yourself as knowledgeable as you can before using a product. When in doubt, try to err on the side of caution or ask a professional’s advice.
Finally, try to remember some basic rules about what chemical services are most potentially harsh: color products that deposit color onto the hair without lightening the base color are generally gentler, color products that lighten the hair’s natural color are going to be harsher (the lighter they make the hair the harsher the result), and chemical services to change the wave and texture of the hair (permanent waves and straightener and relaxers) are usually harsher as well. Any of these can be performed safely with experience and proper application, but all will carry some risk given unforeseen factors.