Basic Hair Coloring Information

Woman dying her own hair
Photo: Valua Vitaly/Shutterstock
For as long as civilizations have existed, women have been using various methods to change and enhance the color of their hair. In ancient times, hair dyes were made from crushed berries and plant extracts and applied to the hair as a rinse.
In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, women applied oil and powder to their hair to achieve a lighter color. Today, the color of hair one is born with bears little relation to the color one can have if they desire something else.
Modern hair coloring is a chemical process that either adds or removes pigments from the hair itself. Unlike the powders and rinses of centuries ago, today's hair color can penetrate the shaft of the hair and can take one from blonde to black and virtually any shade in between. We still have surface hair coloring products, but we also have colors that will last a few days, a few weeks, or until they grow out.
To make good choices about hair coloring, here is some basic information:
Your hair gets its color from a substance called melanin, found in the cortex of the hair shaft, between the outer layer, or cuticle, and the core, or medulla. Melanin comes in two varieties: eumelanin, which is responsible for brown and black colors, and pheomelanin, which is responsible for red and blonde shades. Hair can have either of these types of melanin, or none at all, in the case of gray hair.
When you start thinking of coloring your hair, you should first determine the "contributing pigment" of your hair. This is the underlying color of the hair. Many brunettes and blondes have the same contributing pigment, varying only in the lightness and strength of the color.
We use the term "level" to indicate the lightness or darkness of the hair. Color level is based on a ten-step scale, with 1 being black and 10 being the lightest blonde. By judging the color level of the hair, your colorist is able to choose which color shades will work best to give you the desired results, and whether they will need to pre-lighten the hair in order to achieve the look you want.
Hair color samples
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Another important term in hair coloring is "tone," which refers to the warmth or coolness of the hair color. Red, orange, and yellow are all warm tones, while blue, green, and violet are cool. Surprisingly, any of these tones can be present in hair color. By correctly judging the natural tone of the hair color, the colorist can avoid unfortunate results when coloring the hair. And while we have all heard the stories about the "friend" who tried to color their hair and ended up with green hair, no one wants to experience it first-hand.
"Intensity" is also important to consider when thinking about hair color. Intensity is the strength of a color tone. "Strawberry Blonde" and "Fire Engine" are both red tones, but I can guarantee that no one will mistake the two colors because of the difference in their intensity.
Finally, when you look at a color to apply to the hair, you have to consider the base color. Today's hair color formulas clearly show the base color on the bottle; these typically are red, red-orange, orange, gold, neutral, blue, blue-violet, and violet. The neutral, blue, blue-violet, and violet base colors are generally found in true black, ash tones, and platinum blondes.
By carefully evaluating the color of your hair before you color it, you and your colorist can achieve astonishing results in creating a natural look, or even a dazzling new one, for you. But most importantly, it can prevent you from making an unfortunate mistake in the coloring process. Once you are aware of the important factors in the color you have chosen, you can have fun with it.
See also:
More about hair coloring
Hair FAQs