Levels. Color. Bleach. Developer. Toner. Undertones. Caps. Foil. Highlights. Lowlights. Brass.
The number of ways and number of terms associated with coloring your own hair seems almost endless, sometimes. Rather than go through the brain damage (and possible hair damage) of home coloring, most of us shell out anywhere from $100-$300 to get our hair professionally colored. And even then, sometimes, it seems like the color still isn’t quite right. For those of us who strive to go lighter in our hair color, “brass” is a familiar term. It’s that awful golden (read: orange-yellow) undertone that makes it look like we dunked our hair in copper before rinsing out the color.
I’m hoping to change that for some of you.
I started the home coloring journey roughly ten years ago, when in a fit of teenage rebellion, I decided to color my own hair the way I “wanted” it to look, despite my mother’s protests. It started off simply enough, with just some brown on the bottom to give it that “two-toned” look, but it quickly escalated to wanting black hair on the bottom and bright blonde on the top. This was the result:
Oh my gosh that brassy color on top is enough to make me shudder even now. Thankfully, I was working at Wal-Mart and I guess they didn’t care what color my hair was. The picture makes it look gold, but in all honesty, it was nearly yellow, and not the pretty kind, clearly. (And what was up with my style in general? That eyeliner, omg.)
This was ages before I learned to mix my own color: I was buying Revlon box color from Wal-Mart.
After that, my friends, seeing the bottom layer of my hair and loving the color, somehow managed to convince me that I could pull off black all over. The fact that I don’t have a single picture of that color will tell you just how much I liked it. I ran to Wal-Mart that day to buy a self-strip kit.
Lesson number one for coloring your own hair: stripping it is NEVER the answer.
It left my hair a nasty orange that could have been compared to a pumpkin, and with the consistency of straw. My mom took me to three different salons to try to fix it, and finally one of the stylists told us that I had literally blown out every strand of my hair and the only way to even somewhat salvage it was to cut it all off. My hair was pretty short in the picture above, but my stylist decided to give me a bob in order to encourage my hair to grow a little faster. Even then, the color correction had a distinctly brassy tone to it.
My colorist lowlighted my hair to give it some color since I had blown out my hair. Still almost orange though.
Once the color had calmed, after a few washes, it was almost a strawberry blonde.
I swore I’d never color my own hair again, and for a few years, I held to that.
I did like having dark hair, just not black. Brown was more my color, so a few years later, I open another box of Revlon color and went dark.
I genuinely liked this color, but it made me look washed out. The nice thing was, when it eventually faded, I had a relatively flat dirty-blonde color to play with again.
I was still going to the salon to get my hair colored when I wanted to go lighter, but mostly because my parents would pay to send me there, rather than have me try to color my own hair.
A few years later, I wanted to go blonder. I still had mousy dirty-blonde hair, and going to the salon and shelling out a couple hundred dollars each time was just not feasible for me.
So I went to Sally’s Beauty Supply for the first time, and had the nicest girl help me in explaining how mixing my own color worked.
I bought some Wella color, some developer, and a couple other tools to do my own hair at home. At this point in my life, I had hair that was nearly waist-long, since I had developed a distaste for short haircuts after my high school bob. I mixed the color, watching eagerly as it turned weird colors, and went to work.
Despite the girl’s instruction, my hair turned another brassy yellow. I was exasperated. How did salon colorists do the magic that made color NOT brassy?
So, having learned from my past experiences, I got on the internet to do some research.
My research introduced me to “Toner”, which I had never heard of before. Basically it’s a “color wash” that helps tone down unwanted brassiness or grays in hues of violet, violet-blue, violet-gold, etc. I opted for a pretty neutral toner and ended up strawberry blonde again.
Well, at least it wasn’t orange.
It seems that “color” wasn’t what I needed to use to lighten my hair. I was terrified of the word “bleach”, since it has such a bad rap, and that it would destroy my hair and I’d get the straw-like texture I’d managed to ruin my hair with in high school.
I left it alone for awhile, but the newly opened world of color, toner, and developer piqued my curiosity and I set out to do more research.
For Halloween last year, I wanted to be Daenerys Targaryen from Game of Thrones. I had the long hair, and mostly blonde color. I had always wanted to try a platinum shade to see how I would like it, and my research on the internet had turned up some interesting, albeit unsettling results.
Color wasn’t what I needed to get lighter hair.
“You can’t put color on top of color and get something lighter” the experts kept saying, and that made sense to me. I looked through dozens of pictures and videos of platinum blonde girls who swore by bleach products and how easy it was to do at home.
So, armed with my knowledge of developers, colors, and toners, I set out to investigate the world of bleach.
I bought a PrismaLites packet of violet bleach, some developer, and some blue-violet toner, since I knew it was going to turn a weird yellow color.
Looking back now, I should have stopped there.
What a pretty color that was! But it wasn’t light enough for me. I had these beautiful highlights achieved through a cap and the toner made it the perfect pale blonde. But I wanted to be KHALEESI, and Khaleesi didn’t have any dark lowlights. She had platinum hair all over, in an almost silver color.
I can’t remember how many times I colored my hair that weekend, with a variety of bleaches, high-lift blonde dyes, and toners, but I’m sure it was not a healthy amount. I still ended up with a yellowish blonde, and finally in desperation just put white shimmery powder in my hair to make it lighter.
Even then, you can still see the yellow, and my hair no longer had that pretty depth to it from the picture before.
My mom was not happy when I came home one weekend soon after. She sent me straight back to the salon to get my hair colored again.
Nearly a year later, this week, I got a pretty haircut but didn’t have even close to the amount of money it would take for me to get it highlighted professionally. So, once again, I went down to Sally’s.
Having forgotten my one weekend of bleaching, I chose another Wella color, a toner, and some developer. I didn’t want to color all over, just the roots where my hair had grown out from it’s last highlighting appointment.
I was sorely disappointed when I pulled the cap off, blowdried my hair, and I had orange-ish roots again.
What had happened? Where did I go wrong? I did something so neutral, so minimal, what did I mess up?
I was not amused.
Even worse, the ends where my hair had been colored before were almost silvery-gray. So I had warm tones on top, and cool tones on the bottom. Not even a pretty ombre effect for my efforts.
I started to go back through the years of coloring, bleaching, toning, highlights, and suddenly it hit me.
I hadn’t used bleach.
I wanted to smack myself.
My roots were virgin hair, no color or bleach or highlighting at all. So, in my haste, I had forgotten that you can’t add color to color and have it turn out right. On top of that, I had used one of the lightest color toners that I remembered liking from my Khaleesi hair event, but I hadn’t remembered that I liked it because of how it looked on top of bleaching. Thus, the toner turned my roots orange, and my longer hair ashy.
I let it sit for a few days so the toner could mellow. I maybe washed it once, and was only slightly happier with the results after the vividness of first day color had passed.
Back to bleach it was.
I went back to Sally’s, and chose another PrismaLites bleach. I reflected on the toners for a few moments before deciding that toners had not really helped me the last few times I had used them. I opted to bleach my hair without a toner, and if I hated it, well, I could always go back and buy a toner that might help.
The trick to this was, I bought a bleach that was already toned. PrismaLites offers blue and violet bleaches. The violet one I had used last year for my Khaleesi hair and it ended up grayish-yellow after all my coloring. I examined my orange roots and opted for blue this time. It only lightened up to 5 levels, instead of 7 like the violet, and I didn’t want stripes in my hair, just some natural-looking highlights.
I went through the arduous process of pulling my hair through a cap for the second time in a week, mixed the bleach, applied it as evenly as I could to the roots of my hair, and sat down to wait.
The package said 30-40 minutes, but I chickened out around 20 because I was worried about those extra two or three levels that the bleach would lift. I showered, conditioned, and blowdried, and was significantly more pleased with the results.
The orange was toned down, the ends weren’t quite so silvery, and I had wispy light strands throughout my whole head. Is it the pretty silvery-blonde from last year? No, not quite, because I didn’t leave the bleach on as long as last year, but I don’t look like I have unintentional ombre from lack of highlighting my roots, or orange hair!
So without further ado, here are my tips for coloring your own hair (especially lighter colors):
- Learn the color wheel before you start coloring. Specifically that orange is the color opposite of blue, and yellow is the color opposite of violet. So if you have orangey-yellow hues you’re trying to change, pick colors and toners that are across from their color-wheel counterparts.
- You can’t add color on top of color and expect good results. I cannot stress this enough. YOU CANNOT ADD COLOR ON TOP OF COLOR. It doesn’t work. You ever tried to use the white crayon on top of another color? It’s not very effective and can actually muddy your color. Bleach has been given a bad rap, but used correctly, it won’t dry out your hair. I used the “high-lift” blonde dyes a few times to avoid the bleach and still got yellow/orange hair. You know what high-lift color is? Extra ammonia. Yep. The drying, destructive agent that most people also try to avoid when coloring their hair. Save yourself the trouble and go with bleach. Just watch your clock carefully and use a good, strong conditioner when you’re done. Your hair won’t fall out after one or two uses. Just don’t use them all the time (and by that I mean like every day trying to color correct!).
- Toner can be your best friend…or your worst enemy. I prefer Wella’s T18, which is palest ash blonde, but I’ve heard good things about T14 and T28. However, used wrong, they can turn your hair ashy, like it did mine, and not the good ashy blonde either! Pick toners that are close to the hair color brightness (levels, see below) that you’re going for. If you’re not going platinum, don’t use T18, go for a darker toner. Toner can lift some color too, and not in a good way. Keep your color wheel in mind, and look for violet, blue-violet, blue, etc. when deciding on the color of toner you want. They should be on the label. The beauticians in the supply store might be able to help you decide on one, but I have found they don’t always know what they’re talking about.
- Caps suck…but they’re the best way (I’ve found) to get natural highlights if you don’t know how to use foils. I don’t know how to use foil, and the finesse of using them is something I’m not quite brave enough to try on my own, especially since you have to do them fast so you don’t end up with different levels of brightness in your hair. My trick is to sit down with a mirror in front of you and a mirror behind so you can find all the holes in the cap. Use a fine-toothed comb to comb through any snarls you might pull through. It also helps you keep color off the hair you’re not dyeing. Also, invest in a good “pick.” Mines a metal one so I’m not worried about it breaking, and I can reuse it each time I highlight.
- Developers come in 10, 20, and 30 volume. It has to do with how fast and hard you want the color to lift. I always go with 20, since I’m not trying to turn my hair white or leave it a similar color. Most of the dye boxes and packets will tell you to use 20 developer and I’ve never seen a reason to not stick with this.
- Levels refer to the brightness of color you’re trying to accomplish, so when people refer to “levels” of color, it’s just shades of brightness. Black would be the darkest level, while platinum would be the lightest level. So don’t think of “levels” in terms of color like red or blonde or brown, think of levels in terms of brightness. I probably took my hair up 2 levels this week, for example. I took it down 6 or 7 levels when I dyed it brown a few years ago.
- Lastly, hair coloring is an art, AND a science. No two heads of hair are alike, and you may find that what worked for me worked terribly for you, especially since everyone has different tones in their hair. Just keep the basics of color and levels in mind, and you should find something that works for you.
Also, I don’t recommend box color. That’s never worked out well for me.
Good luck with your coloring!
Have questions I didn’t answer in this post? Ask them in the comments below and I’ll do my best to answer them from personal experience.