As someone who's been bleaching, dyeing, lowlighting, and highlighting my hair since elementary school, I have a keen interest in the topic of hair color, which, honestly, probably started from ogling my mom's own hair-coloring rituals throughout my childhood. I fondly remember trips to the drugstore where I'd help her choose a glossy box of dark-brown hair dye, and perhaps even more vividly, I remember her covering every last inch of the bathroom with a clear plastic tarp of sorts to protect the floor, countertop, and her collection of beauty products from the chocolaty dye we'd chosen.
Eventually, my mom traded her at-home process for salon jobs, and I quickly followed suit (after lots of begging and pleading), beginning my own foray into the world of unnatural hair color. Though I never attempted dyeing or bleaching my own hair at home, my friends would recruit me to administer their at-home color adventures, and I became well acquainted with the process. The results (if I do say so myself) were always surprisingly professional-looking.
Of course, being in the beauty industry and having talked to plenty of different colorists (both for my personal and professional needs), I'd always recommend seeing a reputable colorist for color jobs instead of doing the job at home if your budget and circumstances allow. That said, salon color is expensive and isn't always feasible, which makes at-home color kits a great alternative. Plus, given the current COVID-19 outbreak, we don't have the option to head into the salon even if we could. Therefore, at-home color has become a hot topic of conversation for anyone who is A) experiencing some major root regrowth or color fade or B) bored and itching to try a new look altogether.
As I mentioned earlier, at-home color kits won't necessarily reap professional-grade results, but they can be a great option for those who can't commit to regular salon visits or are trying to bridge the gap between said appointments. Before you take on the challenge yourself, however, there are some important tips and rules of thumb you should definitely beware of, so I consulted celebrity colorist Cassondra Kaeding to get all of her thoughts, feelings, and recommendations in terms of at-home color. Keep scrolling for a quick course on the topic, plus some of our top color kit recommendations if you do decide to take the plunge!
How long should you wait to touch up your color at home?
In other words, how gnarly should you let your roots get before touching them up yourself? This was the first question I peppered Kaeding with, and she explained to me that this really depends on a couple of different factors: first, how fast your hair grows, and second, how comfortable you are with the look of your regrowth. In general, Kaeding says anywhere between three and six weeks following your last color session is the best time to touch things up on your own.
"If possible, I suggest purchasing a color kit from a professional colorist who can put together a color kit for you," advises Kaeding. "These kits come with step-by-step directions and pre-mixed hair color. Plus, since stylists aren't currently able to work or see clients, it's a great way to support them—a win-win for both parties!"
To keep your color looking as fresh and brilliant as possible, make sure you're also using the right products. An apple cider vinegar rinse like the below is a staple for anyone who colors their hair (either at home or at the salon) since it clarifies, enhances shine, and flushes out color-debilitating residues.
How long will at-home color typically last?
Similar to your touch-up timeline, Kaeding tells me at-home color typically lasts (or at least remains fresh-looking) for anywhere between three and six weeks. Feel free to touch up any time within that range.
"How long your at-home hair color lasts will really depend on what brand you are using," adds Kaeding. "It also depends on if you are using semi-permanent color versus permanent color. Permanent color typically lasts longer, so it just depends on what you're comfortable with in terms of commitment and upkeep."
What is the difference between a dye and gloss?
"A dye/base color can cover gray hair, can lighten the root color anywhere from one to three levels, and can help deepen or darken a color," shares Kaeding. "A gloss, on the other hand, should only be chosen if you're looking to change the tone of your hair or slightly darken the shade you have—a gloss will not lighten your hair, but it will give you some extra shine and a refreshed look which can preserve the look of your hair in-between color appointments."
What are the most common mistakes when it comes to executing at-home color?
By and large, Kaeding expresses the biggest mistake she sees with at-home hair color is simply not following the directions.
"If you are going to use an at-home color kit, make sure you follow the directions on how to mix and how to apply," she warns.
How do I choose the right dye or shade?
"I would recommend finding a colorist that is putting together at-home color kits," says Kaeding. "This is a great solution because they can custom-formulate the color for you so you don’t have to worry about picking the wrong shade and level of hair color."
However, if you'd rather go the boxed route, Kaeding still recommends seeking some counsel from a professional since many will agree to do virtual consult with you to help guide you in the right direction. This will help you choose a brand and color that best suits your hair type and color goals.
Do you recommend at-home color for complete color changes, or are these kits best for maintenance and touch-ups?
"I only recommend using color kits for touch-ups," says Kaeding. "Leave any big color changes to the salon. This is a process that even takes a professional colorist hours, so just imagine how long this will take you doing it on your own! Dramatic at-home color changes can also increase your chance of accidentally damaging your hair, so if you want to preserve the integrity and length of your strands, keep at-home coloring solely for touch-ups and root regrowth."
Will the step-by-step at-home dyeing process be the same for all hair colors or formulas?
Every at-home color kit will be different, so the steps will vary. Kaeding tells me that if you are getting a kit to cover gray hair, for instance, you will only apply the formula to your regrowth/roots (on dry hair) with a processing time that usually takes between 20 and 35 minutes. Again, this depends on the kit, so please read the directions carefully!
A gloss kit, on the other hand, will be applied to damp hair and has a shorter processing time.
What about blondes? Do you recommend bleaching at home?
Pre-quarantine, I visited 454 North (the West Hollywood salon where Kaeding is based) for her bleach and tones every eight to 10 weeks or so. I'm fairly comfortable with some regrowth, but now that it's been more than 15 weeks since my last appointment, you can imagine how tempting it is to throw in the towel and attempt the job from my bathroom. However, due to Kaeding's warnings, I'm going to try my best to embrace my roots (no matter how intense they are) and simply think of this period as a healthy break providing some much-needed rehab from my regular bleaching habit.
"I personally would not suggest blondes touch up their hair at home," Kaeding replies after I ask her, yet again, if it's a safe idea. "Bleach is a strong lightening agent, and if it's not applied correctly, you will get discoloration, and it might look a bit spotty and uneven. Plus, if you leave the bleach on too long or overlap the formula on top of previously highlighted hair, the hair will overprocess, become dry and brittle, or worst-case scenario, it might completely break off."
Unfortunately, Kaeding continues, once the hair has been overprocessed, there isn't much you can do to save your hair. (As someone who personally fell victim to an epic bleaching disaster years ago, I know how true Kaeding's words are.)
If someone is nervous to color their hair at home, what are the best alternatives?
If you follow the directions closely and consult a colorist beforehand, Kaeding says touching up your hair at home is totally safe and a great way to tide yourself over until you're able to see your colorist again. That said, if you just don't feel comfortable doing the job yourself, there are a few options for keeping your hair looking and feeling as bright and brass-free as possible.
"A great way to eliminate brass and/or keep your color fresh and vibrant-looking is to use appropriate haircare products," Kaeding tells me. "For example, use a color-treated purple shampoo, conditioner, or mask. For blondes, in particular, I recommend Redken’s Color Extend Blondage Anti-Brass Hair Mask ($29). This mask is great because it works in just five mins, and it neutralizes brassiness for a cool, brightened result."
To remove buildup (which can alter the tone of your hair), invest in a clarifying shampoo or treatment, and use it every few weeks. Plus, make sure you're using a color-safe or color-enhancing shampoo and conditioner that will help lock in and extend the integrity of your color. We have a helpful shampoo guide here, and oVertone makes tons of great formulas all designed to preserve or enhance your color.
5 More Top-Rated At-Home Color Kits:
Best for gray hair: This new at-home coloring kit formula from Revlon is clean, vegan, and promises 100% gray coverage plus long-lasting results that will keep you satisfied with your at-home color for longer.
Best for blonde hair (if you dare): Again, both Kaeding and I would recommend trying your very best to wait out a bleach job until you're able to see a trusted colorist. But if you must, try this expert lightening kit from Arctic Fox, which has everything you need for an at-home blonde adventure.
Best for red hair: Achieving the perfect shade of red hair is tricky. If you don't have access to a professional colorist who can customize your color or your normal colorist isn't making at-home kits, a brand like eSalon has a similar option thanks to its made-to-order custom hair colors, which are individually crafted by a colorist and come complete with personalized instructions.
Best for black hair: Whether you're darkening your hair to black or just preserving your natural hair color and looking to banish grays, it's important to choose a formula that will look really lush, rich, and glossy. Since black can fall flat easily, we recommend Garnier's Nutrisse Color Creme range.
Best for brunettes: John Freida makes some of the best hair color formulas in the business. For brunettes, the brand's permanent color foam is especially helpful, as it provides extra-precise, shiny results. Plus, it's less drippy than most at-home color kits.