Rainbow Hair Dye: A Complete Guide

There's more on the shelf than Manic Panic, people.
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There's more on the shelf than Manic Panic, people.
Model Irene Kim. Photo: Astrid Stalwarz/Getty

Model Irene Kim. Photo: Astrid Stalwarz/Getty

If I had a dollar for every time someone asked me what hair dye I use to get my candy-colored hair, I would have enough money to go to Sally Hershberger every six weeks for a touch-up by a professional colorist. (I WOULD LOVE THAT.) As it stands, I dye my hair at home, and I’ve grown used to seeing the shower tiles splattered every color of the rainbow. After about six years of doing this, I’ve tried pretty much every hair dye brand out there.

The author. Photos: Arabelle Sicardi

The author. Photos: Arabelle Sicardi

And the best one isn’t necessarily the one with the most hype. While Manic Panic is the hair color of choice for a whole gang of dyed-hair dream girls, there are other lesser-known brands out there. I know exactly which brands are worth the trouble, and which ones you should skip on your next trip to Ricky’s. I also called up Seagull Salon owner and colorist, Shaun Surething, for his suggestions, too. Here’s what you need to know before you contemplate a unicorn mane:

Manic Panic Semi-Permanent Hair Color Cream, Sally Beauty Supply, $10.49

Photo: Manic Panic

Photo: Manic Panic

The good: non-committal hair color, easily purchased, plenty of colors. This is actually used in plenty of salons – including the best of the best -- and you will be happy with it if you seek a quick change you can wash out in a few days. But you’ll need to touch up your color after three washes, and one tub will not be enough if you’re doing more than a dip dye. Plus, it’s actually one of the most expensive options considering how fast you’ll go through a tub. A local beauty supply store will have off-brand hair color options that last way longer than Manic Panic for ultimately half the price.

Special Effects SFX Hair Color Dye, Funkyshop, $11.99

Photo: Special Effects

Photo: Special Effects

This hair dye is the best out there if you don’t want to be wed to your color for forever, but don’t want to have to touch it up every other week. It’s a thick cream consistency and some colors are even glow-in-the-dark, if you’re into that. It will last not for weeks, but months, and it’s the hair dye of choice for every rainbow-head I’ve ever met. It is so popular, in fact, that there was an international shortage and backorder on most of the colors for more than six months. If you heard a loud sound in the distance a few months ago, it was probably the cumulative screams of every purple hair girl in the world who ran out of her supply.

Directions Colour Semi-Permanent Hair Colour, Amazon, $10.59

Photo: Lafiche

Photo: Lafiche

When my own supply of SFX ran out, I turned to Directions to get me by. The tubs are quite tiny -- smaller than Manic Panic, actually -- but it lasts through more washes. You’ll know it’s working and penetrating your hair when it emulsifies as you comb it in. The perk of Directions is that it comes in pastels whereas SFX doesn’t, so there’s no mixing required if you’re into a soft grunge agenda.

Punky Colour by Jerome Russell, Ulta, $7.99

jeromer.jpg

Punky lasts longer than Directions, much longer than Manic Panic, but not as long as Special Effects. It doesn’t come in as many colors as Directions, but it’s cheaper and more accessible since it’s sold at Ulta and other large online retailers. The tubs are on the small side, so you’ll likely need more than one tub per application. It smells exactly like grape magic markers, also. Shaun Surething personally prefers Punky over Manic Panic, as well. “The colors just seem to last longer, even though they’re basically the same thing.”

Joico Vero K-PAK Color Intensity Semi-Permanent Hair Color, Amazon, $13.84

Photo: Joico

Photo: Joico

This is a salon-exclusive brand, but you can find it online if you hunt. It’s worth the effort, since it’s the only hair color that reconstructs hair while coloring. It sounds like marketing, but after using it, I didn’t even feel the need to use a hair mask -- my hair had been conditioned while the color sat in my hair. It smells great and it doesn’t stain you or the shower. The color fades really elegantly which isn’t something I can say about every dye I’ve used. The only real downsides are that it’s hard to find and there are only six shades. Fun fact: this is what they use on set on the Hunger Games.

Adore Creative Image Hair Color, Amazon, $5.15

Photo: Creative Image

Photo: Creative Image

This is a beauty supply store brand of semi-permanent hair dye -- I don’t know any professional that uses it, but it’s in every beauty supply store I’ve ever been in. It doesn’t last as long as Special Directions, Punky or Joico, but the colors are rich and it lasts several more washes than Manic Panic at half the price. It’s a liquid dye rather than a creamy gel, so you’ll want to buy a tint brush to comb it through your hair. It’s not as conditioning as other options out there, so you may want to mix it with a hair mask if you’ve bleached your hair. I usually mix one of these with a professional color for a custom shade all my own.

Pravana ChromaSilk Vivids Creme Hair Color with Silk & Keratin Protein, Amazon, $12.74

Photo: Pravana

Photo: Pravana

This is very, very long-lasting -- it claims it is semi-permanent, but it’ll last longer than anything else you’ll try. You will not have to touch up the color other than your roots, ever, and it won’t continually stain your clothes long after your hair dries. It will, however, stain every single thing it ever touches when you’re washing it for the first time, so wear gloves and use a lot of Vaseline to protect your skin. There are ten colors in the Vivid collection and there are pastel options, too. As it is a professional brand, it is again, harder to find, but Amazon sells it so that shouldn't be a problem. This is what professionals use, and for good reason. “It lasts much longer and has way more shine than the at-home options,” says Surething. If you can find a tube yourself, it’s clearly worth trying.

Overtone Daily Conditioner and Weekly Treatment, Overtone.co, $16

Photo: Overtone

Photo: Overtone

I’ve been using this deep conditioning brand over all others for the past two months and I don’t think I’ll be going back to another brand any time soon; it’s just that good. Most importantly, it’s that good for lazy people. I don’t shampoo my hair anymore, or worry about deep conditioning treatments on top of bleaching my roots – I just use these products every time I wash my hair, and my hair has looked vibrant until the day I touch it up. It’s a line of color depositing conditioners with semi-permanent color, so it’s basically a hair mask and hair dye all in one. It’s a really lovely hair mask – I actually don’t use the daily conditioner at all (it’s not hydrating enough to me) but use the deep conditioner every time I wash my hair, and it’s been great. They have different shades and intensities so all your bases are covered. The tub of deep conditioner is gigantic, so it’ll last you several months of reapplication.