I've been somewhat of a hair color chameleon for the past eight years of my life, going from a "naturally" sun-streaked blonde to platinum to every rainbow hue you could imagine. But, before I went bleached-blonde, I used to DIY my dye jobs — mainly to save money on account of my meager editorial assistant salary when I first landed in the city.
At the time, I was simply looking to add highlights to my dirty blonde hue or brighten it up a few stages, which was simple to do with a box in the span of a quick TV episode. Compared to a $300 plus stylist visit, a box of $5 dye couldn't really be beat — plus, I learned a lot about tones and color lifting tricks in the process.
There is certainly a time and a place for professional color (i.e. going platinum for the first time, which is why I eventually gave up my beloved box dye), but trust me, the DIY method, when done right, will award you many a trip to Barneys with the cash you saved at the salon.
So, for everyone who simply gets overwhelmed by looking at all of the options for dyes on a drugstore shelf — and then even more overwhelmed when the scientific-looking bottles come out of the box — I consulted with L'Oreal Paris Celebrity Colorist Kari Hill and Clairol Color Director James Corbett, two of the best colorists in the biz, for their tips and tricks for successfully pulling off an at-home dye job.
Choosing the Right Formula
Box dyes have progressed a lot in the last couple of years, and you no longer just have to consider a shade when shopping the drugstore shelves. Now you can buy dyes in a traditional liquid formula, but also in a foam, mousse or crème. As a helpful tip, Hill reminded us that each color formula is created for a specific purpose. If you're looking for a color to help cover up grays, a crème formula is typically a good bet; if you have 30 percent or more grays, opt for a permanent or ammonia-based color that will open up the hair cuticle and allow for more coverage. Look for L'Oreal Paris Excellence Crème ($8.99) or Clairol Age Defy ($8.99).
As for the fancier formulas like mousse or foam, both pros suggest these for specific uses. Hill says mousse is ideal for a specific per-spot touch-up as it's easier to apply to targeted areas. And for foam, Corbett suggests using it for an all-over application (from root to tip), but only for people who don't color too often, as they don't work as well for hiding obvious growth.
... and the Right Box Shade
Once you have the formula you want sorted out, you need to figure out the exact shade. Keep in mind that you shouldn't be going from jet black to platinum at home, either. Hill suggests that if you stay within a range of 1-2 shades lighter or darker than your current hair color (which is stated on the back of the box) you'll be fine – and you can follow the chart on the box to determine what your results will be. "The box is actually your best friend in this process, don't make your own rules," says Hill. Also, Corbett advises to keep in mind that the darker and more natural pigment that you have in your hair, the more "warmth" — or red and orange tones — you will have contributing or adding to your outcome shade. So, if you are looking for a cool brunette or blonde, he suggests reaching for an "ash" shade to help keep those tones in check.
If You Have Previously Dyed Hair
If you've dyed your hair once or twice before (or, well, more often than that) even if that color has faded, choosing a hair color that's lighter than what is currently on your mid-shaft or ends of your hair won't give you a lighter lift all-over, Corbett told us. Instead, it will result in "hot roots," meaning your roots are lighter and brighter than your ends. Instead, if you have lighter ends (i.e. you've been growing out ombre) pick a dye shade that is 1-2 hues away from the mid-shaft shade to avoid this.
For Making Sure You Have An Even Application
Ensuring an even application all over the head can be hard — but not impossible. Always section your hair off before you start, advises Corbett. Hill added that her number one trick was to slow down and take your time, as most coloring mistakes are made due to rushing or not reading the instructions properly. She also suggested using a small handheld mirror to see the back of your head once you've applied everything just to ensure it's all covered
Plus, Corbett suggested that if you're using a dark dye, apply Coconut Oil or Vaseline along your hair line before applying so that the dye doesn't stain the skin. But, be careful not to get the product on the hair itself or the dye won't penetrate.
And, If You Need to Fix a Post-Dye Emergency
If for some reason something has gone wrong — you've washed your hair and it seems to be a shade you don't want, or, God forbid, orange — you can of course go to a pro to get it fixed. But, Hill reminded us that if you're staying within 1-2 shades and taking your time, your margin for error is pretty low. And, Corbett said that as long as you have the instructions on hand, you can almost always handle the fix at home — if you want to give it a go, just don't panic! "Take a moment to calmly diagnose the hair color challenge. Remember, ash kills brass! So, if you have a color that turned too orange, select a dye like Clairol Natural Instincts ($6.99) in an ash shade to cancel it," Corbett told us. "If your hair is too dark, too ashy or green, you can try mixing baking soda with some clarifying shampoo and adding a squirt of lemon juice. Apply to damp hair and let sit for 5-15 minutes. Then follow this up with Clairol CC+ Colorseal Conditioner ($4.99) and let that sit on for 5-10 minutes to recondition the hair."