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When it comes to hair color, it’s often been thought that people fall into one of two camps. Some hit the salon for professional (and often timely and pricey) color application. Or, you choose to take the DIY route and pick up a box of (inexpensive though often inferior) color at the drugstore. But did you know that there’s a whole world of options that fall in between the two? Enter professional hair color.
Because you’re dealing with a professional-grade product, the results are generally going to be of much higher quality than the usual, over-the-counter stuff. The big caveat, of course, is that you definitely should be well-versed in DIY coloring. “While I don’t typically recommend DIY color, I did give the okay to my clients,” says Felicia Dosso, colorist at Nunzio Saviano in New York. “No one wants to have to grow out their roots for months at a time (especially when they’re on Zoom meetings!), and I completely understand that,” Dosso adds that it’s best to skip any major color changes at home. A tip is to choose the right color level and the right coverage strength to help avoid a big "oopsie" that only a trip to a professional can fix. Also, know that if you've got extra-long lengths of hair, you may need more than one box of dye, depending on whether you've got mid-back or Rapunzel lengths. Got some (or a lot of) grays? Those can definitely be more difficult to cover in general, and looking for a reliably gray-covering permanent dye will be your best bet.
That being said, if you’ve perfected a killer self-coloring technique, check out the best professional hair color brands.
Best Overall: Madison Reed Radiant Hair Color Kit
Type: Permanent | Active Ingredients: Hydrogen peroxide | Shades: 37 | Cruelty-Free: Yes | Byrdie Clean: No
“The only at-home hair color I would recommend for use when in a pinch is Madison Reed,” says Dosso. “Their products are more gentle than most boxed colors, being free of harsh ingredients like ammonia, parabens, and titanium dioxide.” Dosso adds that this permanent hair color is also cruelty-free and has nourishing agents like keratin and argan oil. To find your shade match, answer a few questions about your hair type, texture, and intended results.
Best Color-Enhancing: Elgon Moda & Styling Hair Color
Type: Permanent | Shades: 75-87 | Size: 4.2 oz. | Cruelty-Free: Yes
This Italian brand (all the products are still made there) has two unique characteristics. One, it uses 50% ammonia than other products, making it both gentler on strands and reducing the unpleasant smell, always a win in our book. Two, the dye molecules are 50% smaller than others. Why is that important? Because the smaller the molecule, the less likely it is to “slip” out of the hair shaft and the longer your color will last. Plus, the tube also contains more product than other color lines, giving you some serious bang for your buck.
Best Ammonia-Free: Goldwell Nectaya Nurturing Hair Color
Type: Permanent | Shades: 38 | Size: 2 oz. | Cruelty-Free: No
Completely ammonia-free, this permanent color formula took over six years to develop and has seven different patents pending. Namely, a unique technology that delivers lipids (read: fats essential for strength and shine) back into the hair. The addition of argan oil makes it extra conditioning, and it not only covers grays completely but can also lift your base up to three levels. A natural fragrance rounds out the list of noteworthy benefits.
Best Demi-Permanent: Joico LumiShine DD Dimensional Deposit Demi-Permanent Crème Color
Type: Demi-permanent | Shades: 20 | Size: 2.5 oz. | Cruelty-Free: No
No matter whether you want to cover or blend in a few grays, add a touch of lowlights, revive faded hues, or balance out an ombré look, this cream gets the job done. There are 20 shades to choose from, all of which contain a strengthening amino-acid technology to keep your strands healthy. It lasts for up to 30 shampoos, not to mention has the distinction of actually smelling good, thanks to a fragrance that’s a mix of citrusy mandarin, floral jasmine, and woody sandalwood.
Best Semi-Permanent: L’Oréal Professionnel Semi-Permanent Dia Richesse
Type: Semi-permanent | Shades: 73 | Size: 1.7 oz. | Cruelty-Free: No
If you’re looking for a more subtle end result, or just a little something-something that will enhance your natural hue, this is for you. The tone-on-tone processing is minimal yet effective, though it can also lighten ever so slightly. It lasts up to six weeks, and because it’s ammonia-free, it is completely odorless, too.
Best Vegan: Matrix Biolage Plant-Based Hair Color
Type: Semi-permanent | Shades: 20 | Size: 3.5 oz. | Cruelty-Free: No | Byrdie Clean: Yes
There’s really no way around it; traditional hair colors are by nature loaded with all kinds of chemicals. But this alternative contains only 10 ingredients or less in every shade; it’s also vegan and 82 to 100% plant-based. It lasts for up to 20 washes, strengthens your strands, and adds mega-watt shine. Also nice: There’s no developer needed, you just have to add hot water.
Best Bold Shades: Pravana ChromaSilk VIVIDS Everlasting
Type: Demi-permanent | Shades: 135+ | Size: 3 oz. | Cruelty-Free: Yes | Byrdie Clean: No
For super fashion-forward shades (think deep violet or a scarlet red), reach for this option. There are seven dramatic choices to choose from, no basic blonde or brunette here. And while they’re great used alone, they can also be mixed with Pravana’s other ChromaSilk colors for those who want to branch outside the box, without getting too bold.
Best Fast-Acting: Redken Shades EQ Demi-Permanent Hair Gloss
Type: Demi-permanent | Active Ingredients: Isopropyl alcohol | Shades: 108 | Size: 2 oz. | Cruelty-Free: No | Byrdie Clean: No
This demi-permanent goes to work in just 20 minutes, both delivering color but also adding plenty of shine (credit an acidic, ammonia-free formula that’s ultra-gentle). You can definitely use it on its own, but it’s also the perfect choice to pair with highlights as a toner or to help refresh—or even correct—existing color.
Best Natural Shades: Rusk Deepshine Conditioning Cream Color
Type: Permanent | Active Ingredients: Ascorbic acid | Shades: 80 | Size: 3.4 oz. | Cruelty-Free: No | Byrdie Clean: No
Besides the fact that the color molecules penetrate deeper, this also touts ingredients that even out the porosity of your hair. That, in turn, means it absorbs the color completely evenly, which in turn makes for gorgeous, natural-looking shades. Those shades also have serious staying power and are great for covering gray, too.
Best Permanent: Schwarzkopf IGORA ROYAL Permanent Color Creme
Type: Permanent | Active Ingredients: Potassium hydroxide, titanium dioxide | Shades: 46 | Size: 2.1 oz. | Cruelty-Free: No | Byrdie Clean: Yes
For complete gray coverage, you want to go with permanent color, like this one. The one downside? Permanent colors can often come across as flat and muted. Happily, that’s not the case here. Despite the fact that it fully and completely camos silver strands, it still delivers multidimensional, natural-looking color.
Best Shade Range: Wella Professionals Koleston Perfect Hair Color Cream
Type: Permanent | Active Ingredients: Sodium lauryl sulfate | Shades: 61 | Size: 2 oz. | Cruelty-Free: No | Byrdie Clean: Yes
As the saying goes, variety is the spice of life, and when you’re looking for hair color variety, this option can’t be beaten; there are over 60 shades of the permanent formula to choose from. Amazon reviewers rave about how natural and shiny those shades turn out, and it also has an avocado conditioner built-in to help nourish your strands. Also nice: It’s dermatologist-tested, a boon for those with an easily-irritated scalp or skin.
Dosso recommends caution when using professional hair dye at home. However, she notes coloring your hair at home can be a good option, especially now, for small changes like hiding your roots. Madison Reed Permanent Hair Color is a favorite of pro colorists, including Dosso, because the formula is free of harmful, damaging chemicals. Plus, the online quiz does a good job of matching you with the most flattering shade for you. Meanwhile, Goldwell Nectaya Nurturing Hair Color, is another great option, as the formula is ammonia-free and loaded with argan oil for extra conditioning. Elgon Moda & Styling Hair Color is also gentler than many other hair dyes on the market yet still provides long-lasting results.
What to Look For in a Professional Hair Color Brand
“If you have a high percentage of gray, or want to lighten your natural hair color you must use permanent color,” explains Dosso. “Demi-permanent color will only cover a low percentage of gray—think someone who is just starting to get strands of gray that they want to cover. Semi-permanent hair color, meanwhile “should be used only for refreshing faded out ends and adding shine,” says Dosso. “It will not cover any percentage of gray hair or lift color.”
Before buying a professional hair color, ask yourself whether the color you’ve selected is the proper level for your hair—you want to make sure it’s not too dark or too light. “Too dark of a color will be hard to remove from the hair, and too light of a color can cause a 'hot root,’" says Dosso.
Look for nourishing ingredients like keratin and argan oil to ensure hair won’t be damaged during the dyeing process. There are also certain ingredients you’ll want to avoid when buying any sort of hair dye. “Check for ingredients like ammonia, metallic salts, and henna,” suggests Dosso. “These are all extremely harsh ingredients that you do not want to use on your hair—and unfortunately, most box dyes contain them.”
If you have long, thick hair, keep in mind that you might need more dye than you’d think. “One box of color may not be enough to fully saturate longer or thicker hair types,” says Dosso.
What key ingredients should someone should avoid in a professional hair color?
How do you know if permanent, demi-permanent, or semi-permanent color is right for you?
Demi-permanent color only covers a low percentage of gray (think someone who is just starting to get strands), so if you have a high percentage of gray or want to lighten your natural hair color, opt for permanent color. Semi-permanent hair color should be used only for refreshing faded-out ends and adding shine—it will not cover any percentage of gray hair or lift color.
Why Trust Byrdie
Byrdie contributor Melanie Rud has over a decade of experience in the beauty industry, writing for some of the biggest magazines and websites out there. Since she doesn’t color her own hair, she relied on expert input, lots of product reviews, and input from family and friends when writing this article.