Hair Toner 101: What You Should Know

Hair Toner 101

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For a long time, hair toner was a mystery to people outside beauty and its adjacent professions. Is a toner absolutely necessary when you’re getting your hair dyed? Why do you get charged extra when your hair needs toning? How often do you need to get your hair toned? There are a lot of questions, and the answers can be hard to find. In actuality, the answer is fairly simple. Toner is a demi- or semi-permanent hair color that is applied to hair to change the tone of the overall hair color or highlights.

Keep reading to learn more about hair toners.

Everything You Need to Know About Hair Toner

Michela Buttignol/BYRDIE

How Does Hair Toner Work?

Toner is most often used in conjunction with highlighting and bleaching services in the salon to ensure that the final results are perfect. Hairstylists use lightener (bleach) to lighten hair to a desired hair color level. Level is defined on a scale of 1 to 10: A level 1 hair color is the darkest black color hair can be, and level 10 is the lightest blonde color.

The tone of that level is defined by how much warmth (also known as brassiness) is in any hair color level. Tones can be warm (golden), cool (ashy), or neutral. When a hairstylist lightens hair to a level 8 (for example), they'll probably have to use a toner to balance out the warm, brassy tones that are naturally present in darker hair. The toner is used to tweak the tone a little to a more desirable shade.

How Is Toner Applied?

Usually, toner will be applied at the shampoo bowl after a double process service is completed. It can be applied to specific sections of the hair using foils, but generally it’s an all-over thing. Toner typically takes five to 20 minutes to process, depending on the type and application method utilized. Your hairstylist will determine if a toner is necessary (it isn't always), which type to use, and how it should be applied. Questions? Ask them. Particularly with bleaching services, if you're curious about what is going on with your hair, it's important to ask. You want to get the exact blonde you're looking for—and not to fry your hair.

Hairstylists use the color wheel to determine what tone is necessary for your toner service. They'll choose a toner that is on the opposite side of the color wheel from the tone you’re trying to get rid of. If your hair is too red, a green toner is used; if your hair is too orange, a blue toner is used; and if your hair is too yellow, a purple toner will neutralize the unwanted yellow tone. Usually, the toner will be purple, but it's best to know what you're trying to neutralize.

How Long Does Hair Toner Last?

This is particularly important because toner often lasts only an average of 4 to 8 weeks, depending on how well you take care of your hair color. Some toners do last longer, so if you’re curious, just ask your colorist.

Toner can be reapplied at the salon, if desired. During regular services, toner application usually includes an up-charge. Prices of the application vary depending on the salon and stylist. Some salons include application in their service charges, but others don't. Ask your stylist if toner is included, and what the added charges are any time you have a highlight performed.

Can You Apply Toners at Home?

Unless you understand the color wheel, color theory, or have experience using toners, you probably shouldn't be using toners at home. A small mistake can end up with overtoned hair, possibly even more damaged than you started with. A toning shampoo is different from toner but works much in the same way.

Toning shampoos also help neutralize unwanted tones. Often, bottle blondes will use a purple toning shampoo once or twice a week to keep their hair from becoming brassy. Amika's Bust Your Brass Blonde Purple Shampoo ($20) and Conditioner ($26) are incredibly effective—so are IGK's Mixed Feelings Purple Leave-In Blonde Toning Drops ($29) toning drops, which can be mixed into the products you're already using. People with red hair can utilize a red depositing toning shampoo, like this one from Davines ALCHEMIC Shampoo Red ($30), to keep red hair bright and from fading.

Ultimately, you should just talk to your hairstylist to determine which kind of toning shampoo or conditioner is recommended for your specific hair color. Don't let them necessarily upsell you on the product they stock, because some aren’t as effective as others; do your research online about the most effective thing for you.

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