The Dos and Don'ts of Dyeing Your Hair at Home

latina with pink hair in the sun

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Anyone who’s ever colored their hair can attest that the even smallest bottle of dye wields enormous power. Case in point: a vibrant, multi-dimensional new hair color can soothe all wounds, while a botched dye job…well, we don’t even want to go there.

If you’re ready for a color change and the salon isn’t an option, there is another way to go: DIY-ing your color at home. In fact, Google has released their "Year in Search" trending data for 2020 and this specific how-to made the list.

We spoke with celebrity colorist Ramsay McLean from Kim Vo Salon (a favorite spot for celebs like Kate Hudson and Dakota Fanning) and Millie Morales, Garnier consulting celebrity h airstylist, and asked for their advice for anyone who’s considering an at-home dye adventure. Turns out, there are some steadfast rules that you should follow.

Learn how to dye your hair at home like a pro with the expert-approved tips, below.

01 of 15

Keep It Simple

southeast asian woman with bun

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When it comes to at-home color, McLean recommends keeping things simple, “At-home color can be great for touching up your professional color in between appointments,” he says. Try not to go more than one or two shades lighter or darker than your natural color—anything more, and you run the risk of splotchy, uneven color that can turn brassy, plus an expensive salon bill to correct the mistakes.

As for highlights? “Any form of highlighting, balayage, or ombré becomes too challenging for at-home coloring procedures,” he says. “Those should be left to the professionals.” 

02 of 15

Don't Wash Your Hair

woman with light tones in curls


Should you wash your hair before coloring it? In short: No. The natural oils on your scalp actually serve as a protective barrier to guard against irritation from the chemicals in the hair dye. "Do not wash your hair before applying color," notes Morales. "This will irritate your scalp and can become painful. The hair should be clean of product but not of your natural oils, as it acts as a protectant."

03 of 15

Remove Buildup

If your hair is particularly dirty, however, make sure that you wash your hair at least 24 hours before reaching for the box—doing so will help the dye penetrate without being too clean and vulnerable to the effects of the dye. "Use a soft and gentle shampoo for your hair if you have any residue from other products," Morales recommends.

04 of 15

Choose the Right Shade

Brown hair with highlights


When it comes to choosing a flattering boxed color, McLean says to keep your skin tone in mind. “If you have paler skin, go for color with warmer tones,” he suggests. “If you have olive to darker skin tones, ashy or cooler tones will complement you.”

McLean says most manufacturers will include keywords like "ashy" and "warm" in their marketing, so make sure to read the box carefully.

05 of 15

Keep It Cool

Lightening your hair at home is risky because your color runs the risk of turning brassy. McLean says to follow two rules: first, your hair needs to be virgin hair—that is, it shouldn’t have any dye in it from a previous trip to the salon. Second, he recommends always choosing a color with the words “ash” or “cool” in the description. “You’re fighting red and orange undertones,” he says. “[If you do this], your results will be a more balanced color.”

06 of 15

Do the Prep Work

Mixing hair dye


When it comes to glistening, all-over color, it’s all about how you apply the dye. Instead of combing through with your fingers, which can lead to splotchy, uneven color, McLean says to use an application brush like the ones a professional colorist would use. Here’s a little secret: you can score them for less than a dollar at most beauty stores! He also recommends gloves, like Salon Care's Reusable Black Latex Gloves ($3).

07 of 15

Detangle Your Hair

Detangler Hair Brush
The Wet Brush Detangler Hair Brush $8.00

Prior to reaching for your hair dye, Morales recommends thoroughly detangling your hair. This will prevent any knots or tangles from creating an uneven application—plus, we doubt you want to worry about any detangling mid-application. Use a wide-tooth comb or Wet Brush and work your way from your ends to your roots.

08 of 15

Follow Directions

This tip may seem obvious, but it's one worth mentioning. "Read and follow the instructions carefully," says Morales. At-home hair coloring kits have been formulated to work in a specific way, so it's important to use the instructions that come with your kit for any application recommendations like timing and post-color conditioners.

09 of 15

Know the Best Formula

Hair dye texture


Long gone are the days when liquid hair dye formulas were the only option for at-home hair color. Now, mousse formulas are just as popular. What’s the difference between a liquid dye and a mousse formula, you ask? McLean says mousse colors are more translucent, leading to a shimmery, iridescent effect after being applied. Liquid colors are typically more opaque or condensed and may lead to a more pigmented final look.

10 of 15

Phone a Friend

Coloring your hair at-home can be challenging, especially if you're doing it all on your own. To make sure you get even coverage, McLean recommends having a friend to lend a hand (who you’ll need when you’re craning to make sure you didn’t miss a spot) to help with your at-home hair coloring journey.

11 of 15

Section Your Hair

When it comes to actually coloring your hair, it's a good idea to work in sections rather than trying to dye your entire head at once. "For a better coverage, make sure you section you hair properly," Morales says. The amount of sections you'll need is dependent on how much hair you're working with, but in general, create a minimum of four sections—two on the bottom half of your hair and two on the top. McLean also recommends stocking up on clips, like Fagaci Hair Clips ($13) to section off your hair.

12 of 15

Clean Your Hairline

closeup of scalp

Estradaanton / Getty Images

We'd be willing to bet that one of the last things you want is a stained hairline post-hair dye. Luckily, this is avoidable. McLean suggests applying a barrier cream at the hairline to prevent staining. Try using Vaseline's 100% Pure Petroleum Jelly ($7), which will keep any hair dye from adhering to your skin mid-application. When you're done, you can wipe away any dye—and petroleum jelly—from your skin using a cotton pad and some lukewarm water.

13 of 15

Purchase Extra Hair Dye

It's easy to think that you'll only need one box of hair dye when coloring your hair at home—after all, it is an at-home hair coloring kit. But if you have a lot of hair, Morales advises otherwise. "Buy more than one box of color—you don't want to be short on product in the middle of the process."

Even if you think you won't need a second box for your hair coloring session, having extra hair dye on-hand is great for when it comes time to touch up your roots.

14 of 15

Don't Mix in Advance

Just because you have two boxes of hair dye doesn't mean you should use them both at once. "Only prepare and mix what you are going to use," Morales says. You don't want your hair dye to go to waste if you don't end up needing it. Don't worry—the few minutes it takes to mix up that second box won't lead to an uneven color.

15 of 15

Switch to Color-Safe Hair Care Products

Pureology Hydrate Shampoo
Pureology Hydrate Shampoo $30.00

After you've mastered the above dyeing hair tips, you may be curious about post-color care. To keep your new hue looking its best and prevent premature fading, it's a good idea to swap your go-to shampoo and conditioner for a duo that's specifically formulated for color-treated hair. Try Pureology's Hydrate Shampoo and Conditioner ($32). We also recommend using Innersense Organic Beauty's Hydrating Hair Masque ($34), at least once a week to give your ends some extra love.

  • What happens if you leave on hair dye too long?

    According to Christine Arndt, a colorist at Baja Studio in New York City, leaving your at-home hair dye on too long can result in dryness and damage. Your hair could also end up looking too dark, inky, and/or dull.

  • How long until I can wash my hair after coloring?

    You'll want to wait at least 24 hours before washing your freshly-colored hair. (Some colorists recommend holding out for about three days.) "The pigments are just settling in and the cuticle of the hair shaft is still trying to return to its normal, closed state," says colorist Kathy Debski. So the longer you can wait, the more locked in your new tones will be.

  • Do you dye roots or ends first?

    Colorist Kim Vo says to "apply [dye] to the roots first and then ends," and to avoid applying the color all at once. If you're covering white hair, colorist Emily Mott advises just coloring your new growth and avoiding the ends altogether to keep things from looking "over-processed."

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