8 Expert-Approved Color Tips for Brown Hair

White girl with brown and blonde hair in front of a white brick background
filadendron/Getty Images

Few women are born blonde, while even fewer are natural redheads. The majority of women are born into shades of brown hair. And while your brunette locks may sometimes feel "blah," brown hair is anything but. It comes in countless natural shades, and some subtle changes can bring out your hair's natural luster. If you find your natural brown hair is more boring than beautiful, you have a ton of options that don't involve becoming a blonde or redhead.

For example, you can deepen brunette hair into a rich coffee hue. You also have the option to add a sweep of color around your face (bronde face-framing highlights, anyone?). Your colorist may even opt to add dimension to your hair via highlights and lowlights. And, if you're curious about ombré, you have the perfect color to hop on the trend wagon. All that to say, the possibilities are endless for a brunette. To help you achieve, maintain, or update your brown hair color, we turned to colorists Jaquetta Taborn and Shvonne Perkins.

Meet the Expert

Keep scrolling for our roundup of the best 8 color tips for brown hair, straight from the experts.

Use "Chocolate" as Your Color Compass

From dark espresso to light honey brown—and everything in between—you're never short on options for brown hair color. But with so many hues to decide between, where do you even begin? "Choosing the best shade/level of brown for you has everything to do with what tones you want to see," Taborn tells us. "I often use chocolate as a point of reference. I ask, 'Do you prefer dark chocolate or milk chocolate?' Dark chocolate is a 'cool' brown and milk chocolate is a 'warm' brown. Giving clients this visual has helped tremendously," she says.

Consider Your Complexion

If you're wondering why certain hair colors seem to suit you more than others, take a look at your skin's undertones. For instance, chestnut brown hair will look differently on someone with warm undertones versus cool or even neutral undertones. According to Perkins, "The more warmth you can see in the skin (freckles, pink cheeks, and lips) the more complementary warm, honey golden tones will be. If you have more olive-toned skin, cooler or ash-toned shades are also an option." Still, this is more of a guideline than a rule.

"As a professional colorist, I firmly believe a hint of warmth is the way to go on almost everyone," admits Perkins." "Most complexions actually look enhanced and more beautiful when adding a little bit of golden (more complex than yellow). Something many people don’t know is that universally, warm tones (orange and red) live under brown hair. So it’s built into your color palette. Gold tones tend to make eyes look brighter, and skin look more youthful." 

Enhance Your Color With Highlights and Lowlights

Unlike a single process dye job that aims to achieve all-over color, highlighted hair has more than one shade. "Highlights and lowlights add depth, dimension, and interest to a brunette base," says Perkins." "The point is not to change the brunette palette over to blonde but to add some visual highs and lows to bring attention to the depth and richness of the brunette base," she explains. "Adding some dimension makes the color look more complex—what we like to call 'expensive brunette.'" You can get this with either traditional foils or the popular balayage technique. Unlike the former which can look a little blocky on brunettes, the beauty in balayage (which is French for "sweeping") is that the color is painted on by hand hair so it looks more natural.

Bring Inspo to the Salon

To set expectations and avoid any hair color mishaps at the salon, trust in visuals. Bring photos of your desired hair color (FYI we've got a few) to your consultation, this way, your colorist has concrete examples of what you're looking for. Then, they can then determine the best shade(s) for you based on your skin tone, the natural color of your hair, and even your haircut.

When you're going for a dramatic change, it's often recommended to get your haircut before you get it colored. This allows your colorist to adapt the color so it's a perfect complement to your cut.

DIY Your Color

l'oreal hair color dark brown
L'Oreal Paris Excellence Triple Collection Protection Permanent Hair Color in 4 Dark Brown $9.00
Shop

As a brunette, you can try out single process color, give yourself highlights, and even touch up roots on your own. However, the main rule of thumb with at-home hair coloring is to never go more than two shades lighter than your natural shade. "Colors come in levels universally from 1-10. Level 1 being black and Level 10 being the blondest. Brown hair falls between Levels 3-7," explains Taborn. "Because we are using hair color instead of lightener or bleach, brown hair can be colored red, light brown, dark brown, or black with hair color."

So if you're on a budget or don't want to hit the salon every four weeks for touch-ups (especially if you're trying to cover up your grays), a boxed color might be your best bet. Just keep in mind that with DIY hair color, it's best to keep it simple. Layering your color or trying out a double-process can get complicated, and therefore, is best left to the pros.

Be Cautious When Going Lighter

Madison Reed Color Reviving Gloss
Madison Reed Color Reviving Gloss $30.00
Shop

Not gonna lie: We love ourselves a good hair color transformation. Going from a deep dark shade to a lighter and brighter hue can really bring the drama and create a "wow" factor—still, you should proceed with caution. "Remember that no matter what, orange and red live under all hair. So when you lighten your hair, you will pull those underlying pigments to the surface. This is why many people say, 'I pull red' or 'My hair gets brassy.' This is especially true when going from a darker natural color to a lighter artificial brunette," explains Perkins. "You’ll want to use toning products like glosses and tinted conditioners to keep the hair just warm enough to be complex, and not so orange-red that it looks brassy." She recommends Madison Reed Caffe Color Therapy Mask ($22)."

According to Taborn, "Using light brown hair color on dark brown hair will yield warm, or 'brassy' results. This is when colorists choose to add ash or violet to a formula to help balance or cancel the warmth. If a client desires to be a beautiful cool brunette, we would use my favorite Radiant Hair Color shade, Siena 6NAV. I would also recommend a Color Reviving Gloss ($30) in Espresso or Crema."

Keep it Healthy

Brigeo Don't Despair, Repair!
Brigeo Briogeo Don't Despair, Repair! Deep Conditioning Mask $38.00
Shop

The healthier your hair, the longer it will keep its color. So whether you're going to the salon or planning a DIY color job, you'll want to prep your hair for a new color. By slathering on a deep conditioning treatment like Briogeo's Don't Despair, Repair ($38) four or five days before coloring, your strands will be less porous and ready to absorb the dye more evenly. Alternatively, if you don't want to invest in any fancy product, consider conditioning your hair with extra virgin coconut oil.

The process of going from dark to light can cause more damage than if you were to go from light to dark. If your hair is brittle or super dry, reconsider getting it colored until it's healthier.

Give Hair Gloss a Try

Pureology Color Fanatic
Pureology Color Fanatic Top Coat + Tone Gloss $35.00
Shop

You've heard of gloss for your lips, how about gloss for your hair? "It’s a more translucent but tinted overlay of shine," says Perkins. "So we use glosses to either add in tones we want to see more of (like honey brunette) or use ash glosses to cancel out tones we want to see less of like using an ash brunette gloss to get rid of redness," she explains. "Glosses are great because they are easy to use at home, don’t raise the cuticle of the hair (causing damage), and do double duty providing tone and shine." Need we say more?

Related Stories