Box Dye for Hair: Everything Colorists Wants You to Know

woman touching hair

Stocksy / Design by Dion Mills

Home hair coloring can be a scary thing. So scary, in fact, that some people grow up being told never to touch their own hair and to always opt for a salon. However, it's a myth that doing your hair color at home is always bad or dangerous. You just have to go into the experience with a little knowledge. If you're covering some gray, or want to change your hair one to two shades up or down, or just want to change your tone, you can likely do it at home. Though, there are risks. We chatted with a few of the industry's top hair colorists to uncover what those are. Keep scrolling to learn everything there is to know about box dyes, as well as why you might want to think twice before using one.

How Box Dyes Work

Home hair color (also known as hair dye or box color) can be purchased at your local drug store, beauty supply, or discount store. It's typically fairly inexpensive ($5 to $20) and it almost always comes with instructions on how to apply the color at home. The color is usually easy to mix with little to no measuring, though, it comes with no options to alter the pigmentation. The dye itself is typically a more concentrated formulation than salon hair color because the color has to be strong enough to work on anyone's hair. This means the formula is the same, no matter how thin, thick, coarse, dark, light, highlighted, color-treated, or chemically processed your hair is at the time of application. In other words, box color doesn't discriminate. However, by not being tailored to hair type, that’s where potential risks come into play.

Risks Associated With Using Box Dyes

Mahshid Baghaei, a colorist at NYC-based mizu Louis Licari salon, says "Coloring your hair at home may seem like a good idea due to its potential cost-effectiveness, as well as not having to take a trip to the salon, but keep in mind that this process requires taking fine-grained details into consideration that may not always be recognized by a client's eye." This includes determining which product you should choose to deliver your expected results, as well as how much dye to put on and how long to let it process.

Meet the Expert

  • Mahshid Baghaei is a hair colorist at NYC-based mizu Louis Licari salon.
  • Christine Arndt is a hair colorist at Baja Studio in NYC.
  • Rob Peetoom is the founder of Dutch salon chain Rob Peetoom, which has locations all over the world, including in NYC, Bali, and Amsterdam.
  • Paul Labrecque is a celebrity hairstylist at Paul Labrecque Salon and Skincare Spa in NYC, Palm Beach, Florida, and Philadelphia.

Since non-hair professionals aren’t trained to know these things off the top of their head, Christine Arndt, a colorist at Baja Studio in NYC, says that, generally, people don’t apply enough box dye to fully saturate their hair. “The finished result is splotchy and uneven, resulting in a cheaper, very DIY look,” she says. On the opposite end of not applying enough dye, there’s the risk of applying too much and letting it process for too long, which Arndt says can end up looking way too dark, inky, and even dull, not to mention dry and damaged. As such, you have to be super mindful of how long you leave it on your hair so as to not end up with a beauty catastrophe.

And then there’s the biggest risk factor of all: Trying to go lighter or fully bleach your hair at home. Rob Peetoom, the founder of Dutch salon chain Rob Peetoom, says that going blonde usually stains hair in a totally unexpected way and often turns out dark and brassy. Arndt tacks onto this, noting that this happens because the hair's mid-shafts and ends process much slower than the roots. “So when going lighter, what ends up happening is, if it’s applied all at once, the ends come out significantly darker than the roots, creating a very odd and unnatural finish,” she explains.

When to Use a Box Dye

With all those risks in mind, you might be running for the hills—but hey, don’t totally write off the affordable hair color just yet. According to Baghaei, covering a small amount of grays (read: less than 20 to 30 percent of your hair) or matching your current hair color is typically doable. Additionally, Arndt says it’s safe to try your hand at box dye if you’re looking to go just slightly darker than your current hair color, or if you’re aiming to adjust the tone. "More specifically, it’s safe if you’re using semi/demi-permanent color at home because they fade away much more softly than permanent color and are also way less damaging as they usually deposit only and don’t alter the natural hair shaft,” she explains.

coloring hair at home
Emily Roberts / Byrdie

Just keep in mind that if you do decide to use a box dye, the color of hair on the person on the box is not the exact color that your hair will turn out. That's a photoshopped image—it's approximate. “Creating the right hair color is really chemistry, determined by what’s already on your hair and its health and unique porosity,” says celebrity hairstylist Paul Labrecque. “Your natural hair texture will also determine how evenly your strands accept and adapt to the new color.” 

Which Box Dye Is Right for You?

If you're new to coloring your hair at home, you should choose a temporary, semi-permanent, or demi-permanent color whenever possible over permanent. It's like the difference between using a Sharpie or a pencil on a white wall. Sure, you can get the sharpie off, eventually, but the process is much harder than trying to get pencil off. And if it's your first time doing this, you might want to start off in pencil.

Additionally, start thinking about the color and tone you want. Colors described as "warm", "honey", or "gold" are warm colors. Colors described as "ash" or "beige" are cool hair colors. "Natural" or "neutral" are right in the middle of warm and cool.

“Always pick one color lighter than you think you should have because most DIY-colors are darker than they seem on the package. So if you want a dark blonde shade, pick a medium blonde tint,” Peetoom suggests.

How to Use Box Dye

Home hair color can be messy. Get some old towels out (because they will likely get ruined), wear an old shirt that you don't care about, and watch for drips and spills. Hair color will stain just about anything it touches (even the semi-permanent stuff).

Purchase two boxes of color if your hair is long or very thick to ensure that you get even coverage. If you don't use the second box, you can always return it or use it next time. Read ALL of the instructions prior to using the color. Then read them again. At the end of the day, it is far better to spend an extra 10 minutes reading the box than to spend three hours having your orange hair fixed.

Once you feel ready to apply, do so generously to ensure full coverage. “Work in small sections, from the front moving to the back of the head in case you need to rinse a section off before the other areas,” Arndt instructs. “Put up two mirrors side by side so you’re able to see all angles of your head.”

When to Opt for a Pro

Professional stylists have a vast knowledge of hair color tones, levels, and how to achieve them. They learn every possible scenario that can make a great hair color, and they learn how to fix hair color that doesn't go right. "A skilled colorist will take into consideration aspects such as skin tone, eye color, hair texture, hair density, and hair porosity and can predict which color would best suit their client's needs," Baghaei says.

While hair coloring is a science, it's not exact and even the safest hair coloring can go wrong with no rhyme or reason to it. When you have 50 percent or more gray hair, get a professional color service to be sure you get equal gray coverage and that your hair doesn't take on any unwanted tones that commonly occur with gray hair. Similarly, Peetoom says that any time you want to make big changes to your hair color (like balayage, highlights, or bleaching), seek professional help instead of doing it on your own.

Lastly, never dye over already-dyed hair if you don't know what dye was used. It's not always clear how your new color will react with the old, and your hairstylist will know. 

The Final Takeaway

Sometimes, no matter how careful you are, after the color is rinsed your hair just might not turn out the way you envisioned. As a result, an $8 box of hair color can easily turn into a $150 (or more) fix in the blink of an eye. Whatever you do, do not try to fix it yourself. Call your hairstylist. Explain what happened (be brutally honest), and then let them do their job.

“Colorists spend years training in application, color theory, and overall technique,” Arndt reminds. “[Trying to color your hair yourself] isn’t as easy as imagined and you may end up spending hundreds of dollars in correcting the color, not to mention compromising the integrity of your hair in the process, when it could have been a simple process in the first place.”

Tip: If the price is the reason you're considering box dye over heading to the salon, Arndt recommends looking into a salon’s junior colorist or asking to be a model in the salon’s color apprentice program. That way you’ll be able to get your hair done professionally for a fraction of the price (or even for free if you serve as the model).

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