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DIY Hair Color

A former box-color critic gives dyeing her own hair a try and becomes an at-home coloring pro.

Martha Stewart Living, December 2011

When I get my hair done, I tell my colorist, Luca, to make me look five years younger and 10 pounds lighter, or 10 years younger and five pounds lighter, depending on my mood. This has been our arrangement for years, and I trust his coloring instincts implicitly. In many ways, it's Luca's skills -- not my workouts, skin care, or makeup -- that have defined the way I've looked for a decade.

The problem is, I don't have time to see him as often as I should, and I've been afraid to color my own hair during the interims. But according to Tammy Sherman, creative director at the Frederic Fekkai Salon at the Mark Hotel, in New York City, doing it yourself is the new norm. "When you can't get to the salon, an at-home kit is a good solution," she says. In fact, the same companies that develop professional color make the at-home formulas. The most recent breakthroughs are passed down to drugstore brands, and in some cases, innovations are launched in the mass market first. The dye is often ammonia-free, it's easy to apply, and many come with deep-conditioning treatments of the same caliber as those used in salons.

The more I learned, the more I realized I had been suffering unattractive roots and fading color unnecessarily. The at-home market spans the spectrum from permanent color to temporary quick fixes, each designed to put my biggest hair-coloring concerns to rest. I decided to set my doubts aside and put on the gloves.

The Concern: I Don't Know How to Pick the Right Color.

Because I trusted Luca so completely, I had lost the ability to define my own color. I knew I was in the brown family, but because my hair was a mixture of dark roots, gray strands, and faded highlights, I didn't know where to start. According to Kelly Van Gogh, a colorist in New York City, who developed her own line of at-home coloring sets, figuring out your color is a simple process of elimination. She told me to ask myself two questions: Is your hair blond, red, brown, or black? And is your color light or dark? Mine was light brown.

But that was only part of the color equation. "The reason at-home hair-color kits get a bad rap is because you need to not only know your color, but also understand and account for tone," says Kyle White, senior colorist at the Oscar Blandi Salon in New York City. Your tone is your hair's aura. In other words, it's what people perceive as your color. And while many colorists have a sixth sense (and years of training) to manage tone, most of us confuse it with our whole shade.

Hair color has three tones: warm, which indicates that it contains red or gold (think buttery blonds, chestnut browns, and auburn reds); cool, meaning it has no gold or red (this would be sandy blonds or coffee browns); and neutral, which is something in between (such as chocolate brown or beige-wheat blonds). White told me to stand in my garden and look at my hair in the sunlight to discover my tone. When I did that, I saw that it has sparks of gold undertones, so I have a warm tone. My real shade, which accounts for both color and tone, is light golden-brown. Now that I had identified where my color was in the brown family, I was ready to head to the drugstore.

The Concern: My Hair Won't Look Like the Color on the Box.

The hair-color aisle was stocked with rows of boxes featuring beautiful women with perfectly glossy hair, yet nothing seemed close to my color. Turns out, I was taking the wrong approach. Most colorists say that judging a color based on the model on the box is the No. 1 mistake women make because it's not an accurate picture of how the color will look on you. Instead, it's best to choose the shade based on the color chart on the side or back of every box (who knew a guide even existed?). I turned a few boxes around and found my current light golden-brown shade on several of the brunette and dark-blond boxes. Typically, boxes show a spectrum of three shades as a guide. The general rule for at-home hair color is to go only one or two shades away from your current shade. If your present color is not on the box, it's too many shades removed to look natural.

In addition to ignoring the model on the box, you should also become fluent in the language of hair-color marketing. Hyped-up names such as Bombshell Red, Champagne Blond, or Deep Mahogany are marketing-speak for oversaturated pigments that, in novice hands, can look artificial, says Rita Hazan, celebrity stylist and owner of the Rita Hazan Salon in New York City. Stick with natural-sounding and easy-to-visualize colors: Light Brown, Strawberry Blond, Golden Blond. If you have golden flecks (like me) and pick a color in the golden family, prepare for it to skew red. "Blond and brunette shades have an underlying red pigment, and when you add a golden color, it will bring out your underlying natural red tint," Sherman said. I was okay with adding some red dimension to my hair, so I chose Light Golden Brown by Garnier HerbaShine.

The Concern: I'll Mess It Up and Damage My Hair.

Fortunately, a lot of innovation has gone into making at-home kits klutz-proof. Permanent dyes still use ammonia to open the cuticle and allow the color to penetrate to the cortex of the hair, but many kits use less ammonia than in the past and are fortified with super-rich conditioners to offset the damage. The texture of the dyes has also been finessed into a creamy, conditioner-like consistency that won't drip or stain. And in permanent dye, the cream masks the ammonia odor. Permanent dye grows out, while semipermanent dye washes out after 7 to 10 shampoos, and demipermanent color lasts for about 28 shampoos. I went with an ammonia-free demipermanent dye.

Following the box's instructions, I added the color to the activator, shook the bottle, and got to work applying it. I began at my part and applied it in sections to my roots; then I massaged the rest through my hair to the ends. The formula smelled sweet and fruity, not like chemicals, and it didn't itch or burn. It also happily stayed put -- even on tricky areas like my low hairline and behind the ears (a spot Van Gogh says most women overlook). The color wiped easily off my skin, the sink, and the vanity.

I set the timer for 10 minutes. When it was time to rinse, the excess dye washed clean, my tub did not look like a scene from "Psycho," and the conditioning packet's heavy shea butter scent briefly transformed my bathroom into a spa. My hair felt thicker and fuller when wet, and after I blew it out, it felt as light and bouncy as it does at the salon. As Sherman had warned, the color was darker and redder. The faded blond highlights were now shimmering brown with a sprinkling of cinnamon gold, and the shine was deep and glossy. The dye had filled in the microscopic ragged edges of my damaged strands, and the deep-conditioning treatment sealed my cuticles to lock in the color. My hair was sleek and supple, and it glistened in the sun.

The Concern: I Won't Be Able to Touch Up My Own Roots.

My at-home color impressed so many of my friends that they started asking me for help, especially my friend Erin, who had three months of growth, a last-minute party, and a booked colorist. She wasn't sure if she was ready to do a kit herself, so we worked together and touched up her patches of gray with Oscar Blandi Pronto Colore Root Touch-Up & Highlighting Pen, a temporary treatment that washes out. The pen worked like a thick mascara and blended perfectly with Erin's current color. In fact, it was so easy that Erin realized she could have done it herself. The only caveat was that, since it's temporary, the color comes off if you touch it with wet hands or get caught in the rain. If you want something that won't wash out, apply a permanent formula, such as Clairol Nice'n Easy Root Touch-Up. It comes with a brush that makes it easy to paint it on the roots, hairline, and any other place that shows gray or discoloration.

The Concern: My Hairdresser Will Know, and I'll Be Embarrassed.

My welcome routine with Luca goes like this: an air kiss on both cheeks, followed by an apology or confession about how long it's been since my last appointment. Now that I had completed my own color, I felt simultaneously guilty and empowered. The idea of showing him my handiwork was scarier than doing the color in the first place, but I had to face my fear, so I showed up at the salon one day unannounced. He gave me a curious look.

"Who did your color?" he asked.

"I did," I said, feeling my cheeks flush.

"So do you want to make an appointment to change it?" he asked.

"No, I think I like it," I said. There was a pause. He looked at me, cocked his head to the side, and said with a smile, "You know, I do, too."

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