Do you know what the most vivid memory from my adolescence is? No, not the birth of my sisters, adopting my two cats or even moving into a new house. It was in 9th grade when I decided that chunky blonde highlights were out, and poorly-applied black box dye was in.
In the 14 years that have passed since I was 14, my hair color has remained consistently in the brunette family — if we ignore the blip in judgement that was me thinking something called “cherry cola red” would neatly cover black box dye, and not just stain my roots. Although my color choices may have stayed the same, my ability to draw out the time between color appointments has definitely improved. And that’s thanks to understanding how to make a good dye job last, which came after many, many years of not really comprehending how dye works...at all. As it turns out, there are many different paths you can take to change the color of your hair, but not knowing how they work often results in blotchy color, wasted money, and worst of all, damage.
Photo by @hermon.gebre
First, let’s cover the basics: when choosing to dye your hair, you’ll have to decide between demi, semi and permanent hair dye. I was pretty confused about the difference between demi and semi specifically, but here’s a basic summary: semi-permanent dye applies color only on the surface of your hair, demi-permanent dye often uses a peroxide developer to slightly penetrate your hair shaft (making it a longer-lasting option) and permanent dye fully lifts and removes existing color, and deposits new color into your hair shaft.
So now that we know the categories, what does dye actually do to our hair? Contrary to what I believed during the Cherry Cola Incident, it’s not as simple as layering dye directly over your existing color. In order for the pigment to set permanently, the dye has to break through the cuticle, which is a kind of protective barrier. The ammonia in dye lifts the cuticle, causing it to swell, which allows the color molecules to get into the shaft. If you’re looking to go lighter than your current color, peroxide is used as an activator to first remove the existing color, which then allows you to deposit a new color on top of the newly lighter strands.
So what does this mean for your strands? Unless you’re allergic to an ingredient in the dye, coloring your hair should be a pretty straightforward process — issues only arise if you have it done too often without the proper plan for care. Over-processing your hair can result in strands that are weak, brittle and dry. Continuous color treatments can result in keratin (an internal hair protein) being fragmented into smaller and smaller pieces — and as your hair loses protein, it becomes weaker and more prone to bond breakage and delicate, weak strands. That’s why getting professional color from a stylist is so important for keeping your hair in great condition.
But trying a new color doesn’t have to mean suffering through damage. Keeping your hair healthy in between color sessions is just a matter of making sure you’re using the right products, and not going crazy with over-styling. Along with helping to extend the time between color sessions (meaning lessening the frequency that your hair has to be lifted and potentially damaged), you’ll need to make sure your strands are being properly hydrated and strengthened.
Photo by @hairbyashley.dibiaggio
Picture this: you’ve just stepped out of the salon after your next color appointment. Here are some things you need to keep in mind to ensure your hair stays healthy — and that your color doesn’t wash down the drain the next day. First, try and go without washing your hair for about 72 hours after your appointment. There’s a science behind this advice: it takes about three days for the cuticle of your hair to reseal itself after being opened as a part of the dye process. Once sealed, this traps the color molecule. If you’re shampooing before these three days are up, it increases the likelihood that your color will fade at a faster rate… and who wants that after spending money to have it done?
After your first post-color shower, rinse your hair in cool water: since hot water lifts the outer cuticle of your hair, using cool water will keep your cuticle sealed and smooth.
Generally, you should avoid washing your hair too often when you want to preserve hair color — shoutout to dry shampoo! But when you do need to wash it, choose a shampoo and conditioner that will help brighten and extend the life of your color. If, like me, you’re someone who’s scalp tends to run on the greasier side, swap in a clarifying shampoo once a week — this will help to deal with any potential build up, while still helping you stick to a “don’t wash too frequently” schedule.
But if you’re experiencing more severe damage and breakage from over-processing your hair, you’ll need a more nourishing option like a vitamin C shampoo. For the most severe damage, try to use products formulated for damaged hair to help restructure your strands, rebuilding broken bonds that can come from repeatedly coloring and processing damage.
Photo by @laceylarson
The heat vulnerability that we saw in the shower also extends to how you style your hair, too. When using styling tools, always be sure to apply a heat-protectant spray, since colored strands are more susceptible to taking in damage. Even though this is always a smart move when you need to use hot styling tools, you should try to avoid using them too often if you want to make sure your color really lasts. And when you have to go outside, make sure you have a hat or headband on, since exposure to the sun also increases the rate at which your hair color fades.
Lastly, here’s an insider tip: if you want to help revitalize your color in between appointments, that doesn’t mean running for the nearest box of dye for touch ups. Temporary pigmented shampoos and conditioners can deposit color on the surface of your hair (for a few days if left unwashed), without the potential for damage. I personally use a color conditioner for brown hair when I see my sneaky light brown roots peeking in, and even as an easy way to re-enrich the color in the time between salon appointments. The benefit of these types of products is that not only do you get to refresh your color, but you can do so without exposing your hair to anything damaging or dehydrating.
So have your hair colored confidently, without the worry of potential damage or an increased frequency of salon appointments. Just make sure you’re protecting your hair against heat damage and over-washing by using products made specifically for colored hair, and taking steps to avoid sun exposure or using heat tools too often. And if you have any other tips and tricks that have worked to extend the life of your hair color, be sure to let us know in the comments!
By Lauren Hannel, staff contributor
Cover photo by @bomanesalon