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What is Hair Toner?



If you have color-treated hair you’ve likely heard of a hair toner: it’s an integral part of the hair coloring process and the key to maintaining your hair color at home. A hair toner can save your blonde from looking brassy and your brunette from going ashy... but what exactly is hair toner and what does it do? We’re breaking down everything you need to know about hair toner and how to use it ahead!


What is a hair toner?

Hair toner is a demi-permanent or semi-permanent deposit of pigment that doesn't damage or permanently change the color of your hair. Hair toning is often used in conjunction with color-treating for custom results. Toners can add warmth, ash, cool, or neutralize tones in the hair. The only thing hair toner can't do is lighten your hair: because it doesn't have any bleach, hair toner will only deposit color on lighter pieces. Hair toner isn't a permanent color, so any pigment usually washes out in about three to four weeks. Hair toners can also be used to add shine, increase the softness of hair, or reduce the appearance of split ends.


How is a hair toner used?

People use hair toners for many reasons, but the most popular use is to adjust or maintain the tones in their hair. Toners can also be used to add shine and make the existing hair color more vibrant. Here are some of the most common uses for hair toner:


Hair toner can be used by colorists to customize hair color

Hair toning is the most important part of the color process, since it's what allows your colorist to customize your color. As opposed to toner, bleaching your hair doesn’t color it, it takes the color out of it. Toning is when the color is added. Colorists use toner to lighten hair to a desired hair color level. The level is defined on a scale of 1 to 10: a level 1 hair color is the darkest black color hair can be, and level 10 is the lightest blonde. The tone of that level is defined by how much warmth (also known as brassiness) is in any hair color level. Tones can be warm (golden), cool (ashy), or neutral. So your final color comes from the toning process. Usually, a toner will be applied at the shampoo bowl after the lightening process. It can be applied to specific sections of the hair using foils or all over the hair. Hair toner typically takes five to twenty minutes to process, depending on the type and application.


Hair toner can be used for at-home color maintenance

Your hair color oxidizes and changes over time. On blonde hair specifically, lightened hair tends to turn a brassy shade of yellow. That’s why colorists often recommend blondes maintain their color at home by rotating with a purple shampoo or another shampoo for color-treated hair. Alternatively, brunettes and redheads can find that their lightened strands turn ashy and can use a brown or a red shampoo to maintain their hair color. 


Davines Alchemic pigmented shampoo

photo by @goldandglowco


What results can you expect from using a hair toner?

There’s no universal result when it comes to hair toner. Toners can be used all over the hair or in certain places for different effects. Cool tones include ash, platinum, and champagne and warm tones include gold, bronze, and copper. Pastel shades of pinks, purples, greens, and blues can also be achieved with a hair toner.


What are the types of hair toner?

In-salon hair toner

A salon toning service allows the colorist to personalize your color. By making it warmer or cooler in tone, and correcting unwanted shades. It is also possible to add a bright pop of color without lifting the shade. It also ensures the colorist gets an even color from root to tip. 


At home toning products 

You can find toner in hair products like purple shampoo, to help maintain hair color between salon sessions. A salon toner is more pigmented and the results will last longer than an at-home toning product.


Davines slaon photo chair

photo by @ashandoaksalon

How does hair toner work? 

To understand how hair toner works, it’s important to have an understanding of the color wheel. The color wheel is a spectrum that shows the relationships between primary colors, secondary colors, and tertiary colors. The color wheel consists of 12 basic hues. On the color wheel, each primary color is always opposite the color obtained mixing the other two primary colors. So red is always opposite to green, yellow to violet, and blue to orange. The hues that are direct opposites on the color wheel are called complementary colors. Using complementary colors on the hair helps to cancel the other out. For example, if your hair is too red, a green toner is used; if your hair is too orange, a blue toner is used; and if your hair is too yellow, a purple toner will neutralize the unwanted yellow tone.


What are some benefits of using hair toner?

No matter your hair color or type, everyone can benefit from adding a hair toner to their essential haircare routine. Toners are a great multi-use hair product, so even if you don’t color your hair, you can benefit from using a hair toner. Besides adding pigment, toning your hair refreshes and enhances its shade, adds dimension to your color, and brightens fading. Hair toners and glosses also strengthen hair by creating a protective barrier around the strands and balance porosity by filling in the hair shaft. Finally, toners add volume and shine to the hair by plumping and sealing the hair cuticle to make it fuller. Think of a hair toner as a lip gloss for the hair. A hair toner will leave you with the shiniest, healthiest hair possible.

How to use a hair toner at home

The most common at-home hair toner is a color-depositing shampoo. These toners deposit temporary color with every wash. Unlike regular shampoo, the main purpose of a color depositing shampoo is to replenish your color and prevent fading. The pigments within the formula replenish the color that washes away during shampooing. Wondering to yourself: how often should I wash my hair with a color depositing shampoo? You can use it for every wash or alternate it with your regular shampoo. If your hair is oily, use your regular shampoo to cleanse it first. The color will look fresh as long as you use color depositing shampoo regularly. The color will continue to fade if you start to wash your hair with a regular shampoo. It will wash out a little each time you use regular shampoo before it completely fades away. There are also glosses, color-depositing conditioners, and hair masks spiked with pigments to help deepen your color. But since these only deposit color on the hair shaft, the hair needs to be lightened and porous enough to grab the pigments. These products don’t work well on untreated low-porosity hair. It’s important to note that these types of products will usually temporarily stain your hands, fingernails, and light-colored towels, so consider wearing gloves and use dark-colored towels. If you don’t wear gloves, thoroughly wash your hands with soap as soon as you finish the application. 

Final thoughts on hair toner

If you have color-treated hair you’re probably familiar with hair toner. It’s an important part of the coloring process and the key to keeping your hair color from fading. It’s also a non-committal way to experiment with hair color trends and an amazing boost of shine and hydration. A hair toner can save your blonde from looking brassy and your brunette from looking ashy. It also boosts shine and the overall condition of your hair. If you’re not already using a toner, it’s time to add one to your routine. Take our advice and control ash and brassiness and keep hair looking healthy with a hair toner.


by Jaclyn LaBadia, featured contributor


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1 Comment

1 Response

Julie L Speer
Julie L Speer

March 17, 2021

I have naturally dark blonde and gray hair color, highlighted light platinum blonde. My water tends to make my highlights yellowish. Have tried the Alchemic and all I am getting is a tinge of green on my highlights.. I believe the alchemic is too blue instead of a purple. Hoping this information helps in creating new solutions.

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