What's your goal?
If you're not sure what you're aiming for, consult a professional, says Marie Leppard, senior colorist at Julien Farel Restore Salon & Spa in NYC. A consultation is often free, but it's worth paying a one-time fee if it prevents you from making a mistake that requires a potentially pricey fix, says celebrity colorist Rita Hazan.

Also note: It's best to see a pro for more than a subtle change (a couple of levels lighter or darker than your current shade) or if your hair has been chemically processed.

What kind of coverage?
For a slight change or to cover a few grays, choose a formula (like Clairol Beautiful Collection Semi-Permanent Color) that coats the outer layer of the hair shaft and washes out after four to eight shampoos.

To make a tonal change or cover moderate grays, use a formula that contains low levels of an alkaline agent (like ammonia), which opens the hair cuticle and deposits pigment, is best, says Redken Haircolor consultant David Stanko. You can expect it to last for six to eight weeks. (Try Umberto U Color Italian Demi Color Kit.)

To lighten, achieve dramatic results or fully cover grays, look for a permanent dye (Garnier Olia Oil Powered Permanent Haircolor or L'Oréal Paris Superior Preference), which has higher levels of an alkaline agent, allowing color (and bleach) to penetrate the hair cortex. The result should last until your hair grows out.

What's your shade?
The most significant factor is your skin tone, says Kyle White, lead haircolorist at Oscar Blandi Salon in NYC. Not sure of yours? The veins on your wrist are a good indicator, says Procter & Gamble retail haircolor senior scientist Carin Freidag. Do they look blue? You have a cool tone. Green? You're warm. Blue-green? You're neutral. If your skin tone is cool, look for a color described as ash, chocolate, champagne or beige. If it's warm, try golden, auburn, caramel or spice. Shades called medium brown or medium blonde are neutral and flatter all skin tones.

To find what color result you'll get, check out the chart on the side or back of the box. If you don't see your current haircolor in the "before" section of the chart, that box of dye isn't for you, says Freidag.

Which formula?
A foam or a liquid (John Frieda Precision Foam Colour) is best for thick hair because it's easier to work through, says White. A cream or a gel (Revlon Luxurious ColorSilk Buttercream), which is easier to control, is better for fine hair.

The key to getting great haircolor: total saturation. So make sure you have enough dye, says Freidag. If you have fine hair that's shoulder length or shorter, you'll need one box (two if it's longer). For medium or coarse hair, buy two boxes.

How to apply?
When using a permanent formula, wait a day after your last shampoo before dyeing. The sebum on the scalp and hair shaft will help prevent irritation, says White. If you're using another type of formula, a gentle shampoo before application will remove any buildup, which may cause uneven color.

To avoid staining your skin, smooth a thin layer of vaseline along your hairline, on the tips of your ears and at the nape of your neck. Use color and developer right after mixing because the formula starts activating right away. But you don't need to rush through the application: The mixture remains active for approximately 90 minutes.

Is your goal to cover gray? Apply the dye first in the areas with the most grays; that's where the formula needs more time to penetrate, says Freidag. Put on a shower cap after applying the dye. The heat from your scalp helps open the cuticle, so the dye penetrates more deeply.

If you're lightening, start at the back—your hair is naturally lighter on the crown. Otherwise, begin in the front, the area people notice first, says White.

Watch the clock! An extra ten or 20 minutes probably won't yield dramatically different results, but the color will differ from your intended hue—possibly a shade or two lighter or darker, says Freidag.

After you rinse out the color, use the conditioner in the box—it's the best-quality conditioner there is, says Hazan.

Keeping your color fresh
Don't let your gorgeous shade fade!

  • Wait at least 48 hours after dyeing before your first shampoo.
  • Don't rough up your hair as you towel dry, which opens the cuticle, fading the color, says Marie Leppard, senior colorist at Julien Farel Restore Salon & Spa.
  • Choose a color-safe shampoo and conditioner (Garnier Whole Blends Cranberry & Argan Oil Color Care Shampoo and Conditioner).
  • Prolong the time between dye jobs with a great root touch-up, like John Frieda Root Blur, Color Wow, or Root Vanish by Kazumi (Paul Labrecque of the Paul Labrecque salons swears by it).

    Your Tool Kit
    In addition to the gloves, dye and conditioner you'll find in the box, it's also helpful to have on hand...
    Sum It Up by Pat Summitt

    Tech Support

    Make it personal with eSalon, which offers custom-blended at-home color. Once you've filled out an online questionnaire and uploaded a photo, a pro colorist develops a formula specifically for you. eSalon.com

    Madison Reed
    After you provide info about your hair, you can call or chat online with a pro who will help you pick a formula. Videos on the app guide you through the coloring process step by step in real time. madison-reed.com

    The Hotlines
    Color gone wrong? Dial the 800 number on the box. Whatever your question, the experts have likely heard it before and can help. Most are available only on weekdays until 6 or 7 P.M. ET, so schedule accordingly.

    Next Story