A few months ago, I experienced sticker shock at the $100 charge to have my “natural” auburn hair color applied at a salon. (The cost ranges $50 to $150 or more nationwide, and most women who dye their hair have to do so every four to six weeks.) I started to think, “Could I do this at home?” After all, my good friend, Sally Altberger, a property manager here in Denver, has colored her hair at home for 15 years and you would never know. As she says, “Why pay a salon colorist, when I can do it myself for $10?” — a savings of almost $500 annually.
Radio, TV and magazine ads insist that you can color your hair yourself with professional results. But is it that easy to grab a box off some store shelf and truly get the pictured hair color? More important: Is it something you should do?
First, let’s address the December study from the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) that indicated that women who use permanent hair dye and chemical hair straighteners have a higher risk of developing breast cancer than those who do not. The study, which followed more than 46,000 women, each of whom had a sister with breast cancer, found a more pronounced risk for African American women. Using permanent dyes regularly was associated with a 60 percent increased risk of breast cancer among African American women, compared with an 8 percent increased risk for white women. The study also suggested that the cancer risk increased with more frequent use of chemical hair products.
While the results are worrisome, the study’s authors and other experts caution that more research is necessary. “A lot of things can influence breast cancer — your genetic history, environmental factors, alcohol — so it’s hard to know the actual cause,” said study co-author Alexandra White, head of the NIEHS Environment and Cancer Epidemiology Group. “The risk for white women is small. More concerning are the numbers for black women, and we do take them seriously, but more studies are needed.”
White points out that the study showed no higher risk for semi-permanent or temporary dye. She said that women who may fall into a high-risk category or are just cautious may want to stick to semi-permanent dye, which, depending on how often you shampoo, lasts about a month, or temporary color, which lasts a week or two, be it at home or a salon.
That brings us back to the question of whether those who decide to use hair products can get the same results at home. Not surprisingly, the answer depends on whom you ask. Licensed cosmetologist Mindy Green of Silver Spring, Md., says mixing and applying hair color is chemistry and that you can’t just decide to be a chemist without proper training. “You have to know your hair’s porosity, starting level, contributing pigment, undertone, what developer to use, how long to process it and, even then, you may need to use a toner to get the color you really want,” she says. “I’ve seen so many clients pay hundreds of dollars for a color correction because they did it themselves or they had one of their YouTube-trained friends help them.”
On the other hand, brands such as Madison Reed, which delivers hair color to your home at $26.50 a box, assert that if you follow the directions and don’t try anything too radical, you can easily color your hair for a fraction of the cost. Most name-brand store-bought — Clairol, Garnier and L’Oreal — costs $10 or less, and you often find manufacturer’s coupons to save even more. “The key is to be realistic versus aspirational in your expectations,” says Shvonne Perkins, director of training for Madison Reed.
If you are going to have an issue caused by hair dye, it’s more likely to be skin irritation or an allergic reaction, adds Erum Ilyas, a dermatologist in King of Prussia, Pa., who has colored her own hair at home for 20 years. She tells her patients that box color is perfectly OK, cost effective and just as “safe” as a salon to get the color you want, as long as you follow the directions.
Ready to dive into coloring your hair at home? Here are some tips.
Determine your natural color
“The key to success in choosing hair color is to know what your natural hair color is, not when you were a kid, but what is growing out today,” Perkins says. Pull a piece taut and look at that root color. Whatever the shade, that’s your starting point.
Stay within a reasonable range
If you plan to shift more than two shades (lighter or darker) of your current hair color, leave it to the pros. Trying to go from black to blonde or vice versa doesn’t happen in one application. Green says it may take several sessions to get to the color you desire.
Take care in choosing your color
Grab a few boxes and find a spot with natural light, such as by a window, to accurately see both your own true shade and what’s on the box, suggests David Ross, vice president of product innovation for Madison Reed. Check the box for pictures showing what the color will look like when applied to various shades. “Some products are specifically developed for greater gray coverage, so take note if that’s your goal,” he says. Some companies have online tools that allow you to “try on” shades.
Read the ingredients
Chemicals in both salon and at-home hair dye can cause everything from mild irritation and itchy scalp to painful blisters, Ilyas says. You may want to avoid ingredients such as paraphenylenediamine (PPD), which is commonly used in dark shades of permanent color; peroxide, which works as a bleach to remove preexisting color; and ammonia, which swells the hair follicle to help dye penetrate the cuticle.
Buy enough for the job
Consumers with thick or dense hair should buy two kits. You don’t want to get three-fourths of the way through and run out. If you don’t use the second box, save it for another application or touch-ups.
Pretest for skin reactions
Mix the color and developer and put a dab about the size of a dime on your forearm. Check the spot over a week’s time, Ilyas advises. Even if it isn’t itchy, feel the area for a welt, which could indicate sensitivity. If you do have a reaction, you may find it worth the cost to get a quick patch test for PPD sensitivity at your doctor’s office. Often another chemical, not PPD, is the culprit. In that case, you may just need to change brands. For those sensitive to peroxide, one option is to decrease the time that the dye remains on your hair, but to color it more frequently.
Protect your workspace and clothing
Altberger covers her sink, counters and even floor with old towels. You can also use plastic wrap or trash bags to protect surfaces from drips and stains. You don’t want to save time and money coloring at home, only to spend time scrubbing up spills, or worse, spending big bucks to replace stained flooring. Wear a plastic smock or old button-down shirt so you don’t have to pull clothes over your head before you shower to wash out the dye.
Manufacturers have calculated the time needed for maximum coverage. If the recommended time before washing the dye out is 30 minutes, give it the full time, but no longer. Also, the color in the bottle is not the final color your hair will be. Don’t freak and wash it out early if it looks green or pink or purple. Trust the process.
As for me, after an unfortunate home dye job left me looking more traffic-cone orange than my usual copper shade, I’ve decided that a monthly visit to a colorist is worth it … even if my wallet disagrees.