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The basics of hair color and how it works

There’s some really detailed posts coming on color, and I thought it would be helpful to break down some of the differences ahead of time so you have an easy reference to come back to if you have questions as you’re reading along with those. If you need some extra background, the basics of hair is a good place to start.

Let’s break down the basic differences between the kinds of color:


Permanent: Permanent color has the smallest molecules, allowing it to penetrate the hair shaft the furthest (with the aid of hydrogen peroxide and sometimes ammonia) and last the longest out of all of your options.

Demi permanent: has slightly bigger molecules. Still mixed with a developer or processing solution these colors won’t penetrate the hair shaft as much resulting in a color that will eventually fade out over time; typically giving you 24-48 shampoos. Not capable of providing any lift, so you’re limited to the same level you’re at or darker.

Semi permanent and direct dye: Many direct dyes are semi-permanent. They have the largest molecules and tend to sit on the outer edge of the hair strand, possibly with a little toehold inside of the cuticle, which keeps them from washing out after just one shampoo. They have the shortest life span of all the color options and are meant more for temporary color choices.

Crude but effective sketch


Gloss/glaze/toner: These are all pretty much the same thing, and are almost always a Demi permanent color. Most often the name used to describe them indicates what it’s being used for. “Gloss” tends to be an overlay of a clear or lightly pigmented color used to add shine and some depth or richness. “Glaze” commonly describes a refresh on color that isn’t permanent. Typically this is done on previously colored hair when you’re in for a permanent root touchup service. “Toner” is used when we need to correct some tones before we can get the end results we want. In most cases it’s all done with the same line with different formulas.

High-lift color: A high lift color can be thought of as a combination between lightener and permanent color. At its core it is a color so the basic rules still apply, like it can’t be used to lift previous color out. But if you want a single step option to get a few levels lighter, a high lift is often a great choice.

How lightener works: Lightener works by mixing a lifting powder or cream with developer and applying to your hair. It opens up the cuticle on the hair strand and strips the melanin of what color it has. The strength of the developer, or peroxide, is what determines how much lift is possible from the product itself; however a number of other factors determine the end results.

The hair still needs to go through all the different levels to get from where you are to where you want to be, and sometimes the lightener doesn’t have the strength to do that safely in one application. In the case of using lightener over previously applied permanent color you’re also battling through the color molecules that have been deposited in the hair strand. With permanent color, once the color molecules are in the hair they’re in the hair.

The color you’re seeing is based on how light is refracted and reflected back to you as it bounces off of an object. Lightener can lift some of the melanin and shift some of the molecules around so that more light reflects back and gives it the appearance of being a lighter color, but there are still limits. The more you add permanent color to the same areas the more molecules build up inside the hair and the harder it is for those molecules to shift around to reflect light back at you in general. When working with lightener that means that there may not be enough space inside the hair strand for the color molecules to spread out enough to give you the results that you want. In the case of repeatedly depositing color you’ll eventually end up with a dull looking finish.

In both hair strands illustrated you’ll see permanent color represented by the blue circles, and lightener represented by the green ones.

The one on the left has fewer permanent color molecules, allowing the lightener to fit inside the hair strand and move them around so you can see more light reflected back, giving the appearance of a lighter color.

The strand on the right has been packed full of permanent color, so the lightener isn’t able to move the permanent color aside and less light reflects back, giving the appearance of a darker color.


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One comment on “The basics of hair color and how it works

[…] There are going to be two parts to this one, plus a follow up at some point. This one may not be as of much interest to the general public as the article on the reds will be, but it was important to me to share all of the results that I got.If you need some refreshers at any point, be sure to check out The basics of hair and The basics of hair color, […]

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