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What Type of Hair Color Should I be Using?

Attractive woman with long straight copper colored hair

The choice can be baffling when it comes to choosing the right hair color!

Trying to navigate the world of hair color can be as daunting as learning auto mechanics. One mistake and you’re at the mercy of an industry insider, hoping your credit card can cover the bill. Learning the basic science of hair color however, can maximize your chance for success both at the salon and at home.

Four main types of hair dyes used today (temporary, semi-permanent, demi-permanent, and permanent) are available to professionals and do-it-yourselfer. Each type has a specific chemistry, giving it certain capabilities and limitations of providing the color you want.

Attractive woman with multiple tones of cool hair colors throughout her hairTemporary Hair Dyes

Temporary hair dyes can only penetrate into the hair’s cuticle, or outer layer. The dyes are water-soluble, which means they rinse out with the first shampoo. They are applied to clean damp hair as a leave-in treatment.

Temporary hair dyes can be used daily or on special occasions and are best used for refining hair tones. For example, if your blonde hair color is too golden, you can use a light violet-based rinse to create a more neutral or platinum effect. Temporary hair dyes do not cover grey hair; however they can often be used in-between permanent color applications to blend new growth.

Temporary hair dyes are a good option for intensifying hair color and experimenting with different looks. Fire up red hair, add rich chocolate tones to brunette hair, or intensify black hair with a dark blue dye. You can even try temporary highlights with newer products that come in a mouse application

Infogarphic showing underlying hair color pigments and the color wheelSemi-Permanent Hair Dyes

Semi-permanent hair dyes penetrate into the hair’s cortex or inner structure and therefore stay on your hair longer. These dyes are typically made for shampoo-in applications with a processing time of 20-40 minutes.

Semi-permanent hair color has no ammonia or peroxide, so it does not alter natural hair pigment (no lightening). The tiny color molecules eventually wash out in about 4-12 shampoos. Because the dye is applied to the entire length of the hair, distribution of the dyes can be unpredictable. For example, resistant grey hair may only receive up to 50% coverage where as porous, over-processed hair may receive 100% coverage and then fade more rapidly.

Semi-permanent hair color is a good option for blending old highlights, achieving a darker shade, and blending grey.

Hairstyle with three toned hair colorDemi-Permanent Hair Dyes

Demi-permanent hair dyes work differently than temporary or semi-permanent dyes in that the color molecules start out small so they can penetrate into the cortex. With the help of peroxide, the small molecules bind together to form large color molecules that are trapped inside the cortex. The color lasts around 6-8 weeks depending on frequency of shampoos. Like semi-permanent color, the absence of an alkalizing agent (typically ammonia) means that the natural pigments of the hair will not be disrupted and your hair will not lighten.

Demi-permanent hair dyes are a good option for achieving a darker shade. It’s also great for coloring over-processed/damaged hair or growing out old color. For instance, if hair has been colored or highlighted and the person wants to return to their natural color, demi-permanent color can be used to cover the lighter hair without altering the new-growth.

Dimensional Hair Color

Permanent hair dyes

Permanent hair dyes works similarly to demi-permanent dye, except for the presence of an alkalizing agent. The alkalizing agent opens the cuticle and swells the cortex, leaving the hair’s natural pigment vulnerable to the peroxide. The color molecules can then bind to the natural pigment, creating a permanent change.

One misconception about permanent color is that it won’t fade. Any color deposited into the hair will eventually fade. The permanent change can then be seen as the hair is left lighter than before the color was applied. For this reason, a refresher is required every so often to keep your hair color looking its best.

Permanent hair dyes are a good option for covering grey hair or lightening hair. To create the best results, there are two important rules to keep in mind about permanent hair color: 1) it can only color natural pigment and will not work on color-treated hair and 2) it can only lighten up to four shades. This commonly creates a problem for women who have been dying their hair blonde for years. Over time, they notice that the same color doesn’t seem to make them blonde anymore. This is likely due to darkening of their natural color over time and four levels of lift are no longer enough.

Four things to keep in mind

1) If hair has been pre-lightened; semi-permanent color may act as demi-permanent or permanent color causing the pigment to stay in the hair longer.

2) Many shampoos have a high pH which acts like an alkalizing agent in the hair, thus allowing dye to bind with natural pigments. When the pigments fade, the hair will be left lighter than before color application.

3) Read home color kits carefully because the words “semi” and “demi” are often used interchangeably in marketing. Check ingredients for hydrogen peroxide (also called dioxidane and dihydrogen dioxide). Peroxide will indicate that its demi-permanent color.

4) Ammonia is just one of many alkalizing agents, so it can still be a permanent hair color if it says “ammonia-free”. Alkalizers are more difficult to identify since there are so many, but the most common are: mono-ethanolamine (MEA) and ammonium hydroxide. Also look for compatible ammonia derivatives such as alkylamine, ethylamine, triethylamine, alkanolamine, monoethanolamine, triethanolamine, or aminomethylpropanol as well as alkali metal carbonates such as sodium hydroxide and potassium hydroxide.

For more great hair color ideas check out our Pinterest Hair Coloring Ideas Board.



  1. Hi Barbara,

    Unfortunately, you can only lighten virgin hair, hair free of artificial hair color, with hair color. It sounds like you already tried coloring your hair, so hair color, regardless of the brand, will not lighten your hair.

    If you do not think products like lemon juice or Sun-In with heat will create your desired results, you have two options. A lighten and a color remover are two products that will effectively lighten artificially colored hair. These products are strong, and they can be damaging. Because of this, I would recommend going to consult with a professional. Hair colorists usually offer free consultations. During the consultation, educate the hair colorist of all the previous hair treatments that you have performed to achieve the best results.

    Thank you for reaching out!

    Comment by Michelle Skye — March 9, 2012 @ 10:09 pm

  2. I think you misunderstood my comment. My natural shade is medium to dark brown and want to lighten it. I haven’t found any home hair colors that work. My hair stays pretty much the same shade. Lemon juice won’t work since my hair is so dark. I was wondering if there was another option out there or if I was stuck going to professionals for lightening my hair.


    Comment by Barbara — March 7, 2012 @ 7:15 am

  3. Hi Barbara,

    Hair color that is too dark is a common problem. Unfortunately there is no easy solution. Hair color, even permanent ones, cannot lighten artificial hair color.

    Here are a few options that you can try:
    First, try shampooing your hair with a clarifying shampoo. This type of shampoo can work wonders at fading hair color, but the results may not be breathtaking.

    Another option is lemon juice. Check out the article Hair Highlighting with Lemon Juice for informative content and insider tips.

    The third option is with the use of a lightener or hair color remover. This option involves a complicated process that can cause extreme damage to your hair if it is not performed properly. Because of this, I recommend consulting with a professional. Are you a frugal fashionista? Beauty schools offer services at discounted rates! Find a beauty school nearby here.

    Good Luck!

    Comment by Michelle Skye — March 7, 2012 @ 12:29 am

  4. I have medium to dark brown hair and have tried home colorings to lighten it to no avail. I’ve used the ones claiming to be permanent but they just don’t work. Do you have any suggestions? Am I stuck having to go to professionals?

    Comment by Barbara — March 4, 2012 @ 8:29 am

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