Letters From Your Hairdresser

What You've Been Told About Hair Color Is Wrong

I know what you’re expecting this post to be: me railing against box color and listing out why it’s so bad for you. Well… the older I get, the more I learn that explaining “why” something is the way it is makes for much better understanding. That when you are by yourself in Ulta at 8:30pm and you’re wondering just how bad that box of Loreal could be for you, you won’t just remember that some writer on HelloGiggles said it was bad once. You’ll remember color theory and application and you will know exactly why it makes sense to wait that week for your hairdresser to get you into her salon. So…. shall we get started?

Myth #1: Lying To Your Hairdresser About Your Past With Color Is Okay

I had the most horrifying experience with a color about 6 months out of beauty school. I had a guest who wanted a gorgeous cherry-cola red color all over. She was just a couple shades lighter than where she wanted to go and had told me that she had no color on her hair except some brown near her ends that she’d done a few years ago. I thought it would be just a simple, standard color deposit. An hour later, when her long hair was a reverse ombre (much before ombre was cool) with her roots the exact color we were going for and the rest of her hair was a harsh black with absolutely no red, I had no idea what happened. She was hysterical and I was confused, so I called my manager over. Huge lesson learned as a stylist to PRY any previous color applications out of a guest. My manager could look at her hair right away and tell that her hair had been colored from a box several times with the last time being about 2 months ago based on the amount of color that turned black. My manager reasoned that my guest’s hair had been colored out of a box so many times over and over that she had absolutely no porosity to her hair, so it just soaked up the color I put on and grabbed really dark where there had been over-processed color. And her roots were so perfect because I had formulated for uncolored hair, which her roots were. It was a complete disaster and my manager wouldn’t give her a full refund back because it was largely her fault for not answering honestly when I asked about previous colors. It was only after she tried to blame me and my manager called her out that she fessed up to regular box coloring. Of course I fixed it, but a lot of time and unnecessary stress could have been saved if she would have just been honest when I asked her the first time.

Bottom line, I’m not going to judge you. I used box color for many years through high school and college when I couldn’t afford going to a hairdresser. I get it. But lying about it only messes both of us up, so it’s just not worth it. Trust me when I say that I need to know everything about your color history.. it’s not because I’m going to lecture you on using bad color. It’s truly because it affects how this color application turns out and I like to know what I’m working with to make you look the best you can!

Myth #2: Color From a Box Can Give Me Beyoncé’s Locks

I know she’s really, really convincing in the commercials, but guys, it’s just not true. The Queen herself does not put a box color on her hair… it would be orange if she did.

Every level of hair has an undertone. True black has a blue undertone, the darkest brown has an undertone of mahogany or red-violet, medium brown has a red undertone, light brown has an orange-red undertone, medium blonde has an orange undertone, light blonde has a yellow undertone, and platinum blonde hair has a pale yellow, almost white undertone. As you lighten hair (whether through permanent color or bleach), you will go through the natural undertones depending on where you want your color to be. If I put bleach on a woman’s natural dark brown hair and she wants to be a medium blonde, I have to watch that hair go through the stages of undertones until I get to the level I need. So I have to let that bleach sit on and take her hair through red, red-orange, and orange, which I can literally see as it processes. When I check someone’s foils while they are processing, I’m literally looking to see what stage their hair is at and since every person’s hair pulls more or less of that specific tone, I’m also checking to see how pigmented my complementary color I’m toning with has to be. And then, once I get to that level of undertone I want, I have to put a demi-permanent color on top of it and let that balance out the natural undertone of the hair. So, for our example client who will end up with a very orange undertone, I have to use a blue demi-permanent color to tone out the orange, but still leave her at a level 8, which is a pretty medium blonde a la Jennifer Aniston.

There is a very complicated process to lightening hair and it really can’t be done well with a box color. Beyonce’s hair is a beautiful blonde color, but in order for her to get that color, we’d have to go through the same steps as I listed out above. That kind of care, attention, and knowledge can only come from a real, certified, professional hairdresser who can formulate for exactly what you have on your head since every single person’s color history, hair texture, and desired result is different.

Myth #3: My Hairdresser Will Take Care Of It

I love to dialogue with my guests and I feel that the more information and knowledge they have, the better off we both will be. If you ask my guests why I’m using a particular foil pattern for their highlight or why they have to do a “fill” before going back to dark for the fall season, they can tell you. It’s a personal thing for all hairdressers and each person’s level of comfort is different, but I spill all my secrets because I’ve found that the more my guests know, the more they see that I know I’m doing and that makes all of us more comfortable.

Because of this, I want to give you a mini lesson on color theory. Your hairdresser won’t always take care of you. And when she let’s you walk out with bright orange, brassy highlights, I want you to be able to ask her if she tried a blue pigmented toner to cancel out the orange.

First things first: learn your complementary colors. Blue cancels out orange, violet cancels out yellow, and green cancels out red. If a guest complains to me that she hates her color because it always pulls so red, I know there are two things I can do. I can recognize that her natural level is a dark brown which will pull red (from what we learned in the previous myth), so I know where the problem is coming from and why she’s had it her whole life. And I also know that because green takes out red, when I go to give her an all over color, I will use a green-based color and it will pull a beautiful neutral tone. On other guests, it would look murky, but on her, it looks completely neutral because I know she pulls so red. And when she moves across the country two years later, she can tell her new hairdresser that her hair pulls so red that I used a green based color on her and it looked gorgeous. He can then learn from my experience with her hair and she never has to wear a too-warm tone ever again.

To move on from our earlier conversation on undertones and how lightening the hair needs to be done properly in light of that, it’s also important to consider how to go darker properly. For example, in beauty school, I dyed my hair platinum blonde. I went through all the phases of undertones and watched as my educator took me to such a light blonde over the course of three different highlights. I finally understood color! Or so I thought… a couple months into my platinum, I was already bored and over the maintenance and ready to go back to brown. So I did. I put a neutral brown right on top of my platinum and what was I left with? Muddy, murky, mouse-y brown. I looked like I’d just stuck my hair into a sink full of dirty water. I knew all about how to go lighter with my hair and how important undertones were, but I forgot to apply the same logic to going back down through the levels. I’d essentially bleached out all of my pigment and just put color with a red undertone on top without considering that I also needed to add back in orange and yellow. Ladies, this is called a “filler” and it’s essential to ask for it when your hairdresser is taking you back to brown. All it really consists of is “filling” your hair with the undertones you’ll be missing when you go back to your desired level. It’s just a demi-permanent color that sits on your hair to fill in those pigments and gets rinsed out before applying the desired color. In most salons, we call this a “double process”.

More quick tips to chat with your hairdresser about?

The fact that red color has the largest molecules, so it fades very quickly. It looks beautiful and vibrant on the first few days after you are at the salon because it’s clinging on to the cuticle for dear life. But those molecules will leave your hair strand quickly because a lot of them never fully penetrated the cortex. Such a love/hate relationship we all have with red.

Ever wondered why you see ladies sitting under the dryers in the salon with foils in their hair? It’s because in order for your highlights to lift faster, they need heat. And if your body heat isn’t enough to heat up your scalp, a lot of hairdressers will use the heat from a dryer to speed up the process. This can be quite harmful, though because if left unattended, you can actually over-process your hair and cause damage or breakage. So just be sure that if your hairdresser puts you in a dryer for your color, she can explain to you why.

Alright, Gigglers? What do you think? What hair color myths have you believed?



  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=25913989 Natalie Hollingsworth

    Thank you for writing this!! Such good info to know.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=698482833 Sami Waistle

    Hmm I’m wondering if anyone can help me actually, I bleached my hair to a yellowy/orangey tone and then stuck a La Directions Alpine Green on top. But now I’m wanting to go to either orange or reddy/brown or medum brown but the box dyes I use aren’t touching it. I’m guessing it’s because I’ve bleached the cr*p outta my hair that it wont stick, so I’m wondering if there’s a way to solve this problem I’m having?

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1842451939 Bee Rachael Greenberg

    I’ve been told repeatedly that if I dye my hair too often, it’ll fall right out. Is that true or just a myth? I dye my hair once or twice every two months.

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100000386243353 Chris LeDoux

      Wow, that is a lot of dying !…you only need root touch up every 6-8 weeks.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=740043383 Devlyn Fennell

    Honestly, I had my hair professionally colored once and have been using box dyes ever since (for years now) and the color is way better and comes out awesome each time. It’s not always necessary to go to a hairdresser and pay through the nose for a professional color job. Admittedly it probably helps that I’m a natural blonde.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100001176969257 Kelsey Holt

    Question- I’ve heard (from someone on a Youtube tutorial, because that’s where I gather all of my hair information- don’t judge me) that when you have bleached hair, styling it or sleeping on it when it’s wet will cause serious breakage and make it fall out. Is this true? Because I’ve ALSO heard that heat is especially damaging to bleached hair, so I don’t want to do too much heat styling (but when I blow-dry, I use a heat protectant). I want to try overnight curlers in my hair at some point, but I’m worried that putting my hair into curlers while its wet will absolutely destroy my hair.

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1074637880 Jessica La Battaglia

      Heat is damaging to any hair, virgin, lightened, or colored… anything you do to your hair is damaging, which is why it is so important to use good quality shampoo and conditioner… if you’re worried about the strength of your hair, you might try using a shampoo with keratin… as for your over-night curlers, I would suggest blow drying your hair (use a big round brush for volume) and then securing velcro rollers for bed; your hair is stronger when dry; I would also strongly suggest not going to bed with wet hair, ever…

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=738054034 Tina Niemegeers

    I have a question. I have bright red hair. Like a coca cola can. The hairdressers in and around my town aren’t able to provide me with that color. So I use manicpanic dye.
    But lately, it doesn’t turn out as red as it used too. It goes a bit more brownish or even blackish. What seems too be the problem here? And is there any way I can get my bright red hair back as it used to be?

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100000386243353 Chris LeDoux

    Awesome information!

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=513791729 Christina Konze

    I have heard that you shouldn’t dye your hair while pregnant. I never use box colour, I use Goldwell or Aveda reds. I have been dyeing my hair for 6 years, and I would have a hard time stopping if I were to become pregnant (God forbid).

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1455780167 Marin Marie Patterson

      The big reason you’re not supposed to dye your hair when your pregnant is because of the fact that your hormone levels are very different than what they normally are. This is why people’s hair often changes texture when they’re pregnant. This can also cause hair color to not take the same way it usually would, meaning your hair might end up a COMPLETELY different color :I As long as you use ammonia free dye, though, it’s actually not unsafe, especially if you do it in a well ventilated area.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100004523253751 Jennifer Walker

    From a fellow hair stylist, thank you for writing this article! xo

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100000567633359 Devrie Oxner

    Great information! I am thinking I need to print this off and post it at my store. I am a Cosmetic Manager at a Pharmacy, and oh boy the things I have encountered. I have taken courses on hair colour, but always have a difficult time getting through to my customers that some things are better handled by a professional.
    So many customers try to pretend that their hair has never been coloured, “oh no, this is all my natural colour” I have to pry the truth out of them. Some of the requests just can not be done with a box. I always tell my customers to keep in mind box colour is made to NATURAL, never touched before hair, and that it is most effective if you are only looking to go one to two levels (up or down) from your current virgin hair colour. I also explain that hair colour can not remove hair colour, and for best results they should go to a professional.
    It may hurt sales, but it is much better to do that, then ruin how a person feels about themselves or their hair colour experience.
    Thank you for this article, it was a great refresher. Hope it helps lots of people.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1228747456 Eneroly Rosario

    i just graduate from cosmetology school and i just learned more on this article then in school

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=650091243 McHale Ann

    This is a great article! So much useful information. When I was younger all I used was box dye and loved how it looked, but over the years I have started going to a local salon I really enjoy. The hairstylist likes doing fun and funky stuff so it is great. Once when I was in high school I bleached my hair so that I could do another color over it and I got the crap burned out of my scalp. I had little cracks and terrible thick dandruff like skin. Just awful.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1252075655 Kelly Lynn Sonnenberg

    I’m a natural dirty blonde, but have dyed my hair various reds usually on the warmer side though since 2006. I’ve not ever had problems– whether it was box dye or hair stylist. I just always lucked out with my hair. This past year tells of a different story however. I had decided I wanted to try brunette. So in January I went to a beauty college and had them dye my hair brown– it still was red. They told me it would take a few dyes to take the red out. So a couple months later I dyed it brown again. It just got darker red instead. By then I decided I wanted to stick with red– I missed the light and vibrant red perhaps a shade darker than the cola cola can that I always had my hair as. I’ve had nothing the headaches! Every time no matter what shade of red I try– my hair just gets this dark cold red! So what process would a red take for a lightening red? I understand as you stated– Violet cancels out Yellow, Blue cancels out Orange, Green cancels out Red…. So obviously I’m not going anywhere near green— but either I’m a dummy or I just simply don’t know what lightens red without crossing it out– Do I need to do bleach? I’ve always been terrified of bleaching– I don’t want to fry my hair and am guilty of dying all over from Lorel box dye ever 6 to 8 weeks. If I bleach my hair do I dye it the same day or do I have to painstakingly wait 14 days? Thanks!

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100001757215860 Claire Parrish

    This is a great article and I agree with most everything said. Being a hair educator myself I wanted to add in my few cents. I want to point out however that color can only be considered processed once it has reached the time limit posted by the manufacturer. Putting it under a heat source is not a bad thing if the manufacturer calls for it. Same for lighteners. I mention this because I would hate for people to think that if their hairdresser wasn’t putting them underneath a hair dryer that their service wasn’t being performed properly. Some products (color, lighteners, perms) strictly tell you not to use heat with them.
    “Fillers” or “re-pigmentation” is also a very important step. Just know that it is only necessary if you are going more than 2 levels darker from pre-lightened hair. Another fun fact is that artificial color will not lift artificial color. This means that if I color my hair a dark brown and want to go lighter after that I can not just take a lighter color and get my desired results. In fact nothing will happen unless I have uncolored hair on my head at the time (new growth). That’s why you see some people walking around with orange new growth and black ends!
    I enjoyed all the info on here and hopefully these other tips are helpful! Of course I will always advocate that you visit your hairdresser and always be truthful about the history of your hair!

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1252075655 Kelly Lynn Sonnenberg

      So how do you lighten? You absolutely must use bleach?

      • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100001757215860 Claire Parrish

        Yes! Lightener is just another term for bleach. If you want to remove artificial color from your hair lightener is the only way to go…unless you are using a color remover (which is not lightener). However they are not always very reliable and I would recommended going to a stylist for either of these services. You can lighten uncolored hair with permanent color. You can look for it to lighten your hair 2-4 levels. My rule of thumb is to only lift with color only 2 levels because to me it starts looking unnatural after 2….unless you are using a high lift color which is a different beast entirely! Hope this helps!

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100004173848127 Natalie Carrasco

    I’ve never dyed my hair. My hairdresser is really nice and he always teach me all tips and tricks. Everything from how to brush the hair while blow drying it to untangle all myths I’ve been told about hair. I think that this article is just as helpful as he is! We need more of this to not fall for commercials with beautiful women like Beyonce! I’ve been so close to buy a L’oreal box and try it at home but I sure won’t do it now! :)

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=6703855 Andrea De La Rosa

    I’ve been dying my hair red for three years with two different stylists. The first one failed to tell me how high maintenance the color would be (not washing as often to prevent fading, washing with the right water temp, dealing with bleeding etc.). If I had known the work involved I still would have dyed my hair red because I love it so much, but I just wonder why she never told me all of this. It wasn’t until my second stylist that I learned how do properly take care of my hair. It’s so important to shop around for a stylist who knows their stuff and can communicate well with their clients.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=785993083 Dome Garcia

    How about henna and dying your hair after applying henna. A year ago i dyed my hair with henna, it was a medium brown. My hair under light had red undertones that i didn´t like. Time passed and i dyed my hair but i am still unable to remove the red tones in my hair

  • http://idontlikeyourcat.tumblr.com/ Melanie Schmitz

    Thank you! I’m so glad someone with expertise and years of experience has been able to put into words what I’ve struggled to explain to clients for so long.

    Your article was painfully realistic and well written. From one salon employee to another, THANK YOU THANK YOU THANK YOU.

    Your “Cola-Red” client? That’s happened to us before as well. It killed me to have to tell her that withholding information about your color-history was much worse for her than us. In the end, she didn’t get the color she wanted and wouldn’t let us fix it as she said we just “didn’t know what we were doing”.


  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1236870837 Angela Trowbridge


    this made so much sense! i’m an infp so i don’t always enjoy chatting with the stylist but i enjoy chatting when i know a little bit about substance – namely, the process of what she’s doing for me. i’ve been learning over the years but this article really gives us big-picture people a great sense of what’s going on with all this exciting hair bizness!

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100002475269078 Kellie Patricia

    Hi Kate. I have a question for you. I recently got my hair done. Asked for an ombre on my rooty blonde hair, got more of Gemma of SOA. Bleached back to blonde and now have red roots. Paid $220+tip. She is one of the owners. All others in the place think it looks great. Wow are they off. So, what do I do? Ask for my money back? I have to go spend another $300 to get this fixed. :/

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