The truth about using boxed hair dye

Whether you’re going gray (who, me?), need a root touch-up or just want to try something new, we’ve all found ourselves staring at those boxes of hair color at the drugstore wondering, is it worth saving on a trip to the salon and DIY-ing it?


Between the possible health risks and reported beauty disasters, at-home hair color has gotten a lot of bad press over the years. So we decided to ask Desiree Stordahl, beauty myth-buster, researcher and co-author of The Best Skin of Your Life Starts Here, to give us the low-down, once and for all, on dyeing your hair at home.

Is boxed hair color safe to use?

You may have heard that drugstore hair dyes are inferior or harsher than the dyes used in salons, but that generally isn’t true. The way hair dyes function and the ingredients used to make them do not differ between the drugstore dyes and the salon dyes. In fact, many of the companies that manufacture dyes for the major drugstore color lines also make the dyes used by salons.

What are the biggest risks with at-home hair coloring?

Human error. A professional colorist has the advantage of knowing the ins and outs of dyeing hair because of their training and their daily experience. This is especially true if you want to do special effects like ombre or fashion colors [such as rainbow hair or pastel colors] — both of which can go incredibly wrong if you don’t know what you’re doing.


Why is salon hair color so expensive?

If you’re going to a high-end salon, you’re paying for the experience and (hopefully) the skill the of stylist. Many salons offer on-going training for their colorists, which helps them stay on top of techniques and trends. You may be able to find a stylist who charges a lot less and gives just as good of results — it’s a matter of how much you’re willing to look around.

What are the top three mistakes women make when coloring their hair at home?

1) No matter what your natural hair color is, red is one of the more difficult colors to get right (and it fades the fastest!). With naturally dark brown or black hair, it can easily pull a purple or burgundy tone; if that’s what you’re going for, great, but if not, this is an instance where consulting with a pro really helps.

2) Taking dark hair to a lighter shade is another tricky one. All dark hair contains at least some red pigment, and that can become overly evident (i.e. brassy-looking) in the lightening process if you don’t know how to correct for it. It is also difficult to lighten dark hair flatteringly in one step. You first must strip the existing color from your hair, and second, tone or add the shade that you want it to be. Those two distinct processes are difficult to get right on your own and can take hours, so your odds are far better with an experienced hair colorist.

3) Bleaching hair, whether all over or with an at-home highlighting kit, takes a lot skill, experience and know-how to master, which is why it’s best left for the pros. If bleach is left on hair too long you can end up with hair that breaks off or even “bleach bites” (the sensation of the bleach burning your scalp). You can also end up with an overly yellow tone or other unnatural looking results. Granted some women have mastered this skill at home, so never say never, but it takes trial and error (emphasis on the error).


What’s one thing you wish you could tell women before they purchase boxed hair dye?

Subbing in at-home root touch-ups between salon visits can save you major money. If you’re doing a simple all-over color, try a product like Clairol’s Root Touch-Up!

Any tools to make coloring at home easier?

The best tool is a helpful friend who can help ensure you get the back of your hair evenly. The last thing you want is dyed hair that looks like a Calico cat!

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