If there’s anything I’ve learned after years of consistently dyeing my hair since the age of 18, it’s that coloring your hair is no simple process. While going into the salon is generally a good idea for getting exactly what you want as far as hair style and color, appointments can get pricey, and we all have busy schedules. Fortunately, there are at-home hair coloring products that can help you obtain and maintain the look you want. Ahead, we consult multiple experts on the best at-home hair coloring products, how to use them and when you might be better off making a salon appointment.
What to know about at-home hair color
“First things first, be specific about your desired goal,” shares celebrity colorist David Richards. “If you have a definite, realistic goal before you start coloring your hair it makes it easier to find the right color brand and technique to give you that desired result.” Jennifer Korab, a New Jersey-based hairstylist, colorist and educator with Pureology recommends opting for a shade that’s close to your natural hair color, which is a safer bet for avoiding any unwanted results. “At-home hair color is best for quick root touch-ups, or going to a darker shade,” shares Jamie Mazzei, creative director for NuBest Salon & Spa in Manhasset, New York.
“When looking at box hair color, ignore the model on the box,” Mazzei explains. “The best representation of what the color will look like is the little hair swatch at the store.” Another tip for when you’re selecting a product? “Depending on your hair length and thickness, you should make sure you have enough hair dye,” explains Erinn Courtney, an LA-based hairstylist with StyleSeat. “If your hair is longer or thicker, I would recommend buying two boxes.”
Once you’ve chosen a product, it’s on to preparation. “Budget about two hours to color your hair,” explains Shvonne Perkins, master colorist at Madison Reed. While it’s more time that you’ll probably end up needing, you never want to rush the process of coloring your hair at home. Perkins’ tips for ensuring the entire process isn’t stressful? Set aside time to set up your tools in a neat and organized way, section your hair off properly and apply the hair dye in thin, neat sections — which is ideal for color saturation. And of course, “reading the instructions, the warnings and the application methods before you start coloring is a must-do,” adds Richards.
Before you start coloring, be sure to do a patch test. As Courtney explains, you should always do a test prior to dyeing your hair to ensure your skin doesn’t react negatively to the chemicals. “If the patch test works successfully,” she explains, “then do a strand test on a small piece of hair to see how long it takes for the color to lift.” Another word of advice? “Don’t wash your hair before applying color,” Courtney says. “The natural oils in your scalp will help alleviate any irritation from the hair dye.”
“Ultimately, coloring your hair at home should be just like any other beauty routine,” explains Perkins, “so I also suggest making it fun.” Have a fun playlist on in the background, and have an activity prepared for when your hair is processing, whether it’s a sheet mask or an at-home pedi.
When to get your hair professionally colored
While at-home hair coloring can be a great way to save money and extend the life of your color between salon visits, there are cases in which seeing a professional is the safest and most cost-effective choice in the long run. “There are really great at-home options for glosses, toners and permanent colors,” shares Perkins, “but almost all foil highlighting and certainly all color corrections, such as lightening previously color-treated hair, should absolutely be left in the hands of professionals.” Several of the experts we spoke to emphasized this, particularly for those looking to make a drastic change — like going from brunette to blonde. And while this advice is important when it comes to getting your hair color to look the way you’d like, it’s also about more than just aesthetics.
“Lightening agents can burn or irritate the scalp if used too long,” says Mazzei, who explains that those types of products are best left to a “professional hair colorist who has an arsenal of tools and products at their disposal to ensure the final product is what you are looking for.” Felicia Dosso, a colorist at Nunzio Saviano Salon, echoes this, explaining that in addition to being extremely strong, lightening products can severely damage your hair when used improperly. In short, if you’re looking to substantially lighten your hair or go blond (and you’re not a natural blond), it’s worth going into the salon. At-home coloring should be used to “maintain rather than achieve blond hair at home,” explains Lorena M. Valdes, a Chicago-based colorist at Maxine Salon, which will help you “avoid breakage, dulling out or over-toning.”
Before you get started: Best pro tools for at-home hair coloring
If you’ve decided that at-home hair coloring is right for you, you’ll want to be equipped with the right tools. “Preparation is key for the best results,” shares Valdes. Of course, you’ll need gloves — but there are some other tools that the pros suggest. “Bowls, brushes and applicators are great to have on hand when coloring your hair at home,” shares Courtney. For a detangling brush that works on both wet and dry hair, Valdes recommends the Trademark Beauty Tame Your Mane Smoothing Hair Brush. You’ll also want to have a timer on hand, so you leave any color in your hair for the recommended amount of time and no longer.
One easy way to make sure you have what you need? Opting for a pre-made kit. “Purchasing supplies from a product company will ensure you get the best quality tools to use at home,” explains Richards, “as well as making sure that you have enough of everything you need.” He opts for Colortrak products, which he uses while coloring clients in the salon. Perkins recommends the Madison Reed Professional Color Tool Kit. “You can certainly apply the color with the bottle itself, but the bowl and brush can help keep sections neater,” she explains. “Plus it’s just fun to paint the color onto your roots with the brush.” Courtney suggests the Luxy Hair Application Kit for its helpful accessories, while Korab calls the Madison Reed Radiant Hair Color Kit the “best bundle for at-home hair coloring.”
“Hair color can be messy and you want to avoid staining yourself and your clothing as much as possible,” shares Dosso. Mazzei agrees, suggesting that you set up your at-home salon seat with “two large towels that you don’t mind staining — one for your work surface and one to clean your hands and anything else that might stain.” And be sure to either wear dark clothing you won’t mind staining, or opting for a hairdresser’s cape for guaranteed protection. “It’s also a good idea to have Vaseline on hand to rub onto your hairline to avoid getting the dye on your skin,” adds Mazzei. “Q-tips and cotton balls are also ideal to have so you can wipe away any errant dye,” he shares, noting that you can also purchase a hair color stain remover.
Best at-home permanent hair color
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Courtney calls this product “not just stand-out in its category but also super budget-friendly,” adding that “it has a shine serum and a color conditioner that leaves your hair nourished and multidimensional.” Also recommended by Korab and Mazzei, they both note that it’s a conditioning at-home hair color option that will leave your hair soft and full of shine.
$30 at Amazon
“The ingredient profile of this hair color sets it apart from the competition,” shares Perkins. “Clients are always shocked at the lack of smell, especially when compared to other at-home products they’ve used in the past.” The formulation also includes keratin and argan oil, which provide hair with shine and strength, something that Korab also enjoys. “It leaves your hair soft and shiny, like you just stepped out of the salon,” she shares.
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Valdes loves this option for those looking for permanent hair color and gray coverage, which requires a permanent hair dye product. She loves the large range of colors, accessibility of the product and the shine it leaves on hair.
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“Wella is used in professional salons,” shares Dosso, who explains that it’s a safer product to use when compared to other similarly priced options. The brand’s gel hair color is a popular option available in a ton of colors; they also have a permanent liquid hair dye product, as well as semi-permanent options.
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“I love this option because the product is professional-quality as well as easy and customer-friendly,” shares Richards. “This is a great option for first-timers, cautious clients or someone with difficult hair to color.”
Best at-home semi-permanent hair color
$17 at Ulta
“Semi-permanent color lasts between four to six weeks and is designed to fade gradually,” explains Richards. “These are a great option to use if you have existing highlights or previously lightened hair for a bright and fun look.” Plus, this formulation is vegan, cruelty-free and conditioning.
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Valdes calls this gloss “amazing for bringing ends back to life.” She’s a fan of the color-depositing components in addition to the conditioning benefits and overall shine it gives hair.
$10 at Good Dye Young
“This is a salon-quality product,” shares Brian O’Connor, celebrity hairstylist and the co-founder of Good Dye Young. “We’ve spent years perfecting our semi-permanent formula,” he explains, “which lasts for around 24 washes, so the color retention is really incredible.” The formulation also includes sunflower extract, which “helps to protect hair from fading against heat sources (like blow dryers and curling irons) as well as UV rays from the sun,” he explains.
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Dosso recommends this hair color, which is a great semi-permanent option for those looking for gray coverage. The formulation includes tons of enriching ingredients like jojoba oil and vitamin E.
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“These couldn’t be easier to use,” shares Perkins. “They go directly onto the hair with no mixing and are as easy to use as conditioner.” There are several different tones, some of which add vibrancy, other of which neutralize brassiness. “The best part is they fade out gradually over six to eight shampoos without ever leaving a line of demarcation,” she adds.
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“This is the perfect semi-permanent color to add to your routine in between salon visits,” shares Courtney. “It’s intended to instantly boost color and shine while also neutralizing warmth on any color-treated hair.”
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Mazzei recommends this color-depositing shampoo and conditioner duo because he finds it incredibly easy to use. “Simply wash and condition your hair in the shower daily with the desired color,” he explains, “and the semi-permanent hair color in both the shampoo and conditioner refreshes your hair color, while thoroughly cleaning and nourishing hair.”
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Hally’s ammonia-free semi-permanent hair color lasts four to six weeks and deposits in an easy-to-use foaming developer. The top-rated treatment is gentle on the hair and comes in six shades, including Rose Gold and Purple Avalanche.
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“Manic Panic is phenomenal on its own or mixed with conditioner for a diluted version,” shares Valdes. “Color deposit will depend on the starting color,” she explains, noting that the color will be brightest on light blond hair.
Best at-home hair color for root coverage
$9.97 at Amazon
A favorite of both Korab and Valdes, root coverage sprays like this option from L’Oréal are a great at-home option for a quick touch-up. It gives needed coverage, is easy to spray on and is accessible for any emergencies at a great price, Valdes raves. The matte finish helps manage oily roots, and the product tends to stick to the scalp, which Valdes describes as “beneficial to any thinning spot that needs a diffused look.” Just be sure to double-check on which shade is right for you, she cautions, since the product can easily look too dark.
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When it comes to a root cover-up without a matte finish, Valdes opts for this user-friendly product — which is also one of celebrity hairstylist Chris Appleton’s favorites. The application is super-easy, she explains, “kind of like applying eye shadow.” The coverage is more of a soft blend as opposed to instantly full-coverage, but as Valdes describes, “looks more natural and feels nice on the hair.” Overall, it’s “a well-balanced color formula with a great selection of shades.” The best part? Its compact size makes it easy to carry with you wherever you go.
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“This is my go-to,” shares Perkins. A mirrored compact that comes with both a root touch-up brush and an eyebrow brush (since the product doubles for both your brows and roots), it’s “great for filling in sparse hairlines for people with thinning hair or to fill in the gaps that can sometimes appear when pulling hair back into a bun or ponytail,” the colorist explains. Plus, “it never gets sticky or heavy on the hair,” she adds.
$7.79 at Target
Mazzei describes this touch-up color kit as really easy to use, due in part to the little brush that the product comes with that makes application a breeze. “The shade variety is wider so you can usually find something that works for your hair.”
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Courtney explains that this gel “uses a unique technology to cover roots and gray hairs by blending them into the base hair color.”
Best at-home hair color for gray coverage
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“Typical maintenance for gray coverage application is every four to six weeks,” explains Richards, “so make sure to only apply to the new growth of your hair.” This kit is a great option to have on hand for when you’re in a pinch; it offers salon-quality results and is formulated without sulfates and parabens, Richards shares. In addition to being available in a variety of different shades, “there are two applications in each box in addition to all the supplies you’ll need,” he explains.
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“Add some shimmer and shine to your grays with this permanent hair dye,” shares Courtney. “It seals and smooths hair without causing drying damage.”
When you have an important event coming up and can’t make it to the salon, Dosso suggests using a root spray. These aerosol sprays come in a variety of colors that “you can spray along your part and your hairline to disguise your regrowth,” she explains.
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Recommended by both Korab and Perkins, this touch-up kit addresses gray hairs at the hairline and hair partings, where roots are the most noticeable. “It’s the most incredible fast-acting gray coverage product I’ve ever used,” raves Perkins. “The gray coverage is unbelievable, with neutral tones to blend right into your existing color,” she explains. Plus, “the application amounts are small enough to be TSA-friendly, so these are indispensable for people who have to keep their color maintenance up while on the go.”
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“Coloring gray hair at home is best if you only have a few grays,” explains Mazzei. If you’re working with a full head of gray hair, he suggests heading to the salon. But for when you need a touch-up, he suggests this color cream.
Best blond at-home hair color
$16 at Good Dye Young
“This lightening kit contains a 25 volume developer, which is unique for an at-home kit,” explains O’Connor. It’s completely vegan, opting for soy protein in the place of keratin (which is derived from animal products) and uses coconut oil, “which helps to add moisture back into the hair,” he explains.
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“Blond is typically the most difficult shade to achieve when coloring hair at home,” explains Richards, “so my recommendation here is to use a product designed by colorists.” These color kits are available in tons of different shades, but Richards shares that the brand’s blond shades are exceptionally good. “They have thorough application instructions, several online resources to help you select your shade and the color itself delivers shinier, softer strands with reduced breakage.”
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“This hair dye is natural and gentle,” explains Courtney, “so it won’t strip blondes of their already fragile color.”
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“All blondes know that tone is everything,” explains Perkins, “so I highly recommend that blondes invest in color-depositing products in the temporary color category.” One way to achieve this is through hair masks. Perkins recommends the shade Perla for cool-toned blondes and Dorato for deeper-beige blondes.
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This goes “beyond a traditional purple shampoo to remove unwanted yellow tones from the hair,” explains Mazzei, “leaving hair shiny and full of life.” Unlike most traditional toning shampoos, many of which can leave you hair feeling dry, shares Mazzei, these products boast a built-in bond rebuilder. “This is great for a platinum blond who wants to keep hair looking super-fresh and never faded,” he explains.
Best at-home hair color for highlights
$36 at Madison Reed
“What makes this product so accessible is that it’s formulated with a clay-based lightener that is really thick and stays exactly where you put it on the hair,” explains Perkins. What this means is that it’s not messy, and way more manageable to use for those of us coloring hair at home. “The results are soft, sun-kissed and lived-in highlights that are modern-looking and low maintenance.”
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“This heat-activated blonding brush helps you lighten your tips and your roots, or brighten your highlights all over,” explains Courtney. “It’s super easy to use and a great lightening product.”
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“This offers three tones in each product,” explains Mazzei, “so you can get some dimension in your hair at home.
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Korab calls this the best at-home hair color for highlights. The hair dye comes with a unique brush that, when brushed from the root to the tips of your hair, distributes the color in a pattern that creates highlights.