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Hair Coloring: Everything You Need to Know

Hair Coloring

Everything You Need to Know

DURING the Introduction to this blog we mentioned that we wrote a weekly series on hair coloring for the Sunday Morning over a period of nine months–thirty-six weeks–during which time we saw thirty women and three men. We had the idea because of the enormous number of questions we had been.
asked over many years–which had been even more accelerated after started writing for the Sunday Morning ‘Style’ magazine.
Most of the fears were that coloring was going to make their hair fall out more. Or dry the hair or break it or affect their scalp.
We thought that we knew (more or less) what the effects of hair coloring were, but we wanted to run a series to prove our thoughts so that readers could know the truth and make their own choice.
It worked in this way: each week the beauty editor arranged for us to see a person of her choice who wanted their hair colored. Some had already colored their hair and wanted a change, others wanted to color it for the first time. The three men were first-time colors and oddly enough chose the most bizarre shades of all–perhaps because of repressed desires to use hair coloring (We have often said that men would like to color their hair, but are wary of doing so for fear of being found out and thought of as a ‘sissy’).
However, we saw each person and made notes before they had their hair colored at a salon of their choice or that of the beauty editor. However, some wanted to color their hair at home and chose the method–semi-permanent usually, with the brand they fancied–and did indeed do it themselves. The different methods also added more credence.
we re-examined each one between four and seven days after having the color.
Not one had extra hair fall. All of them, including the men, loved the result. None complained of extra dryness or breakage (We insisted they all followed the manufacturer’s instructions and used the conditioner supplied with the pack). In fact, in most cases the hair was in better condition.
None of this surprised us–We pretty much knew it before we started. However, what did surprise me was that those with flaky and/or itchy scalps (some almost severe enough for me to withdraw them for the test) all improved! This was almost certainly due to the antiseptic properties the coloring agents contained, the mild keratalytic (softening and removing skin flakes) effects, and the thorough washing out that went along with the coloring process.
One of the myths on ‘Hair Myths’ is that hair coloring makes the hair fall. I will say in the post that it doesn’t.
Coloring your hair, of course, is entirely your own choice, and I am not advocating it to clear your scalp or help your hair. Hair coloring, I feel, does perhaps have an undeserved bad reputation.
Read on!
There is a pressure on all of us to remain youthful in our looks. A youthful appearance implies
vigour, stamina, sex appeal and even optimism, although on occasions an unfavorable impression may be created, since youth can imply lack of experience or authority. Nonetheless, ageing is something most of us try to hide. Coloring your hair can give you a psychological boost, a sense of being a new and younger, more vital person. It is an easy way to change your personality or to discard part of an old life for a new one: changing hair color when changing partners, for example.
Consequently, the hair-coloring market is enormous. It is estimated that almost 70 per cent of women and 12 per cent of men will color their hair at some stage in their lives. The figures for men may be even higher, as many men are closet colors and never admit to coloring their hair. They may steal their wife’s products or use walnut oil or tea or coffee from the larder to make their own infusions to color their hair. Some resort to mascara and many use progressive dyes, which change hair color gradually over many applications, in a desperate attempt to disguise the fact that they have dyed their hair.
Why is there such a stigma attached to men who color their hair? Women positively flaunt it. Perhaps it’s because the practice is considered an unmasculine vanity. However, speaking as a man, and having advised thousands of men professionally, I am sure we are just as vain as women! And why shouldn’t we be?
Apart from the desire to stay looking young, hair color preferences are also influenced by fashion, usually following the film stars of the day. Hair was dyed red with Rita Hayworth, blonde with Marilyn Monroe, while many stars today have a sun-streaked look. In Cleopatra’s day dark hair was the rage, and during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I ginger hair was popular.
However, whatever color you decide on, you need to take precautions, as all coloring processes are potentially harmful if the instructions on the packaging are not followed.


First of all, I am not against any hair coloring method. In fact, the reverse is true: the psychological effects on changing hair color far outweigh any potential physical damage to the hair.
There are many ways to color hair and the choice of products is better now than ever before. The improvement in formulations give superior shades, and their safety is constantly monitored. Because of this, the so-called ‘Natural’ color market has diminished; however, for whatever reason, many still use them for apparent feel-good or ‘green’ reasons.

‘Natural’ Colors

Henna, camomile, indigo and various other herbs have been in use for thousands of years. When the Pharaohs were buried, they often had their hair darkened to make them look young again. The Romans used pastes made of powder (talc) and various soaps derived from plants. Boiled and crushed walnuts, soot, burnt and charred ants’ eggs, various berries and putrefied animal remains were used–all for the psychological boost of either masking white hairs or following the fashion of the times. Some years ago there was a huge leaning towards henna, not only as a color, but as a panacea. It is emphatically not the latter and is only a poor substitute for the former. Henna gives unnatural shades of red which quickly fade, therefore encouraging multiple applications with an uneven distribution of color from roots to ends. It can also turn orange in the sun or a ginger shade if permed. Camomile has also enjoyed a
similar medicinal reputation; however, like that of henna, the reputation is somewhat unfounded. Camomile, though, can be a scalp soother for tenderness or itching. ‘Natural’ products are also will be discussed in our coming posts on ‘Hair Myths’.

Color Rinses or Temporary Coloring

These colors rest on the hairs’ surface, are applied after each shampoo and last until the following shampoo; they used to be quite popular with the ‘blue rinse brigade’ to make yellowing-grey hair appear whiter. They still have their uses, particularly as a temporary method of covering grey between permanent coloring, but also to attain or improve an existing dye shade. The disadvantage of color rinses is that they rub off onto pillows and can give a less than natural-looking shade. They also discolor the scalp, but this can be an advantage if the hair is thin, as it diminishes the contrast between the white scalp and the colored hair. Another positive aspect of color rinses is that they can reduce scalp shininess–if the scalp is very shiny, it will reflect more light and therefore draw more attention to
it when the hair is thin. The main disadvantage, however, is that they discourage frequent shampooing because of the bother of re-applying the color each time. Formulation of temporary colors are rather difficult because the ‘dye’ has to have what are apparently contradicting characteristics: they need to be relatively substantive (they need to cling firmly onto the hair), resistant to rain or perspiration, spread and cover evenly, yet still be easily removed by shampooing.

Semi-Permanent Color

As the name suggests, these are longer lasting–up to about six weeks. They penetrate the outer cuticle of the hair, so resisting removal. The colors produced are more natural than the color rinses described above, and semi-permanent colorants are also easier to use. Unlike permanent colors, they do not require pre-mixing but are used straight from the applicator, leading to the term ‘direct dyes’, as they are used directly from the bottle and do not need time to develop like the permanent dyes. Unlike the permanent dyes, they are applied to wet, washed hair, then the surplus rinsed off. The disadvantage, however, is that they fade with shampooing and exposure to air, leading to frequent reapplication. The ends of the hair therefore tend to get darker because they receive more applications than the roots. This
is the reverse of what should occur: the ends should be lighter than the roots because of exposure to the air and sun. Therefore the overall appearance may be less than natural.
Some of the ingredients found in both colour rinses and semipermanent colours are potentially sensitizing, so it is always advisable to do a patch test first by following the instructions on the packaging. This type of colouring is mostly used at home, and however inconvenient it may seem, the test should be done prior to each time it is applied. Sensitivities can be acquired for no apparent reason.

Permanent Dyes

These are often known as ‘oxidation’ dyes because an ‘oxidizer’ (for instance hydrogen peroxide) and ammonia are mixed with the coloring agent prior to application. Until the peroxide is added, the color agent–in a separate bottle–is a clear liquid or whitish cream. The specific shade required is formed by
the mixing of the second bottle containing the peroxide oxidizer. The formulation of permanent dyes is extremely complicated, and manufacturers go to great lengths to attain color fastness and minimal disruption of the hairs’ strength and elasticity. Added to all this, safety in use is a prime factor.


From time to time a truly scaremongering story emerges about hair coloring. One was when a woman had a violent allergic reaction and died of prophylactic shock. The chances of this occurring are practically nil if a skin patch test is taken according to instructions. It is estimated that 4 in 1 million (1 in 250,000) are sensitive to hair dyes. It is probably more frequent, but the percentage is still small. The small percentage of risk tends to put people off the inconvenience of doing a ‘patch test’ whereby you need to wait a minimum of 24 hours to monitor any reaction. I can’t emphasize sufficiently the importance of these tests for safe coloring. In addition, many think that once they have had a patch test they can continue coloring their hair without repeating it. Unfortunately, this is wrong. An allergy may develop between uses. Changes in stress, diet, medication or environment can all heighten the risk of acquiring a sensitivity. Use the patch test method before each coloring–and carefully follow instructions for it.
There is another drawback to patch testing: you go to your hair salon and suddenly decide that you want your hair colored. The colorist can fit you in immediately because of a cancellation, otherwise you will have to wait another week. What do you do? Of course you grab the moment; 99 per cent (or more) of the time, all is well. But it is that very small risk that should make you rethink. The colorist,
in all probability, wants the business and doesn’t discourage you–but think again! All manufacturers put warnings on their labels, now more prominent than ever. Safety is their principal and essential concern. Heed them.


The latest scare is that of coloring causing bladder cancer. One of the first reports on the links between hair dyes and bladder cancer was over twenty years ago. Another scare was about five years ago, and another one more recently. None of the studies could be sufficiently substantiated, although color manufacturers modified some formulations.
Each study used similar methods: the hair of mice was shaved daily and the color applied to the
skin afterwards. After three months (about 100 applications) most of the mice developed bladder cancer. To base the resultant scaremongering on these results appears to be unreasonable and even unjust: shaving the skin sensitizes and increases absorption rates, and the constant daily application would have a greater effect than occasional use. The equivalent in a human, averaging six weeks between dyes, is
600 weeks, or twelve years. But the scalp (obviously) is not shaved and sensitized, nor does the build- up effect of daily applications occur.
It has not been made clear whether there have been double blind tests either, comparing similar age
groups of those using dyes long term and those who are not for twelve years. In that time as a person gets older, the cancer risks increase anyway.
Some other studies have detected no increased risk of bladder cancer. One that examined nearly 600 women followed by the American Cancer Society and 120,000 by Harvard University, plus a study in Italy, concluded that, ‘the overall evidence excluded any appreciable and measurable risk of bladder cancer from personal use of hair dyes’.
It is important to remember the huge psychological boost that hair color gives, and people would do it even if it were harmful–which as yet, if ever, hasn’t been proven.


These do not add but remove color. Their oxidizing effect decolonizes the pigment in the hair shaft and lightens the color. If a bleach is left on long enough, it will turn the hair almost white! Hydrogen peroxide and ammonia are the most commonly used bleaching ingredients, although many products claim to contain no peroxide, in which case another oxidizing ingredient will have been used that will have a similar effect. All bleaches have a damaging effect on the hair’s protein structure, making the hair dry, brittle and inelastic, and often leading to breakage. The hair also becomes more porous and more vulnerable to other chemical processes such as permanent wave solutions in curling or straightening. There is also a greater vulnerability to sun damage, swim damage and wind damage. Bleaching also softens the skin, so it is important not to rub the scalp vigorously when washing out the bleach.
It is impossible to make the hair a lighter shade without the help of a bleaching agent–and all of them are called ‘oxidizing agents’ (the main one being hydrogen peroxide, as stated). However, used alone it
is not stable, and very slow in lightening the hair. To hasten its effect it needs to be mixed with an alkaline solution just prior to application–the most common being ammonia. Peroxide and ammonia on their own are very runny and impossible to control in just one area–it would run onto already bleached parts. Because of this, bleaches are made into creams with oils and waxes (emulsions), and the ammonia is added before applying to the hair.
It is usually not necessary to have a skin sensitivity test for bleaches, but bleaching agents are rarely used on their own because they do not give natural shades. They result in rather brassy-looking straw- like hair, so various color agents are added to reduce brassiness and give the shade required.
Of all the coloring methods, bleach is potentially the most damaging, and therefore should ideally be done professionally. If bleaching your own hair, exercise great caution: read and re-read the instructions carefully.

Highlighting, Streaking and Frosting

These are all similar procedures. Small tufts of hair are bleached either by pulling through a cap pierced with holes or by carefully separating them, then applying the bleach and wrapping the hairs in foil. It is a very effective way of blending grey hair or giving your hair a sun-streaked, outdoor look. Only a
portion of the hair is bleached and, moreover, the color lasts longer because of the blending and is thus used less often, making this one of the safer coloring methods. However, overlapping previously bleached tufts can be a problem.

Single or Double Processing?

It is not possible to get an exact shade or tone by bleaching alone. Modern methods of coloring are usually done in a single process. In the early days two processes were given. As previously mentioned, leaving pure bleach on the hair will give a yellowish-red tone, so most bleaching products also contain a colorant to counteract this effect. Therefore all bleaching products are, in a way, double processes in a single application.
A double process was to lighten the hair first with a bleaching agent, rinse it off and then use a dye to reach the color required. A single process will combine these two procedures; although more difficult
to formulate, such products are actually easier to use. However, it is debatable as to whether a single process is better for the hair than two applications: the same chemical and physical actions occur either way. Of course, the time saving aspect is obvious.


Having your hair colored in a salon will certainly involve some conditioning treatment. If you color your hair at home, the package will contain an efficient conditioner, too. All very necessary.
Any hair that has undergone dyeing is vulnerable to damage; the degree to which damage is done, however, is dependent on the amount of color change. For instance, going from a dark to a light shade is the most dangerous because the coloring (bleaching) agent is stronger or left on for longer. Obviously the frequency with which hair is dyed is a major factor in the amount of damage sustained. Any chemical process reduces the hair’s elasticity (stretch ability) and increases the prospect of hair breakage. Apart from the after color conditioning treatment, use a deep conditioner prior to shampooing your hair a couple of days before and after coloring. Such conditioning treatments should also be used weekly if the hair is bleached.
It is similarly important to condition after every shampoo, as this will eliminate tangles and smooth the hair cuticles raised by the alkaline solutions. The heavier, more moisturizing types of products should be chosen, irrespective of the possibility of causing fine hair to turn limp. Any limpness can be counteracted by styling aids. There are many treatment products available as pre-shampoo re moisturizers. If you wish to make your own, whisk in a blender:
2 eggs
1 tbsp of any thick, off-the-shelf conditioner
1/2oz castor oil
1 ripe avocado
1oz full cream milk
Refrigerate overnight. Apply the mixture to the hair in sections, working it into the hair with your fingers, particularly at the ends. Cover the hair with a damp, warm towel or cap and, if possible, leave in overnight. Shampoo and condition as usual.
It is important to handle your hair gently: hard brushing, rubbing too hard with a towel when drying, keeping the hairdryer on for too long, having it too hot, pulling too hard–all should be avoided.


The array of colors displayed in stores is quite mind boggling and, to say the least, confusing. Undoubtedly, it’s best to have your hair colored in a salon. The colorist will be more knowledgeable than you, have more experience, apply the color more uniformly and, very importantly, be able to monitor the action. But expense or timing comes into it, and many do not want to spend the money or are unable to find the time to fit in with the colorist.
It is difficult to understand the logic of hair color manufacturers: they spend a fortune on training hairdressers how to use the coloring product, but I have yet to see a color adviser in shops that sell hair colors, although it is commonplace to have beauty advisers to help choose make-up. Hair, as I have so often mentioned, has a psychological impact greater than any other–and hair color is part of that. The average consumer is daunted by choice when entering the color section of a store. Not only that, many are unsure which color would best suit them.
Most manufacturers have consumer advisory services that are most helpful, but it doesn’t make up for a color expert being able to see you in person. There are probably reasons for this personal service not being available, but I can’t see what they are.
All color companies have excellent research facilities and constant safety measures in place. Hair colors now are better than ever before. The packaging for home use contains first-class conditioning
agents to use with or after the color process; instructions for use are clear and concise; and they even supply gloves! Why not have the ultimate personal advice available?


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