What do you really know about how hair dyes work?
Many of us dyed our gray hair for decades. I started at 19 years-old with semi-permanent every six weeks or so and ended up using permanent dye every three weeks chasing that white line away until I was 39. If you are like most of us, you probably went to your salon and faithfully let your stylist deal with all the details. Or, you picked your favorite box brand and color and stuck with it for as long as you could. This may have left you not fully knowing what is in your hair or how it works.
Now you might be noticing more frequent trips to the salon or that your hair is becoming resistant to the dye. For me that felt like only days from the last color. Which might be part of the reason you are here trying to figure out how to stop the endless cycle of dyeing your gray.
If you found this post, you are probably wondering about the differences in hair dyes, what to do about what is on your hair now, and how to use dyes to help you transition.
You could also be fully transitioned to your gray hair and wondering what is safe to use on your silvers. Keep reading.
I will answer some of those questions to help in your transition and to help you avoid staining your shining silvers.
To start, let’s define some basic terms, categories and types of dye to help you better understand what can be done (or not) as you transition. Wrapping it up with answers to some of the most common questions.
It is rather confusing especially if you are not a colorist. There also seems to be slight differences in definitions depending on the brand of color. After confusing myself during research, I decided to use the American Board of Certified Haircolorists Study Portfolio to give you the basics, along with info that is common knowledge in our silver hair support groups after watching the trial and error of transitioning to your natural color.
This post was last updated: 3.1.2024
Table of Contents:
- Key Hair Color Terms and Definitions
- Categories and Types of Hair Dye
- What is the difference between semi-, demi-, and permanent color?
- The Five Main Types of Hair Dye
- The Three Primary Lifting Products
- What Happens When You Bleach Gray Hair?
- Olaplex or Bond Builders
- Your Top Hair Dye and Gray Questions Answered
Key Hair Color Terms and Definitions:
Gray Coverage: this term is used throughout the hair dye industry to denote how much the pigment attaches and stays on the hair.
Levels: the color of your natural hair and hair dyes is a numbered system. In most color systems the darkest shade of color is level 0 or 1 and the lightest shades are level 10 to 12. Black is 0 and Platinum is 12.
Porosity: the basic definition is how damaged is your hair. Virgin hair is Grade 1 and over processed bleached hair is Grade 5. The Ultimate Guide on Porosity gives you all the details.
Resistant to Dye: As your hair becomes whiter, it can become more unaffected by dye, the dye practically falls off or barely stains the white hair. This is usually when people shift from using semi-permanent dye to demi-permanent or permanent hair colors.
Categories and Types of Hair Dye:
Three Primary Categories of Hair Dye:
- Color Depositing: hair colors that deposit color on the hair.
- Color Lifting: hair color products that lift the color off the hair, (i.e. oxidizing agents, bleach & peroxide)
- Color Lifting and Depositing: these do both of the above, lift the base color and deposit a new color into the hair.
What is the difference between semi-, demi-, and permanent color?
The short answer: The major difference between semi-, demi-, and permanent hair colors is that while they all permanently alter previously dyed hair and the natural hair color, they all have different staying power depending your hair porosity. Semi-permanent color is distinctly different from demi- and permanent because it does not require a developer or oxidizing agent and usually fades off faster than demi- and permanent.
The long answer:
The Five Main Types of Hair Dye:
Permanent hair color:
- Two products, the dye (color) ingredients and the lift (developer) ingredients, used at the same time.
- The two products are combined to create oxidization of the hair during the color processing.
- The developer lifts (oxidizes) the natural color (lightening it to a degree based on the strength of the developer) and dye deposits pigment into the hair.
- Because permanent color lifts color off, it permanently alters the hair color (natural or previously dyed). Thus the name permanent.
- Permanent hair color is the only type of color that can lighten hair.
- Permanent hair color no matter how natural or gentle, must damage the cuticle to deposit color.
- 100% gray coverage
- Permanent color stays within one level of the original dyed color.
- It lasts the longest without fading as dramatically as the rest of your color options.
- In turn, this leaves a distinct demarcation line when growing grays out.
A Note About Henna: henna is considered a permanent hair dye. It does not react the same with synthetic based dyes, bleaches or developer. The best practice with henna is do not add any other hair coloring products to it because it contains metallic salts that are unpredictable with synthetic coloring agents.
Demi-permanent hair color:
- Very similar to permanent, uses an oxidative process to swell the cuticle and deposit the color into the hair.
- Different from permanent because it does not always lift color off.
- Often, this is what is used between permanent colorings for root maintenance.
- 30%-70% gray coverage depending on the brand, professional product, home product, and the chemicals used to deliver the color.
- The color itself doesn’t last as long as permanent hair color, and fades off within a few weeks.
- Because it blends and fades less dramatically, it can help with a less distinct demarcation line.
Semi-permanent hair color:
- Also known as direct dye, it is usually one product requiring no mixing with any other chemical.
- The dye looks in the bottle or bowl pretty much like it will look on your hair.
- It deposits or stains color onto the hair.
- The color, at first, is usually saturated.
- It is often marketed to wash out in three to six weeks.
- Also around 30%-70% gray coverage.
- It can give dimension to the hair based on how much it colors each individual strand.
- However, it can, permanently stain your natural hair, especially white hair and higher porosity hair.
Rinse or Temporary dye:
This broad category of products varies based on need and desired outcome. Temporary dyes can be found in a multitude of applications, chalk, liquid, hair-paint, conditioner, toner, gloss, rinses, etc. There are the professional coloring toners to be used in tandem with hair color treatments like bleaching and highlighting. In addition there are home use products including shampoos, masks, conditioners, gloss, foams, even toning sprays.
- Usually a product with dye added that you apply to wet or dry hair
- Can last anywhere from one wash to several weeks.
- It normally does not alter the cuticle, which is why it is temporary.
- These products wash out as soon as the first shampoo after or several shampoos later.
- They are NOT designed for gray coverage.
- The cool vibrant colors are great for gray hair when you want to have a little fun with your hair.
- Most often is temporary but there are now demi- and semi-permanent versions.
- Stylists use toner to cool down or warm up tones in natural or dyed hair depending on the desired outcome.
- Most often used with bleaching to tone out the yellow that always remains.
- Toner temporarily tones down yellow or brassy tones on lighter bleached (lifted) hair colors.
- It can sometimes be used on darker hair to achieve the same as a toning shampoo, only lasting a little longer than shampoo.
- It contains little to no pH altering ingredients (like ammonia), it acts as a coating, rather than altering the cuticle; therefore, it has little staying power.
- Some wash out within a week or two and others last a little longer.
- Toners include the ashy colors all the way into silver and gray tones, and vivid and pastel colors.
These come in range of colors to combat certain issues, and usually contain one or more dyes.
- Purple counteracts yellow on lighter shades of hair from blonde to white and everything in between.
- Blue counteracts orangey tones on darker colors of hair like auburn, brown, and red.
- Green (or ash) counteracts red tones on any color hair.
- Red shampoo counteracts green on light colors and enhances red tones on red dyes.
Gloss: temporary dye that is usually a shine product to help you revive permanent color, adds shine, and helps reduce frizz and split ends. It can also be used as a toner with a light tint in it for your desired result. Some are clear and can just add shine and frizz control for silver hair, but buyers beware: some can stain silvers.
The Three Primary Lifting Products:
1. Bleach: ingredient added to developer to remove color from hair and lighten it. The darker your hair the more bleaching it will take to achieve the lighter colors, as one session of bleaching usually only removes two shade levels of color.
2. Developer: the peroxide that is added to the process for lifting color. Used with a permanent or demi-permanent color. The higher the volume of the developer the more hydrogen peroxide it has and the more aggressive the oxidative process is.
Interesting fact: Hydrogen peroxide breaks down melanin, melanin creates the pigment in our hair, and the same oxidative stress hydrogen peroxide creates to lighten the hair for dye is the same process our body is going through to make gray hair. As we age (and sometimes from other factors like genetics and stress) we lose the enzyme that breaks up hydrogen peroxide in the cell, when the cell is loaded with hydrogen peroxide it bleaches the melanin in our hair turning it gray.
3. Color Remover: a product that can contain bleach, peroxide, and/or extra-strength sulfates to remove artificial color without bleaching the natural color (in most cases).
What Happens When You Bleach Gray Hair?
A client story:
Karen came to me for a consultation after she had highlights put in her natural gray hair at the salon. Karen has graciously allowed me to share her experience because she had no idea what was about to happen when she asked her stylist for help.
Originally, she talked to her stylist about just adding a few more white pieces since her gray hair is on the steel side with a couple of natural white mallen streaks (aka money pieces). She wanted “a few more white pieces.” Karen trusted her stylist to add a few more white streaks, but it turned into a full highlight job. Neither Karen or her stylist really knew this was going to happen — instead of white streaks the highlights were yellow.
This is WHAT bleach does to hair, there really is no such thing as bleaching it white, it will always end up with a yellow tone. Even if you bleach white hair, it will turn yellow. Toners are used to achieve the ashy tone that makes it look more silver but as with Karen’s case it didn’t hold for very long before the ashy tone was gone and the permanent yellow was revealed underneath.
Once this has happened it is permanent. The only choices you have after:
- Dye them over with a darker color to neutralize the yellow.
- Keep up with toner (which wasn’t an option for Karen as it came off in the first shampoo).
- Let it grow back out.
Karen wanted me to share this here to help you understand what can happen.
“I do not know what possessed me to add highlights when I was already happy with my hair. I won’t make that mistake ever again.”
I tested bleach on gray hair so I could see what would happen to the hair. Check out this video if you want to see the damage done:
Olaplex or Bond Builders:
Olaplex is a multi-product system, #1 and #2 are used during the initial color process to “protect” the hair from bleach damage. Make no mistake when bleaching your hair: it MUST be damaged in order to lift the color. Bond builders were created to help with chemically damaged hair. They are meant to help support your hair by adding strength and structure; a sort of fill in for the areas of the cuticle that are damaged beyond repair.
Fair Warning: if you have virgin hair, no color and no chemical treatments (perms or straightening), what we call lower porosity hair, you likely do not need Bond Builders like Olaplex. Simply put, your hair cuticle is not damaged. When you use a product like this with virgin hair, you create a structural buildup that can make your hair yellow, brittle, and eventually it can feel straw-like. Most of the bond builder products are a weekly use product, not a daily use product, make sure you read up on your product.
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Your Top Hair Dye and Gray Questions Answered:
Can I dye my hair GRAY without bleaching?
Unless, you have white hair, then you may be able to dye it darker gray with the right products.
Is there a silver rinse for gray hair?
There are various shampoos, conditioners, rinses, glosses, and temporary toners. Talk to your stylist and let them help you determine what will work best with your natural hair color. I highly recommend asking if they have used the product with good results on other clients with your hair color.
Can you wash out dye and return to your natural color gray hair?
Unless you are using temporary dye, your white hair WILL be stained permanently.
You cannot wash OUT hair dye in the semi-permanent, demi-permanent, and permanent categories. Think of it this way: permanent means permanently stained. They may fade over certain lengths of time but they don’t wash out.
Don’t take your chances if you want to preserve your natural silver, gray or whites, they will stain it.
The one exception I know of that washes out is Manic Panic Classic High Voltage. They market it as semi-permanent, but it usually washes out with no staining in under three weeks like temporary dye.
Can I use semi-permanent to transition and then just let it fade out once I have grown it out?
As explained above, it will permanently stain your hair, especially the white hair.
However, you can gradually soften the demarcation line from permanent hair dye: switching to a semi- or demi- color a few months before you ditch the dye completely, can leave you with a reverse ombré-like effect as your natural color grows in.
Can you remove dye to go back to your natural gray?
Unfortunately, the only way to “remove” semi-permanent, demi-permanent, and permanent dyes is by bleaching it, which permanently alters the dyed hair color and your natural color.
Can I use color remover to go back to my natural hair color?
I highly recommend avoiding color removers as they usually result in orange hair that is dry and brittle. They do remove color but not the way you think. What remains after the color is removed is the permanently altered hair color from the lifting. Certain colors, especially black, can react and leave a metallic-like residue on your hair that can cause dryness, brittleness, and eventually breakage.
Can I remove Henna and go back to my natural color?
Although natural, Henna is usually considered permanent dye. While it fades off in intensity, it stains your natural color. Henna does not play well with synthetic dyes, color remover, or bleach; for this reason, stylists won’t usually touch hennaed hair with many chemical services.
How can I lighten my gray hair without bleach?
How can I lighten my gray hair to silver?
You really can’t.
And if you use bleach on gray it will turn a yellow color. Bleach removes the color from the dark melanin in your hair (which remains with darker gray hair), it leaves the lighter melanin (which is responsible for blonde hair) this is why bleached hair always turns yellow.
How can I cover GRAY hair without dyeing it?
You can use a few options:
- temporary root sprays
- temporary fun colors
- hair pieces
How do I grow out my dyed hair?
I have a full post to answer this question > How Do You Transition from Dyed Hair To Your Natural Grey Hair
How do I transition to gray overnight?
This involves a full day or several trips to the salon. You will need a color specialist who knows what they are doing to help you bleach your hair safely and get you in for toner reapplications as you grow that dye off. My friend Katie at Katie Goes Platinum has a great post on this to answer all your questions.
ALWAYS DO A TEST SECTION: Please note, there are no real and clear CONTROL STANDARDS in the hair color industry, so one company may label something one way when it is actually another.
If you are at all concerned about coloring your silvers and them being permanently stained do a test section underneath. If you love your silvers, err on the side of caution. Even stylists are just now learning what happens with grays and certain types of hair color; because having gray hair clients who want to remain gray and don’t want to damage their silvers is relatively new.
I hope you found this post educational and helpful.
Thank you for reading. Please feel free to share.
As always it is about so much more than the hair.
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