Here's a little refresher to remind us of the basics of hair colour theory. You will probably notice that colour theory across a wide variety of disciplines contains many similarities - use your creative and artistic expression to create beautiful colours on your guests! Happy mixing!
Remember, if you're ever unsure of the results of a formula or if your guest's hair is strong enough for the colouring procedure, perform a strand test! You can use a mannequin made with human hair or a concealed area in your guest's hair. Another trick is to save longer hair whenever you are cutting hair that is not long enough to donate. That is perfect and free human hair that you can use for your test strands and experimenting! It doesn't get more real than that.
The following is just a brief rundown of the basics of haircolour theory. A thorough understanding of haircolour will develop from experience and practice, a keen eye for observation and continuous learning. If you are new on the floor, watch what is going on and ask questions from anyone and everyone who is willing to help you. The hair colour companies that you work with in your salon will also have an array of courses that you can take in person and/or online to advance your colour knowledge and techniques.
Principles of Colour Theory
The Colour Wheel
When we are talking about haircolour, we are talking about colours that are the result of fabricated pigment. In this case, white represents the absence of coloured pigment and black is created by combining all 3 primary colours in equal proportion.
There are 3 primary colours. These colours are found in nature and are not produced by mixing other colours. They include: Red, Blue and Yellow.
Secondary colours are the colours that are made by mixing 2 primary colours. They include: Violet, Orange, Green
Tertiary colours are the colours that are made by mixing a primary colour and its neighbouring secondary colour together. They include: Red-Orange, Yellow-Orange, Yellow-Green, Blue-Green, Blue-Violet, Red-Violet.
Complimentary colours refer to colours that are directly across from each other on the colour wheel. They are called complimentary colours because they balance each other out and they look good together.
Warm colours have red, yellow and orange undertones. Hair colour in a warm shade tends to look lighter than its level.
Gold is an example of a warm tone.
Cool colours have green, blue and violet undertones. They tend to look deeper than their level.
Ash is an example of a cool tone.
Neutral colours have equally balanced proportions of cool and warm undertones.
Beige and grey are example of neutral colours. Please note, some "neutral" colours may contain an extra tint of a warm or cool colour. For example, blue-grey will be more on the cooler side than a neutral grey.
Understanding the Label on Professional Haircolours
The label on professional haircolours are usually described and labelled based on 2 components: the level + the hue.
The level refers to the darkness or lightness of the haircolour. It is the base value of the colour.
The hue refers to the tone of the colour.
Many haircolours also have a cute name assigned to describe the colour (e.g. "amaretto", "aubergine" or "sandy beige"). However, it is impractical to memorize all these cutesy names. To truly understand the level and hue of a particular colour, you must understand what the numbers assigned to a particular haircolour mean. It is a highly organized system.
Haircolour levels or values are categorized on a scale going from 1 to 10, one being the darkest and 10 being the lightest. Some haircolour companies have a 12-scale system.
Colours in the natural line are just base. For example, 1N, 5N or 10N ("N" in this case stands for "natural").
Haircolour Hues (Tones/Shades)
The hues in each colour line are assigned a number. You must learn which hue/tone each of these numbers represent for the colour line you are using in order to understand how to skilfully mix your colours.
The shade of colour on your haircolour box is typically assigned a number unique to that shade. Haircolours can contain one or more hues/tones.
For example, in the L'Oreal Majirel permanent line, 7.4 is a level 7 colour containing a Copper (4 - orange) undertone.
When colours have 2 undertones, the first one stated is the predominant undertone and the second one stated in the secondary undertone. For example, in L'Oreal Majirel, 7.43 is a level 7 with a Copper (4-orange) and Gold (3-yellow) undertone. 7.43 appears visually lighter than 7.4 due to the presence of gold as a secondary undertone.
Another example: in the shade 7.40 in L'Oreal's Majirouge line, the copper looks more vibrant and intense than in 7.4. This is because the "0" in that shade of colour signifies that the Copper (orange) undertone has been intensified.
The same number might mean a different tone/hue in different haircolour companies. For example, in L'Oreal Professionnel, "1" represents "blue: and "2" represents "violet"; however, in Schwarzkopf Professional, "1" represents "Blue/Violet," "2" represents "Ash Blue" and "9" represents "Violet." As you can see, the numbers for the tonal values across haircolour companies are not interchangeable.
Despite this, the principles of colour theory remain the same no matter which haircolour line you are using. As long as you understand the principles of colour theory and how to neutralize or intensify undertones, you can learn to use ANY haircolour line.
Certain colour lines are also specially crafted to be able to provide better results for certain shades of haircolour. For example, just like L'Oreal has a Majirouge line for long-lasting and vibrant red results, Aveda also has a permanent colour line that is mixed by adding an "Intense Base" to a "Natural Series Base" for more bright or intense reds.
By learning the haircolour company that you are using inside out, you will learn all of the products that they have available and the correct mixing procedures for optimal results in each and every situation.
How to neutralize/balance hair colour:
A haircolour is neutralized by adding its complimentary colour. Remember - a complimentary colour is the colour that is directly across on the colour wheel.
This means that red can be neutralized by green and vice versa. Orange can be neutralized by blue. Yellow is neutralized by violet.
So let's say you did highlights on a guest and once the hair was processed, it was still more yellow than the final result that was desired. You could neutralize the yellow by applying a toner with a violet undertone.
What exactly does the process of hair colour going from darker to lighter look like? What happens during this process?
Hair lightens is stages. This process takes time and can take multiple sessions. Let your guests know. Feel free to show them this image:
Hair colour lifts from hair in the following order: first blue pigment, then red pigment, then yellow pigment. That is why hair that is level 10 still has a pale yellow undertone, but does not have blue or red in it. You will need to keep this in mind when lifting someone's hair to the desired level of lightness. Knowing which undertone remains in the depigmentization process will help you to understand which tones you will need to mix into their toner or colour in order to balance the remaning undertone. You can choose to either neutralize unwanted undertones or intensify a desirable undertone. The tone that remains in hair as it lifts is often referred to as a contributing or remaining pigment. Use this depigmentization chart for your reference:
If you have guests coming in for colour corrections, always remember this rule: Hair colour will NOT remove or lift hair colour. Hair colour can lift virgin hair depending on the volume of developer that is used. However, applying a level 9 hair colour on top of hair that has been previously coloured to a level 5 will NOT bring that hair to a level 9. Hair colour can only be removed with a colour remover product (e.g. L'Oreal's Effasol), hair bleach or lightener, or a shampoo cocktail. For this reason, a thorough consultation including a hair analysis MUST be performed on any guest who wants to lighten their hair. If the hair is not in healthy enough condition to withstand the lightening process, it would be advisable to educate your guest and to offer an alternative. Perform a strand test if you want to show them what will happen to the colour and condition of their hair before commiting to do the entire head. Always be honest. More help on consulting with guests who wish to go lighter can be found here.
Hair Colour Products
Below is a description of the basic categorization of different haircolour products. It is not exhaustive as there are many professional haircolour companies regularly improving and updating their colour products. Learn about different lines and try them out to find out which is your favourite. You may find yourself using different products from different companies based on your preferences and to fulfill the needs of your guests.
We will focus only on oxidative colours here (colours mixed with a developer), because semi-permanent or direct-dye colours that do not require developers usually are just applied directly without needing any sort of mixing.
We also will not get into non-professional box dye colour or henna colours as it is well known within our industry that they are not the same as professional colours. They are progressive dyes and can contain metallic salts. They often require a colour correction to be removed from the hair. You will not be offering these types of colours in a professional salon. Every now and then, you may have guests that ask you to apply a haircolour that they choose to bring into the salon (this is usually due to allergies). It is up to you and/or your salon owner if you will apply their colour. You can still charge for the application at a slightly discounted rate since the guest is bringing in their own product.
Demipermanent colours are long-lasting semipermanent colours typically mixed with a low-volume developer (e.g. 5-15 volume). They do not lift the hair very much - perhaps just one level or just shift the level slightly. They often have no or little ammonia. Demipermanent colours often provide high shine and usually last 4-6 weeks. Demipermanent colours are often used as toners at the shampoo basin.
When you would use it: Use demipermanent hair colour when you only need to deposit colour, do a colour gloss, tone the hair and/or when grey coverage is not needed. More on colouring grey hair is found in the section below.
Please know that demipermanent haircolour mixed with 10 volume or higher and applied on the root may cause the root hair colour to lift a little, resulting in a slightly lighter and warmer tone (i.e. potential "hot roots").
Permanent colours are mixed with developer 10 or higher. To simplify how they work, they cause the cuticle of the hair to swell and deposit colour molecules into the cuticle and cortex through a chemical process of oxidation, .
When you would use it: Permanent hair colours are needed to lift hair 2 or more levels and for grey coverage.
High Lift Colour
High lift colours are permanent colours often used to lift natural hair at a level 6 or higher to a shade of lighter blonde without the use of bleach. They are often mixed with 30 or 40 volume.
If you are not sure if your guest's hair will lighten as desired with a high lift colour, you can do a test strand. My hair is naturally between a level 6 and 7 and they do not work very well for me (my hair remains too yellow), so I used on-the-scalp bleach for my touch-ups.
These can be mixed into haircolours to either intensify a wanted tone or neutralize/balance an unwanted tone. (e.g. Blue Mix or Red Mix from L'Oreal Professionnel).
Hair bleach and lightners are used to achieve greater levels of lift, freehand techniques (e.g. ombre and balayage) and foil work (e.g. highlights). They decolourize, dissolve and disperse pigment in the hair. Lighteners can also be used to make shampoo cocktails to remove some unwanted colours in hair.
On-the-scalp lighteners are more gentle and come in cream or oil form. It is recommended to use these with 20 volume or lower.
Off-the-scalp lighteners typically come in powder form and provide greater lift. They should not be applied the scalp as they can be more abrasive.
Some lighteners claim to be appropriate for both on and off-the-scalp lightening.
Hair that has been processed with a lightener often requires a toner afterwards to get the hair to the desired hue.
Always be careful when using lighteners as overlapping lightener on previously lightened hair can cause a line of demarcation or breakage and/or damage to the hair.
Developer is what activates the haircolour and makes it process to the desired level and shade.
Different levels of developer are used based on the level of lift that is desired. The chart below explains which developer to use for each level of lift:
Each haircolour company uses a specific ratio for the amount of developer that is needed. You must follow their specific mixing directions for the correct results.
When formulating and applying a solid haircolour, keep in mind that hair on the roots can lighten more quickly than hair on the midlengths and ends. This is because heat from the scalp quickens the process. Take this into consideration when formulating, otherwise you could end up with a root colour that is undesirably lighter and/or warmer than the rest of the hair (which is known as "hot roots"). If this happens, a toner applied to the roots could potentially correct the lighter shade. Better yet, if you know that this will be an issue, you can also PREVENT this by starting with applying the colour about 1.5 inches away from the roots down to the midlengths and ends and then apply to the roots in the last 10-20 minutes of the total processing time (depending on what the total recommended processing time for your haircolour line is).
There are many debates in the hair world as to whether you can get away with using a developer that is from a different company than the tube of haircolour that you are using. I honestly prefer to keep the haircolour company that I'm mixing in the same bowl consistent. They were designed and created to work together and compliment each other, so I do not know if I can trust the results of mixing a haircolour from one company and a developer from another. Guests are counting on consistent, reliable and predictable results and I believe that it is our professional duty to provide high quality services of value.
Dealing with Grey Hair
Grey hair typically requires permanent hair colour mixed with 20 volume in order to be able to penetrate and offer 100% complete coverage of stubborn grey hairs. Most demipermanent hair colour products only offer approximately 30-75% grey coverage, although exceptions can exist. Grey blending can also be achieved with some demipermanent colour lines. Follow the instructions and intended use of your products carefully in order to ensure that you can deliver the coverage results that your guest is expecting.
In order to ensure that stubborn greys are properly covered, you will need to mix your base colour with your target colour to ensure grey coverage. Some people use just a natural shade (e.g. 6N), but this creates a very monotonous and cookie cutter colour with very little depth. To give your guest beautiful results, you should want to mix a natural base colour (e.g. 6N) with the target colour (e.g. 6.32).
For example, if your client is 50% grey and would like to have her hair coloured with a medium mohogany red in shade 5.65, you will need to mix: 1/2 5N + 1/2 5.65 with 20 volume.
Colours with gold undertones also provide more grey coverage than other undertones.
Many professional haircolour companies offer a colour line that is specially formulated for additional grey coverage. These colour lines tend to be deeper and offer more pigmentation in their base.
If your clients have those annoying short grey hairs that like to stick out along their hairline, you can place perm end papers on top of their coloured hair along their hairline in order to control those ends and keep them down, thus ensuring they get proper colour coverage. This perm paper trick also works great when tinting unruly grey eyebrow hairs.
Mixing A Haircolour
So, now that we know the basics in colour theory, how exactly do we mix a haircolour then?
There are a few crucial steps to take and questions that you must ask yourself when deciding your colour formula:
1) What colour is the guest's hair now?
You can use colour swatches from your hair colour book to help you identify this.
2) What level and shade does the client want as a final result?
3) Which product line will give the best results?
This is when you need to decide if the job should be done with demipermanent colour or permanent colour. Or do you require extra lifting with a lightener?
Which level of developer are you going to use?
You may require different formulations depending on which part of the hair you are working on and the duration of the procedure. This is especially true when doing a colour correction or a big lightening service. Sometimes what you apply on the roots is not the same as what you need to mix for the midlenghts and/or ends.
4) What underlying pigments am I going to need to either intensify or neutralize?
This is where an understanding of which contributing pigments remain as hair lightens and of colour theory is extremely important. For example, if your client is going lighter from a level 6 to a level 8 and does not want to see a lot of warmth in their hair, you may need to formulate their haircolour with some ash to balance out the yellow/orange undertone that will be naturally left behind. If they like a lot of warmth in their haircolour, you may need to add more gold into their formula.
5) How do I mix the colour?
This refers to the colouring product to developer ratio. You must follow the instructions for the particular haircolour line that you are using to a T for this. The product may require 1:1, 1:1.5, 1:2, or even 1:2.5. You must follow the instructions for the colour/lightener/toner and developer ratio.
Image by Hans Braxmeier from Pixabay
If you need to mix more of the same colour because you realize you need more, you must mix the formula in EXACTLY THE SAME proportion of bases, target colours, undertones and developer as the first batch you mixed. Using a scale to weigh your colour is the best way to ensure consistent and accurate results every time. Always record the colour formulas you have used for each client in their file for future reference and replication.
You must also correctly observe the hair for the correct processing time. This will also be instructed by the colour line that you are using. Follow it. Underprocessing the colour will result in a haircolour that is not complete - certain colour molecules may not have finished developing into the hair. Yellow, red and blue dyes deposit at different time intervals during processing.
Overprocessing a toner can result in an undesirable shade. Overprocessing bleach or lightener can result in damage and breakage to the hair.
Haircolour is never an exact science. It is a chemical process that can vary from person to person, because everyone's hair is different! Have fun with it and get creative. With practice and continuous learning, you will gain confidence and the experience needed to take on the challenging but extremely fun colouring projects!
Cengage Learning, Milady Standard Cosmetology, US, 2011
Pivot Point International Inc., Cosmetology Fundamentals: A Designer’s Approach, Evanston, IL, USA, 2014