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Hair Color Guide: Everything You Need To Know

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Get Closer to Your Best Hair Color by Understanding These Terms.


Bleach is a chemical agent used to lighten or disperse pigment from the hair shaft in a permanent manner. Bleaching is useful when you want to go from a darker color to a much lighter one by stripping the pigment from the hair strands. Bleaching can be quite harsh on the hair and over-processing must be avoided.


Bleaching is the actual process where lightening or de-colorization occurs, starting from the largest (darkest) pigments. This is typically known as the “7 stages of bleaching”: black – brown – red-brown – red – orange – yellow – white (in that order).

Bleach Additives

Bleach additives such as OLAPLEX is used to minimise the protein damage that bleach does to your hair. In addition to this, certain products can bond to the protein bonds in hair and protect your hair from further damage.

Clay Lighteners

Clay lighteners are lightening powders that contain organic pigments and allegedly 17 amino acids, silk extracts, olive oil, panthenol and milk, as well as being ammonia free. They are not “clay” at all and are simply promoted as “natural” and better for the condition of the hair. They are effective, but can easily be over-processed and can cause serious damage to the hair shaft if adequate care is not taken.


A colorist is a professionally trained (usually in an advanced color course) in all aspects of hair coloring and hair chemical science. They have thorough understanding and knowledge of how and why hair color works. A colorist generally does the color consulting and sometimes application work for all salon clients, leaving cutting and styling to other members of the team.

Color Shade

A hair color shade is a color and numbering system that is used by hair colorists to determine a person’s natural level of neutral color. This system mostly starts at number 1 (black) and finishes at 10 (blonde). This information is very important as color types and/or techniques are dependent on the hair’s initial color shade.


The cortex lies directly underneath the hair cuticle and is spiral-looking in appearance, like a coiled rope. It is here that pigments are found and that natural hair elasticity, i.e. straight, wavy, curly, gets its form. The cortex is also where all permanent chemical coloring takes place, including bleaching, perming, chemical straightening, and where the natural shape of the hair is changed. For example, using hot irons to go from curly to straight or hot rollers to go from straight to curly. These changes last only until the hair becomes wet again.


The medulla is the hollow canal that appears in the very center of the hair shaft. It is not known to serve any specific purpose to the hair’s overall strength or appearance. The almost invisible layer is the most fragile part of the hair.


The cuticle is the outermost structure of the hair, resembling fish scales packed down up to 12 rows deep. The cuticle is the hair’s first defence against all forms of damage that include chemicals, ultra-violet light, styling appliances, styling products etc. A damaged cuticle leaves the hair looking dull and feeling rough, but more importantly, increases the likelihood of extreme damage occurring inside (leading to things such as natural and artificial color fade, split ends and breakage).

Demi-Permanent Color

A demi-permanent is a wash-out color that lasts about 20-25 shampoos. Demi-permanents do have low levels of hydrogen peroxide in them to open the cuticle and allow the color inside the hair shaft. This type of color is great for going darker, brighter, adding shine and for hiding and blending small amounts of grey. However, although demi-permanents will not lighten hair like permanent color, caution should taken because with prolonged use color build up in the hair results in the color not washing away, making it permanent in nature and leading to regrowth problems.

Hair Color Sprays

Hair color sprays are temporary or wash-out colors that are generally found in aerosol cans and sprayed onto dry hair. They are usually in unconventional fashion colors such as blue, green, red, yellow etc. Also, they are sometimes used by people to mask grey hair, or by some men to make their fine thinning hair appear darker and therefore thicker, and even to color the scalp to disguise hair loss. A word of caution though: keep out of the rain and avoid humid weather or the color will run off the hair and onto your clothing.

Hair Color Sticks

Hair color sticks are temporary colors used when people need a quick fix to touch up exposed roots, or to create highlights of different colors. The stick is similar to mascara, and color is painted directly onto dry hair with a small brush. It’s a somewhat sloppy process and can dry stiff. Watch out for moisture because the color can run off the hair and onto your clothing.

Hair Color Swatch

A hair color swatch is a small clump of hair that has been colored to a particular shade and reflect (tone) and then placed in a color chart with other swatches so that hair colorists and their clients can visualize hair color changes. Note: the color you see is not necessarily what you get!

Henna Color

Henna is a plant that contains a deep red dye used as a natural form of hair coloring. The active component in henna is lawsone, which binds itself to keratin (human hair protein) and washes away after several months- making it a semi-permanent color. Variations to the deep red color can be found as a result of mixing ingredients from other plants and vegetables, and even synthetic dyes. Sometimes, these synthetic dyes can cause some damage to the hair shaft. You need to be aware of how using henna can cause problems later when trying to perm or perform other chemical procedures on the hair.


L’Oreal is the world’s largest cosmetics and beauty company and has its head office in Paris, France. It specializes in hair color amongst other things, but it was actually its invention of permanent hair color that began this mighty empire. In 1907 a French chemist, Eugene Schueller, developed an innovative hair color formula that chemically made hair color permanent. This the beginning of the L’Oreal company which in 2007 was listed as having 63,360 employees and a revenue of 17.06 billion Euros.

Natural Hair Color

Natural hair color is a person’s original hair color; in other words, excluding any artificial colors, highlights, or chemicals that can coat the hair (such as chlorine that makes the hair look green). Your natural hair color does take into account any natural bleaching that is caused by the sun. Natural hair color is an important thing for a colorist to take into consideration as each natural hair color reacts differently to artificial color.

Permanent Hair Color

A permanent hair color employs chemicals to artificially change, delete, or counteract the natural pigment in the cortex layer of the hair shaft. This is done when dyes and bleaches are “turned on” by mixing them with an activator (generally peroxide) and sometimes heat, to open the cuticle and then allow the chemical changes to take place. The results are permanent changes that do not revert back to the original, however the roots of the hair grow back unchanged (regrowth).


Peroxide, otherwise known as hydrogen peroxide, is used in many ways in everyday life as a bleaching agent, disinfectant, oxidizer and antiseptic. It’s main use however is in hair color services as a developer or activator. Its primary role is to open the cuticle layer and allow tints or bleach into the cortex so they can then deposit or remove color by breaking disulfide bonds within the hair, releasing sulfur (hence the smell). When peroxide is mixed with hair bleach, the peroxide continues to de-colorize color pigments; but when mixed with tints, its role is to bond the new color molecule inside the hair.

Semi-Permanent Hair Color

Semi-permanent hair color is a color formula that deposits itself mainly on the cuticle layer of the hair, but it will also penetrate deeper into the cortex. This type of color cannot lighten hair and is generally used to add depth, change color tone, brighten the hair and camouflage small amounts of grey. The color fades away with each shampoo, meaning it lasts between 6-8 shampoos, and it can be found in various forms including, mousses, gels, crèmes and liquids.

Temporary Hair Color

Temporary hair color comes in various forms including rinses, shampoos, gels, mousses and sprays. The color molecules are very large and can only sit on the hair’s cuticle. Therefore, they don’t penetrate into the hair, making the color only last 1 wash. Temporary hair colors are great for a quick, temporary and relatively safe makeover (in any case always consult your stylist first). Just remember they cannot lighten hair, but can only temporarily darken and brighten.


Tinting is the process of mixing artificial color with a developer and applying it to the hair, causing permanent color change. The tint itself is made up of color molecules that go into the cortex and, with a little help from the peroxide activator, redeposits color after de-colorization has occurred. Tinting is a permanent process that requires careful thought and planning from a qualified colorist that understands the boundaries of what is achievable and best for your hair.


Balayage is actually an application technique which has now evolved to be described as a final result of the hair. It is described to a hairstyle color with gradual change in a soft and graceful way. Balayage is achieved through freehand painting and no foils are required. Balayage gives the hair a natural highlight on the top of the strands that cascades into full color. Balayage can occur in different shades from blonde to brown, and even different types of hair whether it be curly, straight, long, or short.


Hair Foils or Foiling is a hair coloring process that can lighten, brighten or darken hair. Rather than a freehand technique, foiling is a much more controlled process where the stylist will section off hair with a piece of foil. Depending on the type of look you are after, these sections can be done thicker or thinner. Foiling also traps heat much better than open air or plastic film, allowing the product to penetrate deeper into the hair, leading to an even more intense look.


Highlights are a way to brighten hair by lifting the natural base to create lightness and contrast. The application of highlights uses foils to separate the strands in a specific way to create dimension to the hair. The color is applied root to tip and creates a contrasting effect. This application is perfect for those who want to avoid a full head of color to add lift, shine, and blend.


Ombre means “shaded”. This is a hair coloring technique where a darker base of color is gradually lightened at the lengths and end of the hair. The difference between ombre and balayage is that with ombre the color gradient is gradual, whereas balayage is normally a highlighting technique. Ombre is a very popular hair color style because it is extremely easy to maintain. As your hair grows out, the lightened shade is moved gradually downwards, and require little touch up.

If you’ve enjoyed this article and keen to try out different hair styles, check out ‘20 Hair Colors That Suit Every Complexion‘ where we explore different hair colours that will turn heads.

Images are sourced from Shutterstock.

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