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How To Color Your Hair At Home Without Totally Ruining It

Expert-approved tips that make DIY hair color a total breeze.
PHOTO: istockphoto

No lie, I've been box-dyeing my hair since the sixth grade (shout out to my emo phase, which my mom so lovingly let me ride out). Yes, I've thankfully graduated from the moody purples and jet blacks I used to buy in bulk at the mall, but I still dye my hair at home when I don't have the time (or cash) to get to my colorist. I can confidently say I know my way around a bottle of hair dye by now, but I've made literally every mistake imaginable along the way—see: the time I got permanent color all over my ears, or when I bought the wrong box and was left with a red hue I definitely didn't sign up for.

And since I'd hate to have your first experience with box dye be a total shit show, I broke down every tip and trick you'll need to make the process a whole hell of a lot easier. I even chatted with Meri Kate O'Connor, a super-skilled colorist at Eva Scrivo Salon in NYC, for a few expert-approved hacks, too. Translation: You're in good hands.

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How to color your hair at home

  1. Find your shade

    Obviously, the first step in your at-home coloring journey is buying the dye. But instead of running to the drugstore and grabbing the prettiest-looking box, lemme just emphasize the importance of finding the right shade. "Box dye is kinda a one-size-fits-all situation," says O'Connor. "So I generally suggest clients stick to a cool or neutral tone, since box dye can 'lift' your natural hair color and leave you with a warmer shade than you intended."

    FYI, if you're looking to take your hair a full shade (or two!) lighter or darker from your natural hair color, O'Connor suggests skipping the box all together and booking an appointment with a professional, since there's more room for error when you're going drastic.

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  2. Prep your hair

    If you're taking the time to color your hair at home, it's beyond worth it to put in a little prep work to make sure the process goes smoothly. The easiest way to keep your scalp safe while you're coloring it? Work with three-day-old hair. "I suggest not washing your hair for a few days before coloring it, since your natural oils will help protect your scalp from any chemicals in the dye," says O'Connor.

    One more thing: Before you mix up your dye, grab a tub of petroleum jelly. "You can smooth some [of it] around your hairline and on your ears to protect your skin from staining," says O'Connor, since there's legit nothing worse than washing out your color and realizing you've dyed your skin (which, guilty).

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  3. Follow instructions carefully

    Keep in mind that every box dye comes with its own set of instructions, so make sure you read 'em carefully before you get started. After you mix up your dye (your instructions will walk you through it, though you'll usually just shake up a bottle of color and developer), throw on a pair of gloves, and start with your roots. "Your roots need the most time to develop, so if you're coloring your whole head, you'll want to start at the top and pull the dye down through your ends," says O'Connor. 

    Feeling a little lost? Check out this easy-to-follow tutorial for a few pointers:

How to color your hair lighter at home

I know, I know—you'd rather go blonde at home than drop thousands of pesos at a salon, but dyeing your hair lighter takes some serious skill and should definitely be left to the pros. When you're lightening your hair, you're "lifting" its pigment (whether that's natural or dyed), and it's fairly easy for that new color to accidentally veer onto the warmer, brassier side.

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That's where colorists come into play: They'll be able to custom mix your dye to make sure you get the right end result. "With at-home color, you typically have little-to-no control with the color you're using, so you may end up with warm or brassy roots—especially with brunette shades," says O'Connor. The truth hurts, I know.

How to color gray hairs at home

Got a few gray hairs peeking through, but not quite ready for a full-on dye job? You can totally color your gray hairs at home, and there's a shit-ton of methods out there, including root touch-up kits (targeted hair dye that you comb through your roots) and concealer sprays (dry shampoo-like formulas that temporarily tint your hair until you wash them out).

How to fix hair dye mistakes

If you've gone too light

If you rinse out your hair dye and it's not that rich, chocolate-brown hue you thought it'd be, don't freak—you've definitely got options. You'll just have to wait a couple weeks until you can dye your hair again, since even the healthiest of strands can't withstand multiple rounds of dye in one sitting. That said, once you've given it a little time (and, like, invested in a good hat), you can reapply the same color and let it sit for less time, checking it every five to seven minutes before rinsing to make sure it doesn't go too dark, says O'Connor.

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If you've gone too dark

"If you've gone too dark, I'd first suggest using a clarifying shampoo to help lift some of the pigment," says O'Connor. Basically, the harsher the better, so look for one with sodium lauryl sulfate in the ingredients list—which, usually, would be your nightmare, but for stripping color? Go for it (once). "You should follow with a deep conditioner, though, since clarifying shampoos tend to be a little harsh." When in doubt, O'Connor always suggest going to a professional to fix any major mistakes.

How to make hair dye last longer

Alright, so you've got the perfect hair color—now it's time to make sure it stays perfect. Semi-permanent hair color can last up to 12 washes, but only if you're taking care of it. That means using a sulfate-free shampoo and conditioner every time you clean your hair, as well as an ultra-hydrating mask or treatment that'll work to repair any dryness or damage.

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This article originally appeared on Minor edits have been made by the editors.