Before box dyes were available on drug store shelves, ancient civilizations experimented with color-transforming tonics. The Egyptians favored henna, a plant extract from the mignonette tree, while the Celtic people opted for platinum by combing lime through their hair. From there, color options expanded to include an extensive repertoire of nature-based hair enhancements, from ochre and leeches to saffron and iron oxide.

While we are fortunate to no longer rely on home-grown solutions like fermented leeches or ground mineral powders, coloring hair can still be complicated. The potentially volatile mix of chemicals seriously damages your locks, primarily when it’s not handled by a professional cosmetologist who understands the intricacies of your hair’s health, texture, and porosity.

So, what is it about color treatments that can leave your hair frizzy, dehydrated, and discolored? We’ll explain what happens when you go under the dye cap, including the effects of different levels of treatment. 

Then, next week, we’ll teach you how to help your hair bounce back with healthy habits and post-treatment TLC. 

What Happens to Your Hair During a Color Treatment?

It’s hard not to stumble across seemingly countless stories about color treatments gone wrong, leading to massive fallout, extreme frizz, or hair that seems to turn to mush the minute it gets wet, but what makes hair dye so potentially devastating to your locks?

First, it’s critical to understand what hair is: keratin protein “shingles” that protect the more delicate inner cortex and medulla. To alter your hair’s chemistry and create a new color, dyes have to “lift” these shingles with the help of chemicals like ammonia.

Once the proteins are open, the peroxide in hair dye breaks down your existing color. Most dye mixes contain peroxide, regardless of whether you’re lightening or darkening your hair. That’s why leaving color treatments on for longer than necessary or using too high a volume for your hair causes tremendous damage. Once the melanin is broken down, the peroxide will begin working away at the proteins, altering their structure.

Finally, the color deposits under the lifted keratin shingles, and the new pigment molecules are trapped once they close up again.

Types of Hair Dyes and How They Work

Next, let’s discuss the different potencies and longevity options you have available. A general rule of thumb to keep in mind is that the longer-lasting the color treatment, the more intensive the chemical reaction and the more severe the damage.

Temporary Hair Color

Unlike other hair coloring treatments, temporary dyes sit on the surface of your strands as a powder, chalk, or spray. They don’t affect the composition of your hair and will wash away after a single shampooing.

They’re typically reserved for masking roots before you can get an appointment with your favorite stylist or as a fun way to try something new without the commitment.

Semi-Permanent Hair Color

If you’re looking for a gentle color treatment free of harsh chemicals like ammonia and developer, semi-permanent dye is your best option. They often go by the name of “toners,” as they don’t actually penetrate the hair shaft but change the tone of your current color while adding shine.

Those who bleach their hair are likely quite familiar with toners, as they are necessary for achieving that perfect shade of platinum, ash, or honey by correcting brassiness. Specialty purple shampoos contain toners to help color-correct blonde hair in-between bleachings. Brunettes can also benefit, as they can make faded permanent color treatments look freshly done, blend new highlights into your base color, or, in the case of clear toners, simply add a gorgeous glossiness for healthier-looking hair.

Depending on your hair’s porosity, toners can last up to 12 washes. They can be very drying, so limit touching up the semi-permanent color once every 4-6 weeks.

Demi-Permanent Hair Color

For longer-lasting color, demi-permanent hair color offers a middle ground between semi-permanent and permanent treatments. It uses a very low volume of developer that only partially opens the hair shaft, depositing some pigment while causing less damage.

It enhances your natural color by darkening and color-correcting, adds a sheer, glossy shine, and lasts up to 24 weeks. It has a very gradual fade, making it an excellent option for touching up color if you know you won’t have time to make it to the salon for a while or if you only want a subtle shift in your hair’s natural color.

Permanent Hair Color

Permanent hair color does just that– permanently changes the internal structure of your hair by opening up the pores to leave behind new pigment molecules or, in the case of bleaching, strip them away altogether.

It is by far the most drastic change and the most damaging product. Still, you can help mitigate the problem by finding a trained, trusted cosmetologist, choosing the lowest volume of developer necessary to achieve the look you want, and showing your hair a little extra TLC to help strengthen the strands.

Be sure to check back next week for advice from our skin, hair, and nail experts to keep your dyed hair healthy and moisturized! In the meantime, check out our dermatologist-approved haircare products from brands like Elon and CLn, or stop by our Edina and Waconia locations to find the best options for your hair concerns.