I’ve been in love with red hair ever since I was a little kid. I think it looks particularly striking with my blue eyes and fair skin. My hair has been every shade of the rainbow and everything from jet black to platinum blonde, but the hardest color to achieve and maintain is bright red. I’ll start this by saying that I am not a professional colorist, although I did go to beauty school and complete the hair color unit. This is not a how to guide, and if you decide to follow it you’re doing so at your own risk. I’m only writing this because a ton of people have asked me how I achieve and maintain my color.
Traditionally, you have two options for how your red hair will come out. Option one is to go there gradually and watch it become more and more vibrant as you go. Option two is to pre-lighten your hair and apply red hair color (either permanent or a direct dye) over your lightened hair. The downside is that you’ll compromise the integrity of your hair. Damaged hair doesn’t hold onto color as well as healthy hair does. Of course, bright red is one of the hardest colors to maintain due to the large size of the semi-permanent pigment molecules. It doesn’t penetrate the hair shaft as much as other smaller molecules. Please check out this super informative post that easily explains the basic science of hair color. I’ve attached three images from that post. For a longer explanation of how hair color actually works, check out this page.
Whenever I had red hair as a teen, I would bleach the hell out of it and then use a direct dye like Manic Panic or Splat. These fade even faster than traditional permanent color, and have the tendency to stain everything in your path. The good thing about how fast they fade is that you can easily change the color of your hair. For example going from blue to red takes one lightening process and then the application of your direct dye. However, they aren’t a good option unless you’d like to spend a ton of time and money on your hair. Granted, professional grade semi-permanent colors like Pravana and Joico will last better than Manic Panic, but you need a license to get a hold of them and most teens don’t have access to it. Bright red direct dye hair colors hair are also a lot harder to get away with at work and in professional environments due to the stigma “crazy colors” have.
Over the past 6 years of experimentation I’ve finally found the perfect way to achieve beautiful and long lasting red hair without breaking the bank or spending a lot of time maintaining your hair. It’s basically a hybrid of both methods that results in coloring hair less often and protecting it from damage from repeated chemical processing. I purchased everything at my local beauty supply shop like Sally Beauty. When I started this process this time, I had jet black hair with extremely overgrown brown roots. The first thing I did was lighten my hair for 10 minutes with Wella powder lightener and 20 volume developer. This lifted part of the black out and left it a brownish shade. I then used L’oreal HiColor in Red Hot with 20 volume developer. Because I didn’t go completely blonde and I kept my hair brown underneath, I was able to achieve a red hue without damaging my hair too much.
Once my hair started to lose vibrancy, I touched it up with the same L’oreal Hicolor and it came out slightly more vibrant than it did originally. I then got a haircut, which got rid of a lot of the dark ends I had remaining from using black color on my hair. At the time of writing, most of the hair that was black has been cut off. I don’t have to pre-lighten my hair before coloring it anymore because my brown roots are light enough to become the shade I want them to be.
If you’re going from a really dark color, you will not achieve results like mine the first time you color it. I have a chart below showing how my hair has changed over the past few months. You can see it keeps getting brighter and brighter because my natural hair is a lot lighter than the black I started with. If I really wanted to, I could have bleached my hair for a long time and put the red over it right away to get a result like the final picture, but my hair would be very dry and damaged and would not hold onto the color.
For my next touch up, I used Wella Color Tango in Ruby and 20 volume developer, and it came out super vibrant and even in color after 25 minutes of processing. Unfortunately, it faded very quickly and left my hair a weird salmony-orange color. I also wasn’t crazy about the application because the cream was super thick and hard to spread. I didn’t want to use permanent color over it again since it had only been a week, so instead I applied Manic Panic in Pillarbox Red all over my head and let it sit under a scarf for 5 hours. This was the holy grail. Instead of relying on either direct dye or permanent color, you can use permanent color to give yourself a red base and direct dye to keep it bright without over-processing your hair. I was able to go 3 weeks without coloring it, and it was just as bright as the first day.
I’ve tried a few colors since then, such as Ion Color Brilliance creme in 71R-77.66 and One n Only in 5RV when I attempted to give it a slight violet hue (don’t try this, it came out dark plum.) I’ve settled on using the L’Oreal Hicolor. I’ve tried Red Hot, Red, Magenta, and have tried both the Hilight formula and the regular one. My favorite so far has been the Hilight version in Magenta. The only downside is that if you have medium-long hair you’ll need to use multiple tubes of color. I’ve also been experimenting and I found that you can use different semi permanent colors over your color to give your hair a different tone.The last picture in my chart is L’oreal Hicolor Hilights in Magenta with Ion Color Brilliance Neon in Radiant Orchid over top.
The method I use is extremely low maintenance. I’m able to wash and style my hair as usual. My neck and pillowcases are never stained. My towels do get a little stained, but I remedy this by using black or red towels. I understand that not everyone will have the same result, but my routine is literally as easily as coloring my hair, using semi permanent direct dyes to touch up vibrancy, recoloring once a month or as needed, and doing everything I’d be doing already. I receive so many compliments on my hair, and hairstylists have remarked that my hair feels great despite all the coloring. The biggest thing to keep in mind is that you should definitely seek a professional if you’re not sure how to go about achieving red hair like mine. It’s better to pay the money to have a professional do your hair instead of doing your own, being unsatisfied, and paying a ton of money at a salon to do multiple rounds of color correction.
I do have some tips for how to easily care for red hair:
-Don’t wash your hair with hot water. Use the coldest water you can stand. You don’t have to use ice water, but anything more than lukewarm will strip the color.
-Use color care shampoo and conditioner. I recommend Matrix Biolage Color Care or similar professional grade products.
-Don’t wash your hair every single day. If I have a day off at home I’ll just keep my hair up in a headband. I have fine hair so I have to wash every other day, go as long as you can between washes. Dry shampoo is a lifesaver, and some brands even make a red.
-Use heat protectant spray before heat styling your hair.
-Don’t use very high heat on your tools. Use the lowest setting you can get away with.
-Tie your hair up when taking a bath so you don’t lose too much color. I’d recommend taking a bath and then washing your hair separately. It’ll save your hair and your tub.
-Use 20 volume developer and avoid anything higher. Using higher developer could lead to more damage and “hot roots”, where the roots are much brighter than the ends of the hair.
-After coloring hair, rinse it away from your face. Ideally use a stainless steel sink.
-Always, always wear gloves and use Vaseline around your hairline, ears, and neck. Red color stains really bad. Don’t waste money on “skin protectant” from the beauty supply shop.
-If you accidentally stain your skin, you can use dish soap on a paper towel to wipe it away.
-Don’t go out in heavy rain or you’ll look like you’re bleeding from the head. Light rain is okay.
-Stay out of the sun as much as possible. UV rays can fade hair faster.
-Don’t get your hair wet when you go swimming.
-Don’t wear white clothing if your hair bleeds when you sweat. When coloring, wear something you don’t care about so you don’t make a mess.
* Most pictures are from the Sally Beauty Supply website. The Vaseline, Batiste, and Matrix pictures were all from Bing.