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If you’ve recently typed the phrase “What color should I dye my hair?” into the search bar, chances are you came up more confused than when you entered the chat. You’re not alone: The world of hair color is vast and, ultimately, entirely personal—you can dye your hair any pigment you please, be it a natural-looking set of highlights or a full-on fantasy hue.
However, there are a few factors that can help you determine which hair color will flatter your features best, as well as which tones to stick to on your very first dye. We tapped top colorists for their go-to tips and crafted a quiz to throw them all together (because hair color should be fun, no?). Consider this your field guide to choosing a dye.
What should you consider before dyeing your hair?
These factors can help you navigate your go-to hair color:
1. Motivation and commitment level
“Considering your motivation will help guide you toward the best color,” says celebrity colorist Mark DeBolt, co-founder of Mark Ryan Salon. Read: Someone looking to go lighter will have a different plan of action than someone seeking a richer color, which will also differ from someone who wants to cover up grays.
Before choosing a color, know the commitment you’re making: Generally, you can choose between semi-permanent, demi-permanent, and permanent hair dye:
- Semi-permanent has the least staying power, lasting around eight washes (it’s classified as a temporary dye).
- Demi-permanent increases the timestamp a bit, lasting around 12 to 20 washes.
- Permanent dye lasts the longest—usually six to eight weeks or until your natural roots start to appear. (Hair typically grows about ¼ to ½ inch per month, in case you’re curious.)
Generally, lightening the hair requires more maintenance and trips to the salon. “Going darker is much easier, especially if you choose a demi-permanent [dye], as these tend to gradually fade out over time, so you have less of a commitment,” says celebrity colorist George Papanikolas.
If you do wish for a lighter color but aren’t too jazzed about the upkeep, DeBolt suggests a “lived-in” color where most of the highlights weave throughout the lengths of your hair. “If there are fewer highlights on the scalp, or those highlights are shadowed to be more [in tune] with your natural color, the longer you can go between appointments,” he says.
According to Papanikolas, the golden rule of hair color is to stay within two shades of your natural color for your first dye. “[Anything] lighter or darker can look harsh,” he says.
Generally, your hair color should complement your skin undertones: warm with yellow, golden, or orange-infused hues; cool with pink, violet, or blue-toned shades. “Neutral [undertones] can go with any hair color,” says Papanikolas, whereas “Olive skin has green undertones and looks best with its opposite warm tones.”
While hair dyes have come a long way, with less damaging ingredients and smarter formulations, the color can still weaken the strands as it opens up the hair cuticle to deposit pigment. So if you have drier hair prone to breakage already, a platinum-blonde dye might wreck your strands more than, say, lived-in highlights.
Additionally, “‘Ashy hair color looks less vibrant and healthy,” says DeBolt. “Someone with a frizzy texture or damaged hair might consider warmer tones so the hair reflects more light and looks healthier.”
5. Your hair color as a child.
Think about your hair color in kindergarten: Was it a vibrant shade of copper? A rich honey-brown? A deep auburn? “Children have the most beautiful natural hair color,” says DeBolt. (That’s because their hair and skin are chock-full of collagen and other essential proteins, ones that eventually deplete with time and exposure to environmental aggressors.) “As we get older, most of our natural hair color turns ashy or ‘flat’-looking in tone.”
That said, look to your childhood hair color as inspiration—it’s also a great marker for what shades will appear most natural on you. Stephanie Brown, master colorist at IGK Salon, agrees: “I always say that what your hair was like as a toddler are the colors and tones you should stick to.”
Understanding your results.
Find your natural hair color family below to find your go-to tones. Note: The specific names of these hair hues may vary depending on your stylist and brand of dye, but these are some of the most common monikers. You may also want to save a few images of the look you’re trying to achieve—it helps to have a visual.
Finally, make sure to stay within two shades of your natural hair color for your first dye (whether you go lighter or darker) so it looks natural.
1. If your result includes blond tones.
Whether you choose to go lighter or darker, these are your blond tones:
- Those with warm skin undertones will want golden, yellow, and orange hues, as cooler, icy shades will make the skin appear sallow. Opt for these colors (which range from lightest to darkest): sandy or beach blond, golden blond, honey blond, or dirty blond.
- Cool undertones, on the other hand, require a more delicate balance. You don’t want too many yellow tones in the hair (which can make you appear dull), but you also don’t want a color that’s too ashy (which can wash you out). Baby blond, smoky blond, champagne blond, beige blond, or wheat blond are your best bets—again, these range from lightest to darkest blonds.
- If you have neutral undertones, you can opt for both cool and warm shades.
- Olive undertones typically have a green or gray tone to the skin—a cooler hair color can make the skin appear a bit ashen. Rather, highlight those warmer tones in your skin with hues like beige blond, cream blond, beach blond, dirty blond, and bronzy blond.
2. If your result includes brunette tones.
Browse these rich brunette shades:
- Those with warm undertones will want shades that bring out the warmth in your skin. Opt for these hues (which range from lightest to darkest): golden brown, caramel or toffee, amber, chestnut, or mahogany brown.
- If your skin appears cool, honey-toned hues can wash you out. Consider hues like chocolate brown, ash or smoky brown, or espresso to complement your undertones.
- And if you have neutral undertones? Look for brunette shades that are not too ashy, not too warm—hues like light brown, mushroom brown, or dark chocolate.
- Warmer hues also flatter olive-toned skin as well. Again, that’s golden brown, caramel or toffee, amber, chestnut, or mahogany brown.
3. If your result includes red tones.
- Reddish hues that flatter golden undertones include peachy blond, rose gold, bronze, copper, scarlet, or russet. (These range from lightest to darkest in shade.)
- Cool undertones, with hints of pink and blue in their skin, fare well with pink- or violet-toned reds, like a strawberry blond, muted copper, raspberry, or auburn.
- With neutral undertones, you can choose between cool violet tones and a coppery warm hue—either shade family will complement your neutral undertones.
- Warm red tones like rose gold, copper, or mahogany help bring out olive undertones. A scarlet or auburn can work as well; just be sure not to stray too violet.
4. If you have naturally jet black hair.
If you have naturally black hair, you can’t expect to sport honey-blond locks in one sitting. Any dramatic hair color change will not happen in one appointment, for what it’s worth, but even lightening the hair from black to brown may take a few visits. However, if you want to add some depth to your locks, these below hues will work best for your first dye:
- If you have warm undertones, a rich chestnut will highlight the warmth in your skin, as will a chocolate hue.
- Subtle highlights with plum-brown tones look great on cooler complexions with a naturally dark base, as it adds a purplish cast that offers some dimension. A blue-black or raven hue also skews cool, which would complement those undertones.
- With neutral undertones, you can choose from both warm and cool tones, like a rich chocolate or a complex shade of plum brown.
- For olive complexions, a chestnut or chocolate brown can add some richness to the hair color and flatter the hints of green in your skin.
5. If you want to enhance your natural color.
To enhance your natural color (without the commitment of a dye), opt for a hair glaze or hair gloss. The former is a semi-permanent color that “coats the hair shaft with shine and lasts up to a few washes,” celebrity colorist and Redken brand ambassador Matt Rez previously told mbg. It doesn’t change the color at all—it’s mainly used just to add luster to your strands.
A hair gloss, on the other hand, is a demi-permanent color that lasts about 12 to 20 washes—it’s primarily used to subtly enhance the hair color, color-correct hair undertones (like from warm to cool or vice versa), or to blend grays.
A gloss gives more color payoff than a glaze, but both leave you with a result quite close to your natural hair color.
If you’re stumped on which color to dye your hair, these tips can help you decide what would look the most natural. Of course, you can always opt for a fantasy or bold color (although, your undertones still matter when choosing a shade!), and make sure to bring plenty of inspiration photos to your colorist.