Read This Before Picking Up That Box Hair Dye

Illustrated by Mallory Heyer.
If you've ever been on the bad side of a box-dye job, you know that the results can be less than pretty. But booking triple-digit salon appointments — every four weeks! — can be just as damaging to your wallet and schedule.

Luckily, at-home hair-coloring kits have vastly improved from the wig-like, single-process formulas of the past. There are now bespoke shade-matching services, pro-style kits, and even improved root cover-ups. We asked the pros how to ace at-home hair color — whether you're looking for a little touch-up or a major change. Click ahead to read their advice, preferably before you set that timer.

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Illustrated by Tristan Offit.
The experts agree: Wait until you've dyed your hair a couple times at home before trying anything crazy. “You don't want to do a drastic change because it can be shocking and, if it's not the right color, it can be more difficult to go back to what you were before,” says Estelle Baumhauer, color director for the mail-order hair-color service eSalon. “If it’s your first time coloring at home, stick to two levels lighter or two levels darker than your natural color,” adds Sally Hershberger colorist Cassondra Kaeding, who works with Jennifer Lawrence and Lea Michele.

Two levels may sound like your options are limited, but they’re not. A shade of the same color can be warm with gold or red tones (like a caramel-blond or auburn) or cool with blue undertones (like a platinum-blond, ash-brown, or soft cherry). Kaeding recommends Vidal Sassoon Salonist color, which mimics the in-salon process and provides detailed instructions for newbies.
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Illustrated by Tristan Offit.
Most products meant for the roots only are novice-friendly, says Aura Friedman, a Sally Hershberger colorist. “But don’t touch the rest of your hair if it’s already colored... If you add more color on top, you're going to end up with a build-up of color that is really hard to get rid of. Even when we touch up color at the salon, we only gloss the ends.” (We like L'Oréal Mousse Absolue, a reusable hair color ideal for in-between sessions.)

This roots-vs.-tips intel is also relevant if you’re changing your color from another dyed shade; the old product is still on your hair and will affect the new color.
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Illustrated by Tristan Offit.
Not everyone is versed in the language of ash-blond and honey brown — but it's important to know the lingo before you pick up that box at the store. Your hairstylist can tell you what shade your hair is right now, and might be able to recommend a drugstore prod that works well with your hair color and texture. Or, if you're really lucky, he or she might even give you a bottle of the formula that was used on you in the salon, says Friedman.

Don’t have a go-to hair guru? Online color store Madison Reed has a color quiz and also offers phone, email, and chat consultations. Every customer-service rep is a colorist and can give better advice than most associates in the drugstore aisle. “We always recommend that you talk to a color adviser before buying; that way we can give you an expectation of what you can actually do with your hair, and what's the best result you can get yourself at home,” says Chelsea Smith, a colorist with Madison Reed.
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Illustrated by Tristan Offit.
Those baggy, one-size-fits-no-one gloves that often come with a box of color don’t give you the best grip or agility; instead, pick up a box of tight-fitting disposable exam gloves.

Then, apply a barrier cream (like Aquaphor) to your forehead, ears, and neck so that if the dye gets on your skin, you can just wipe it away when you’re done coloring, says Smith. Bonus tip: Wear a T-shirt you hate.
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Illustrated by Tristan Offit.
“A demi[-permanent color] is less risky and low-maintenance; two minutes in and rinse it out,” says Kaeding. (We like Clairol Natural Instincts.)

A color-depositing shampoo or conditioner, like Evo Fabuloso Colour Intensifying Conditioner, lets you experiment to see if you even like the color before committing to something deeper.
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Illustrated by Tristan Offit.
Don't expect to get the same "after" color as the one you see on the box — it just ain't gonna happen. Again: Different hair, different results. Unless the formula was created with your exact hair in mind, you're not going to duplicate those store swatches, stresses Friedman.
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Illustrated by Tristan Offit.
Just ask Kim Kardashian: It's really hard (almost impossible) to do black-to-blond at home, says Friedman, who has taken several models from sable to platinum. “Permanent color lifts your base color to the surface and exposes your natural undertone — and if your hair is dark or medium brown, that undertone is probably red or orange,” she says.

If you're a hair-color virgin, you might luck out...but your hair might also break. Bottom line: If white-blonde is your end goal, seek help before trying it at home.
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Illustrated by Tristan Offit.
Kaeding and Friedman both say that the at-home technology just isn't there yet. And eSalon agrees — which is why it's working on a process down the road that will incorporate the French balayage technique.
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Illustrated by Tristan Offit.
If you dye it and forget about it, you're just washing money down the drain. “A color-safe shampoo is more acidic than regular shampoo, and that acid closes the cuticles of your hair so it holds the pigments longer,” says Baumhauer. “I also love a nourishing mask to give hair softness and body; if your hair is dry, that negatively affects your color.”

Want to refresh your color two or three weeks after a salon service or at-home coloring? Try a gloss, says Smith. “The Madison Reed Semi-Permanent Gloss will revive your color and boost its vibrancy.”
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Illustrated by Tristan Offit.
Unless you bleach your hair so badly that you give yourself a chemical haircut, messing up is not really that big of a deal. “If you’re following this advice and not doing anything extreme, then the great thing about at-home hair color is that it’s hard to make a mistake that's unfixable,” says Smith. And — unlike a haircut — if you hate it, you can dye it back rather than waiting for it to grow back.
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Illustrated by Tristan Offit.
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