Until recently, the only option besides permanent was semi-permanent hair color. Semi-permanent hair color works by coating the outside (cuticle) layer of hair with color. It also has some ability to penetrate the cuticle and spread into the cortex underneath. Most temporary hair color gradually fades away over the course of four to 10 shampoos (harsher shampoos will fade them more quickly).
One bonus: Semi-permanent hair colors don't damage hair as much as permanent hair color does. Actually, they can leave hair shinier, thanks to ingredients that fill in any damaged spots in the hair's cuticle.
Non-permanent hair color is harder to find in stores, however. That's because consumers usually want longer-lasting results and more dramatic changes than a semi-permanent hair color can provide. Semi-permanent dyes are best for enhancing and brightening the color you already have or for covering up gray -- not necessarily for changing your hair color.
Demi-permanent hair colors are the new non-permanent. They work much like permanent colors -- albeit with lower concentrations of peroxide and dye, and they don't contain ammonia. According to celebrity hair colorist Beth Minardi, demi-permanent hair colors won't wash out, but they can't change hair color as dramatically as permanent dyes can. Roots are less noticeable with demi-permanent dyes, because the color changes are more subtle. These subtle changes also mean that you're less likely to make a mistake.
Clairol Natural Instincts (Est. $7) is the most popular non-permanent hair color among users -- and it's the experts' favorite, too. Clairol says this ammonia-free, demi-permanent dye lasts through 28 shampoos.
It scores well compared to similar products at TotalBeauty.com (7.9 out of 10 stars from more than 260 users) and MakeupAlley.com (3.7 out of 5 stars from more than 600 users). It's available in 33 shades and processes in just 10 minutes. Consumers say the easy-to-apply formula leaves their hair shiny and rich with natural-looking color. Many say the color fades gradually, and several users say they love the included weekly conditioner, saying it is worth the cost of the box itself.
Natural Instincts wins the hair dye test at Good Housekeeping, where it's judged the "Best Color for All Shades." Natural Instincts also does well in tests performed by another professional source, although testers point out that it leaves streaks and unevenness on some hair samples. Testers also say that the gloves provided in the kit aren't as strong as those in other kits -- they ripped during use.
Since Clairol Natural Instincts is ammonia-free, it lacks a chemical odor. Users say it has a fruity fragrance. If you're looking for a product that offers more shades as well as a tolerable scent, runner-up Revlon ColorSilk (Est. $6) is a well-reviewed product with 42 colors to choose from. It's likewise ammonia-free, so -- although it's marketed as a permanent hair color -- it's not capable of the dramatic changes that ammonia-based hair colors can achieve. It's really a demi-permanent color, and Good Housekeeping testers rank it as their very favorite for coloring brunette and red hair, and it ties (with Clairol Nice 'n Easy (Est. $7), discussed in our Best Hair Color section) for best blond coverage. Hard-to-please users at MakeupAlley.com agree, giving Revlon ColorSilk one of their highest ratings -- 3.9 out of 5 stars based on more than 700 reviews.
Another user favorite, Wella Color Charm Demi Permanent Hair Color (Est. $6) is a top-rated pick at TotalBeauty.com and MakeupAlley.com. Although this smaller brand doesn't appear in major tests or magazine reviews, it has a loyal following.
"Readers with fine hair gush that this product has been a godsend for the health and look of their tresses," TotalBeauty.com says. MakeupAlley.com users award Wella Color Charm Demi an extremely high 4.3 out of 5 rating, with 90 reviews posted. Most say it leaves their hair well-conditioned, and they like its true colors without brassiness. Because Wella comes in a tube (rather than a kit -- you have to buy the 8-ounce activating lotion separately, for $4 to $6) users say it saves money, and it makes it easier to mix colors for a custom result.
For emergency, uh-oh-my-roots-are-showing touch-ups, you can buy crayons, markers, sprays and powders that hide your roots in an instant and wash out with your next shampoo. None of these is perfect: Waxy root touch-up crayons can make your roots look and feel greasy, for example, and sprays can color your scalp as well as your hair.
Overall, though, reviews say Color Wow Root Cover Up powder (Est. $35) is the best of the bunch. It has won Allure magazine's Best of Beauty award for three years running, as well as NYMag.com's test of seven root concealers.
"I was more than skeptical when I opened this compact and saw what looked like eye shadow with a large brush," NYMag.com tester Stella Bugbee writes. "But as I dabbed on the powder my grays disappeared and stayed covered all day. No mess, no dry time, nothing obvious."
Bugbee notices that the powder clings to her hair, not her skin. That's because Color Wow's double-ended zinc particles have a positive charge at one end, to cling to the negative charge on the hair. At the other end, the particle holds a pigment powder (there are seven shades).
"In supersimple terms, the particles are essentially forming a tiny bridge linking the pigment powder to your hair," Allure says. "The only thing that can break this bridge are the surfactants (cleansers) in shampoo," so it won't wash off in the rain. The powder isn't waxy (so it doesn't look or feel stiff), it reflects light like real hair, it only takes a minute to apply, and "it truly, convincingly covers up root regrowth and stays put until you wash your hair."
Runner-up ColorMark TouchBack (Est. $35) won Allure's Best of Beauty award for three years -- before Color Wow came along. This marker-type root concealer is "Recommended" in NYMag.com's test, but not as highly as Color Wow.
"Like a Sharpie, or a tiny shoe-polish applicator, you can use this pen to draw over your grays," Bugbee says. "Pulling your hair away from your head as you apply is key to avoiding blotting the dye on your scalp, but if you do misfire you can smudge any excess away with a finger. Coverage is decent, mess minimal, and once it dries none of the color will rub off on your hands." However, in another leading consumer test of eight temporary root concealers, panelists judged TouchBack "least likely to last."