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. $21 for three) is the most popular non-permanent hair color among users -- and it's the experts' favorite, too. Clairol says this demi-permanent dye lasts through 28 shampoos. Professional colorists tell editors at Today.com that they like the ammonia-free formulation, and it impressed GoodHousekeeping.com's testers with its even coverage, shine, and fade resistance, although they do point out that the color began to fade after about four weeks in their tests. At Elle.com, professional hair colorists point out that because this color is demi-permanent, the color eventually washes out -- meaning you don't develop obvious roots that need constant re-touching. It's available in 36 shades and processes in just 10 minutes.
It scores well compared to similar products at MakeupAlley.com, Amazon.com and Ulta.com, where 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 product itself.
Some users say Clairol Natural Instincts is preferable to semi-permanent hair color, which they say feels like paint coating the surface of their hair. Some reviewers do report getting a different color than they expected, but experts say it works best on red and brunette hair and suggest opting for a shade lighter than the end result you're looking for.
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, runner-up Revlon ColorSilk (Est. $16 for three) is a well-reviewed product with 41 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 top pick for coloring brunette and red hair, and it ties (with Clairol Nice 'n Easy (Est. $21 for three), 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 among similar products-- 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 brand doesn't appear in most major tests or magazine reviews, it has a loyal following and earns a nod from professional hair colorists at Today.com.
"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 in several dozen reviews. Most say it leaves their hair well-conditioned, and they like its true colors without brassiness.
Unlike many competing options, Wella does not come in a kit, so you have to buy the required Wella Color Charm Activating Lotion (Est. $8 for 15.4 ounces) separately. That's not necessarily a bad thing as users say it saves money, and it makes it easier to mix colors for a custom result. A few hundred users on Amazon.com offer feedback on various Wella Color Charm products, with mostly positive opinions.
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, and it also earns praise in MarieClaire.com's roundup of expert recommendations for the top home hair color products. Editors at MarieClaire.com say Color Wow Root Cover Up "tidily settles in your hair follicles and stays put," noting that temporary root touch-up products like this are "a foolproof way to camouflage a few gray areas at your roots."
Color Wow Root Cover Up's powder clings to hair, but not 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). Editors at Allure magazine say that Color Wow's tiny zinc particles are the secret behind its staying power, explaining that the particles "attach to dark regrowth and wiry grays, holding color in place—even in a downpour."
Hundreds of users on Ulta.com and Amazon.com are enthusiastic about Color Wow Root Cover Up, noting that it's a must-have essential for emergency root touch-ups. The handy compact case with a mirror makes it easy to toss in a day bag, users say, and it's simple to apply and mess-free. Some reviewers say they wish it was available in more shades.
Style Edit Root Concealer (Est. $18) is a spray root concealer formulation that earns high scores from thousands of reviewers at Amazon.com. It comes in five color-adjusting formulas designed to blend perfectly with any hair color, can be applied in seconds and dries in minutes for mess-free, rapid root coverage. It won't run, and it washes out with your next shampoo.
Users say it's slightly sticky, but it provides great coverage even for stubborn grays, and some say they use it not only for root touch-ups but also for making thinning hair less noticeable. It looks natural, reviewers say, and it doesn't leave a residue behind on pillowcases or clothing.
Another temporary root concealer popular with consumers is Ever Pro Gray Away Temporary Root Concealer (Est. $10), which earns high praise from hundreds of reviewers at Ulta.com. A spray formulation like Style Edit Root Concealer, it comes in three shades -- lightest brown/medium blonde, light brown, and black/dark brown -- with a self-adjusting color technology to blend in with a variety of natural hair shades. Reviewers say it offers great coverage for gray and thinning areas, and it washes out easily with your next shampoo.