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Is at-home hair coloring as good as professional hair dye?

Hair stylists are likely to say that the best hair color comes from professionals. Although this is true in some cases -- for example, if you're making a radical change in your hair color -- plenty of people have success dyeing their hair at home. What's more, Paula Begoun, author of "Don't Go Shopping for Hair-Care Products Without Me," says women who color their own hair have the same rate of satisfaction as those who use professionals.

Although consumers may question the quality of drugstore hair colors, Begoun says at-home hair colorants are "superbly" formulated. In fact, she says, "the way hair dyes function and the ingredients used to make them do not differ between the drugstore dyes and the salon dyes." At-home hair coloring, therefore, is a perfectly acceptable and a more affordable alternative for those who simply want to cover gray hair or slightly lighten or darken their natural hair color.

Perhaps the most difficult part of coloring your hair is choosing the color you want. Experts say the safest bet when coloring your own hair is to never go more than two shades lighter or darker than your natural hair color. You should match your hair color to the chart on the side of the box, because it is a better indicator of the color you will get than the model pictured on the front of the box.

If you're looking for anything more dramatic, consult a professional. Experts say that you should also consider going to a salon for hair coloring if you want to dye your hair red. Professionals say red hair color is the hardest one to get right, even for those with naturally red hair. For those with severely damaged hair, using a professional is your best bet for avoiding more damage.

Labels can sometimes be misleading

Hair dye comes in a multitude of shades and strengths, both of which are described in entirely different ways at the salon than they are at the drugstore. For the purposes of this report, we focus on at-home hair color, which come in three strength levels: semi-permanent (level one), demi-permanent (level two) and permanent (level three).

What's most confusing about drugstore hair colors is that companies do not label their products in a consistent manner. Semi- and demi-permanent products, for example, are often labeled as "non-permanent." But the terms aren't exactly interchangeable.

Semi-permanent hair colors coat the outside of hair with dye that gradually washes off. Demi-permanent hair colors are similar to permanent formulas in that they rely on peroxide to lift hair color while depositing dye for the new color. Demi-permanent formulas, however, aren't as strong and cannot change hair color as dramatically.

According to Beth Minardi, a New York City hair stylist, demi-permanent formulas don't wash out of hair either. That's because unlike semi-permanent dyes, they actually penetrate the cortex of the hair.

Permanent and demi-permanent hair dyes are the most common box kits sold at drugstores. Several demi-permanent formulas are listed as semi-permanent, however. True semi-permanent formulas last through four to 12 washings. If the box says anything more than that, it is likely demi-permanent.

Articles abound online about how to color your hair at home, but we found the most credible evaluations for the best hair color kits at ConsumerReports.org and Good Housekeeping. Each of these sources tests several kits against their claims of gray coverage. We also found recommendations for the best at-home hair color in beauty magazines such as InStyle and Allure  where editors say they test hundreds of beauty products for their annual beauty awards. We cross-referenced those recommendations with user reviews at MakeupAlley.com, TotalBeauty.com, Amazon.com and Drugstore.com to find the best hair color in five categories.

Hair Color Runners Up:

Revlon ColorSilk Est. $3.50

5 picks including: Good Housekeeping, Redbook…

Clairol Nice 'n Easy Est. $7

4 picks by top review sites.

Clairol Nice 'n Easy Perfect 10 Est. $12

2 picks including: Amazon.com, Good Housekeeping…

ColorMark TouchBack Est. $30

2 picks including: Amazon.com, Redbook…

L'Oreal Paris Root Rescue Est. $7

2 picks including: Good Housekeeping, MakeupAlley.com…

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Revlon ColorSilk Beautiful Color 30 Dark Brown
Buy from Amazon.com
from Amazon.com
New: $12.27 $0.99   
In Stock.
Average Customer Review:  
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Clairol Nice 'n Easy Root Touch-Up 003 Black 1 Kit
Buy from Amazon.com
from Amazon.com
New: $11.29 $2.33   
In Stock.
Average Customer Review:  
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L'Oreal Paris Feria Hair Color, M32 Violet Soft Black/Midnight Star
Buy from Amazon.com
from Amazon.com
New: $8.99 $7.99   
In Stock.
Average Customer Review:  
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Clairol Nice 'n Easy Perfect 10
Buy from Amazon.com
from Amazon.com
New: $11.99   
Average Customer Review:  
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Touch Back by Colormark Temporary Hair Color Marker Medium Brown
Buy from Amazon.com
from Amazon.com
New: $35.00 $23.95   
In Stock.
Average Customer Review:  
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L'Oreal Paris Root Rescue Hair Color, 6.5 Light Golden Brown
Buy from Amazon.com
from Amazon.com
New: $5.99 $0.48   
In Stock.
Average Customer Review:  
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L'Oreal Paris Couleur Experte Express Hair Color, 6.4 Light Golden Copper Brown/Ginger Twist
Buy from Amazon.com
from Amazon.com
New: $44.60 $13.79   
In Stock.
Average Customer Review:  

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