Articles abound online about how to color your hair at home, but we found the most credible evaluations of hair color kits at ConsumerReports.org and Good Housekeeping. Each of these sources tests several kits against their claims of gray coverage. ConsumerReports.org also evaluates ease of use and finds that all kits do a good job of coloring hair, but a few produce excellent results. Hair and beauty expert Paula Begoun provides comprehensive information in her book "Don't Go Shopping for Hair-Care Products Without Me." Begoun evaluates hair dyes by doing a comprehensive study of their ingredients and the way they work. She does not rate specific products, however. We found recommendations for hair color products in beauty magazines such as InStyle, Allure and Shape, where editors say they test hundreds of beauty products for their annual beauty awards. We cross-referenced those recommendations with user reviews. MakeupAlley.com is a particularly good site for hair-color reviews, and users describe their experiences in detail.
Hair stylists probably will say that you will get better looking hair color if you have the job done by a professional. 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, Begoun says women who color their own hair have the same rate of satisfaction as those who have it done by a professional. 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 that create these products do not differ between inexpensive products and those found in salon products." 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 current hair color. You should match your current 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 are looking for anything more dramatic, you should 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. Those with severely damaged hair should also seek the help of a professional to avoid more damage.
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 colorants, which come in three strength levels: semipermanent (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 "nonpermanent." But expert Paula Begoun says this is not accurate. Although manufacturers say demi-permanent hair-color products will last through at least 24 shampooings, "these are not wash-out dyes; the color stays in the hair shaft permanently, period," Begoun says. She points out that it takes most women about six weeks to shampoo their hair 24 times -- the same amount of time it takes for new hair growth to appear. Semipermanent hair colors, on the other hand, gradually wash out over the course of six to 12 shampooings.
For years, there has been speculation among consumers and health groups that consistent use of hair color can result in an increased risk of certain types of cancer. According to Begoun, this is a real concern, but exhaustive research by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the National Cancer Institute and the National Institutes of Health has yielded no conclusive answers. Begoun says the research has been both confusing and conflicting: "In essence … there is no definitive proof one way or the other." The FDA recommends that consumers weigh the risk for themselves.
According to ConsumerReports.org, "Hair-color products can contain lead, a probable carcinogen and developmental toxin, or p-phenylenediamine, which can cause skin reactions and swollen eyelids." For these reasons, if you decide to color your hair, you should perform a patch test as recommended in the instructions.
Although so-called "natural" hair dyes abound, Paula Begoun points out that even these contain some degree of potentially hazardous chemicals. Those that are completely chemical-free, she says, are not very effective. Henna, for example, is a natural hair color that is incredibly drying to the hair shaft, Begoun says. And cosmetics scientists at TheBeautyBrains.com say that henna will only temporarily tint your hair. Although most so-called natural hair-color products use fewer chemicals than most drugstore hair colors, experts say that any change to natural hair color causes hair damage. Experts suggest using the gentlest formula that will yield your desired color and using it as infrequently as possible.
Herbatint (*Est. $11) and Naturtint (*Est. $17) are two permanent hair colors that use a smaller amount of hair dye chemicals in conjunction with natural ingredients. Both have fairly decent ratings at MakeupAlley.com (though each gets only a handful of reviews).