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Best Semi-Permanent Hair Color

By: Tara Tuckwiller on March 12, 2018

Semi- and demi-permanent hair color is gentler, but doesn't last as long

Semi- and demi-permanent hair color lets you try new shades and hide grays – without making a dramatic commitment or damaging your hair. Semi-permanent, or temporary, 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). 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 last longer (about four weeks). They work much like permanent colors -- albeit with lower concentrations of peroxide and dye, and they don't contain ammonia. Roots are less noticeable with demi-permanent dyes, because the color changes are subtler. These subtle changes also mean that you're less likely to make a mistake.

"If your hair is less than 30% gray, you don't need to use permanent color," Good Housekeeping says. "In our testing, we've found that demi-permanent color can be pretty effective in covering grays at this concentration. It's also far less damaging, and can actually improve hair's shine and smoothness."

Clairol Natural Instincts (Est. $23 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. Pro colorist Fred Connors tells editors at Today that the ammonia-free formula leaves hair "softer and shinier than most permanent colors," and it impressed Good Housekeeping 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, colorist Rita Hazan points 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, Amazon and Ulta, 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. $3) 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. Good Housekeeping testers rank it as their top pick for coloring brunette and red hair, and it ties (with Clairol Nice 'n Easy (Est. $8), discussed in our Best Hair Color section) for best blond coverage. Hard-to-please users at MakeupAlley 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. $7) is a top-rated pick at TotalBeauty and MakeupAlley. Although this brand doesn't appear in most major tests or magazine reviews, it has a loyal following and earns a nod from stylist Sarah Potempa at Today.

"Readers with fine hair gush that this product has been a godsend for their tresses," TotalBeauty says. MakeupAlley 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.

Unlike many competing options, Wella does not come in a kit, so you have to buy the required Wella Color Charm Activating Lotion (Est. $6) 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 offer feedback on various Wella Color Charm products, with mostly positive opinions.

Temporary root touch-up products hide roots until your next shampoo

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 (Est. $35) powder is the best of the bunch. It has won Allure magazine's Best of Beauty award every year since it launched in 2013. It also wins a head-to-head root-hiding test at The Cut, beating six other powders, pens, crayons and sprays.

"I was more than skeptical when I opened this compact and saw what looked like eye shadow with a large brush," The Cut's 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 … I think I just bought myself an extra week every month when I can skip the salon."

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. It's "like the world's smallest magnet," Allure says. "Zinc particles fasten to dark regrowth and wiry grays until you shampoo." It really works, in Bugbee's test: "I could brush it around my hairline and it stayed put on my follicles, not my skin." At the other end, the particle holds a pigment powder (there are eight shades).

Hundreds of users on Ulta and Amazon 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.

Also worth considering, Everpro Gray Away Temporary Root Concealer (Est. $8) is a spray-on formula that hides grays better than most rivals in a Consumer Reports test. It also earns high scores from hundreds of users at Amazon and Ulta. 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 hair shades. Reviewers say it offers great coverage for gray and thinning areas, and it washes out easily with your next shampoo.

Some users say it makes their roots feel "dirty," "greasy" or "sticky," but it looks natural and provides great coverage even for stubborn grays. Some say they use it not only for root touch-ups but also for making thinning hair less noticeable. Although some say it rubbed off on their pillowcases, others don't report this problem. .

A similar root-hiding spray, L'Oreal Magic Root Cover Up (Est. $8), is a top seller at Amazon, Ulta and Target – and it earns high praise from hundreds of users. It comes in eight shades. Like the Everpro, users say the L'Oreal spray covers gray and thinning areas well, and it washes out easily with your next shampoo. The most common complaint? You'll need to shield your face when spraying around your hairline, or risk winding up with dye on your face that you'll have to wipe off.

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