If you’re looking to cut back a little on your beauty budget, award-winning beauty writer Claire Coleman reveals how even salon superfans can try home hair colour

The cost-of-living crisis has prompted many of us to reassess our spending, and research suggests one in four of us plan to switch professional beauty treatments for home DIY alternatives*. You might not be up for giving yourself a haircut, but how about stretching out the time between salon appointments, or colouring your own hair?

If you’re not already one of the millions of women across the UK who uses home hair colour – Mintel’s 2020 Hair Colourants report found that 36% of adults used at least one type of at-home hair colourant – it might seem daunting. And, if you’ve tried it before and remember a pungent, messy experience that left more colour on your walls than hair – and gave an unconvincing monotone result – I don’t blame you for being a bit apprehensive. But things have changed.

“Over recent decades, the industry has really focused on improving the experience of home hair colour,” says Bruno Zavaglia, Garnier scientific advisor. “Innovations such as non-drip formulations offer more precise application, with less mess, and there have been improvements in colour technology, which give a richer result.

“Finally, there has been a lot of development in the range of shades available with a wider choice of colours than ever before now on offer.”

This means box colours are no longer “one-size-fits-all”. There’s more nuance, so there’s more opportunity to get a shade that looks natural on you – if that’s what you want.

Just as the wider choice of colours means more natural shades, it also means an explosion in the number of eye-popping shades on offer. So, if you fancy turning your silver crop pink à la Helen Mirren, like the idea of Katy Perry’s bright green ends, or fancy trying Sharon Osbourne’s fiery red locks – you can! While there are some limitations (more on this later), for the most part, at-home hair dye can be a quick, inexpensive and fun way of giving yourself a boost.

Do or dye

I’m in my 40s, but started my own DIYing as a teen using sachets of the now defunct Shaders and Toners from Wella to give my brown hair a temporary reddish hue. (For a modern take, look to Revolution Haircare Toner Shots, which enhance colour, or Shrine Drop It Warm Toners, which you mix with your usual conditioner.)

In my 20s, I dabbled with semi-permanent colours, such as L’Oréal Paris Casting Crème Gloss or Clairol Nice’n Easy to give depth to my colour. I’ve now discovered highlights, which I leave to the professionals, but bulk buy Clairol Root Touch-Up Permanent Hair Dye to cover the increasingly grey roots between salon visits, and spray on the temporary L’Oréal Paris Magic Retouch Instant Root Concealer Spray if I’ve not had time to dye.

And friends of mine who have embraced their greys more readily don’t miss out on the fun – they swear by L’Oréal Elvive Colour Protect Intensive Purple Mask for blitzing brassiness, and rate the Josh Wood Colour Gloss Icy Blonde Semi-permanent Treatment Gloss for a burst of brightness.

According to celebrity hair stylist Michael Douglas, who looks after the hair of his now girlfriend, Davina McCall, as well as Dawn French and Holly Willoughby, there are three main types of colour for you to dabble in.

“Aside from the cosmetic fixes such as root powders and sprays, there are three types of colour: temporary is a good starting point if you’re nervous as it washes out in one-to-three shampoos but doesn’t really cover grey; semi-permanent, which lasts 10-20 washes; and permanent, which has to grow out,” he explains.

Afro hair is the most fragile hair type, so anything that is going to weaken it is best left to the professionals

While he is a fan of home hair colouring, he does warn that lightening hair is more complicated. Hair stylist Errol Douglas agrees, especially when it comes to afro hair, as lifting the colour using peroxides at home can be risky. “Afro hair is the most fragile hair type, so anything that is going to weaken it or dry it out is best left to the professionals,” he says.

That’s not to say those with textured hair can’t use colour at home. “You can still use home hair dyes to create depth and richness, or to cover greys,” says Errol. “And even experiment with some of the more out-there semi-permanent colours for a bolder tint.”

How to find the perfect colour

Some brands, such as L’Oréal, offer apps to let you virtually try shades while others, such as Josh Wood Colour, have website tools to guide you to the right colour.

By all means, look at the names of the shades and the numbers, and also at the picture on the box, although keep in mind that the natural colour of your hair will affect the outcome. “There are lots of amazing colours out there,” says Errol, “but if your natural colour is black or dark brown, even if you use a bright, vibrant red, you’re going to get a shimmer of colour at best.”

And if hair is dry or damaged, the result can be more unpredictable, so get your hair into the best condition you can with a trim and a regular hair mask.

Try: Coco & Eve Sweet Repair Repairing & Restoring Hair Mask

• Size: 212ml

• Vegan-friendly

• Cruelty-free

• Silicone-free

To help prep lengths for a hair colour makeover, smooth on this mask which is formulated with vegan keratin and hyaluronic acid to nourish and replenish.

“I suggest picking a colour that’s only one shade lighter or darker than your natural colour. So, if you’re light brown, choose a dark blonde or a dark brown,” says Michael.

Then it’s about selecting the tone – often referenced as cool or warm – which will give that caramel accent, add a hint of red, or can neutralise orange/brassy hues if you pick an icy blue one. “If you’re going lighter, you want to choose an ash shade to neutralise the orange that you can get when taking dark hair lighter,” says Michael. “And if you’re going darker, you need to put warmth back in, so pick a golden tone.”

Always buy one more box than you think you’ll need as the more you put on, the better the result

How to apply dye like a pro

First, heed the patch test advice and do one 48 hours before to ensure you don’t have a reaction. This is essential, even if you’ve used the product before as the formulation may have changed. Errol is also an advocate of strand tests, where you try the product on a hidden section of hair so you can see how the colour will develop on your hair.

When you’re ready, put Vaseline on your ears and around the hairline to avoid staining the skin and, if possible, get someone on hand to help. “Box dyes work in the same way that salon dyes work. The difference is the salon offers expert application, so that’s what you want to aim for. And always buy one more box than you think you’ll need as the more you put on, the better the result,” says Michael.

“You can use a bottle with a nozzle or a brush to apply. Start at the roots where the colour would naturally be stronger, comb through to get it onto the mid-lengths and let it develop as per the instructions.

“For light hair, for the last five to 10 minutes, put more colour on the ends to add tone, while for dark hair, leave the ends so they’re a shade lighter and look more natural.” If you struggle with liquid formulations, try John Frieda Precision Foam Colour, which is thicker and less likely to drip.

John Frieda Precision Foam Colour

• Size: 130ml

• Vegan-friendly

• Includes colourant, developer, conditioner and gloves

If you don’t like mess, then try this drip-free foam formula for a more precise application.

How to reduce colour fade

“There are three main reasons hair colour fades,” says Michael. “Exposure to sun, heat styling and shampooing. If you can reduce any of those, your colour is likely to last longer.”

Sulphate-free shampoos might also help, because some surfactants – the ingredients in shampoos that help dislodge dirt – can also get rid of the oil in hair that help keep colour locked in. “Sulphate-free surfactants tend to be more targeted, so you may get more longevity from your colour if you use them.” Michael rates the OGX range of sulphate-free shampoos.

And as colouring can dry hair, Errol suggests conditioning masks and adding bond repair treatments to your regime.

5 at-home hair colour essentials
L’Oréal Paris Elvive Bond Repair Full Routine Bundle

• Includes pre-shampoo, shampoo, conditioner and serum

Comprising of a pre-shampoo treatment, shampoo, conditioner and serum, this bond repair complex range is designed to help rebuild broken bonds from the inside out for 98% less breakage** and 90% more shine**.

Boots Nonslip Hair Sectioning Clips

• Includes four clips

Whether colouring or styling, the pros wouldn’t be without these clips that let you pin sections of hair out of the way so you can focus on one area at a time.

Bleach London Eco-Conut Reusable Tool Kit

• Contains bowl and tint brush

• Vegan-friendly

• Cruelty-free

Most home hair colour kits will come with their own brush, but a bowl big enough to mix two packs of colour – such as this one – is a handy investment.

Garnier Nutrisse Hair Dye

• 38 shades available

• Ammonia-free

• Cruelty-free

This permanent dye gives a multi tonal, natural look, up to 100% grey coverage and is packed with nourishing oils to help protect against dryness.

Philip Kingsley Pure Colour Frizz-Fighting Gloss

• Size: 50ml

• 100% recyclable

A serum or oil applied to wet hair can help control frizz, and this heat-protecting one helps improve the vibrancy of coloured hair and extend longevity.

*Decision Marketing
**Instrumental test on Pre-Shampoo + Shampoo + Conditioner