Drugstore Versus Salon Hair Color


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More than 75% of women dye their hair to hide gray, add highlights, or change their natural color altogether. Whether opting for subtle traces of blond or going for an all-over change, coloring your hair can be a striking makeover … or a complete disaster. Most of us have at least one hair dye horror story, and it doesn't matter where we got it done, at home or at the salon.

So, the big question most women have is whether it is better to dye their hair themselves or to head to a salon and let a pro do the work.
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Should You Dye Your Hair at Home?

The answer is … Yes! The most obvious reason to choose an at-home hair dye kit is cost. If you dye your hair 6 to 12 times a year at a salon (6 salon visits is common), you could save $400 to $2,000 (or more!) by doing it yourself. Also, dyeing your hair at home allows you to do it when your schedule permits, and the process is less time-consuming than going to a salon.

You may have heard that drugstore hair dyes are inferior or harsher than the dyes used in salons, but that is absolutely not true. The way hair dyes function and the ingredients used to make them do not differ between the drugstore dyes and the salon dyes. In fact, many of the companies that manufacture dyes for the major drugstore color lines also make the dyes used by salons!

Would you be more satisfied with the results from dyeing your hair at the salon? Possibly, but statistics show that women who color their hair at home are as pleased (or displeased) with their results as women who have their hair dyed at a salon.

Is It Better to Get Your Hair Dyed at the Salon?

So, why go to a salon at all given the number of do-it-yourself dye options? Dyeing hair can be a messy process— just one small spill can make a disaster of your bathroom. Not having to worry about cleaning up can be a very good thing.

Then there's the matter of experience and skill: A professional colorist has the advantage of knowing the ins and outs of dyeing hair because of their training and education and their daily experience. This is especially true if you want to add highlights or lowlights without frying your hair or applying the strands unevenly. (Getting to the back of your head isn't easy—you practically have to be a contortionist to get this right!)

Plus, in most cases, if you have it done at a salon and you're not happy with the results, they'll fix any problems for you at no extra cost. (Ask about this ahead of time to be sure that's the policy of the salon you want to visit.)

When You Absolutely Should Get Your Hair Dyed at the Salon

There are five major situations where a salon experience is preferred to dyeing your hair yourself:

  1. You want to lighten your hair more than three shades from your natural color. Regardless of how dark your hair is, if you want to lighten it significantly, think twice before doing it yourself. All dark hair contains at least some red pigment, and that can become overly evident in the lightening process if you don't know how to correct for it. It is also difficult to lighten dark hair in a one-step process. Making dark hair lighter is a two-step process: first, removing the existing color from your hair, and second, toning or adding the shade (and its nuances) you want it to be. Those two distinct processes are difficult to get right on your own, so your odds are far better with an experienced hair colorist.

  2. You have dark hair and want to dye it red. This is one that is extraordinarily difficult to do, either at home or the salon. The risk is that naturally dark brown or black hair can easily pull an odd shade of purple or burgundy during the attempt to color it red. This is one that we would strongly recommend never attempting on your own.

  3. You have natural red or blonde hair and want to dye it red. It doesn't matter what color your hair is, it is hard to dye hair red. To figure out whether or not your hair can end up the shade you want, it is essential that you discuss it with a professional colorist. Those with light to medium brown hair tend to have the most success dyeing their hair a red or auburn shade, whether at home or at the salon. But, if you try this at home, ALWAYS do a strand test first so you know how long to time the dye and what the color will look like.

  4. You're trying to fix a problem. Mistakes and bad dye jobs happen, whether you dye at home or go to a salon. You can always call the hair color consumer hotlines at L'Oreal, Clairol, Garnier, or Revlon, but you should also seriously consider getting help from a professional. Trying to fix the problem on your own will, in all likelihood, only make matters worse.

  5. You have light hair and want to make it darker. In theory this is not a difficult process to do yourself, as lighter hair will easily grab a darker shade. The tough part is trying to end up with something resembling a natural shade! If you opt to try this at home, it is essential that you perform a strand test first, as indicated in the instructions for the dye, and note how long it takes your light hair to process to the color you want. Skipping this step is a recipe for light-to-dark-hair disaster!

If you decide to get you hair dyed at a salon, you can always do it there the first time, and then do at home the next, saving money and helping with your schedule. For example, Paula gets her hair dyed at the salon every other time she dyes her hair. She uses Clairol Root Touch-Up by Nice 'n Easy between dyes or when she's traveling to just touch up the roots. (You never see Paula with gray roots!)

So, there are reasons to dye your hair yourself as well as reasons to get it done at a salon, or, do both, which is what we recommend. This is a brilliant way to save money, have the hair color you want as often as you want and when you want, and get professional guidance from a trusted colorist.

Is Dyeing Your Hair Dangerous?

Is coloring you hair dangerous? Without question the only way to really cover gray hair is by dyeing your hair with a permanent (also known as Level 3) hair color, but should you be afraid that it causes cancer? This is a complicated issue because most of the studies showing a problem exists involved feeding hair dyes to lab animals, but people don’t eat hair dye. Taking all the research into consideration, there’s a lack of compelling evidence showing hair dye is a risk, especially when you consider 75% of women dye their hair in some form, a number that doesn’t coincide with cancer stats.

One precaution you should never ignore: When coloring your hair at home, it is very important to patch test the dye before applying the mixture to your hair. Some amount of hair dye will always come into contact with skin, and although they are rare, allergic reactions do happen and can be quite severe.

Lastly, hair dye is considered a minor risk for hairstylists using those products several times a day without wearing protective gloves. For a great recap of the issue, see this website.

The Best Skin (and Hair) of Your Life Starts Here: The same type of in-depth scientific research used to create this article is also used to formulate Paula’s Choice Skincare and Hair Care products. You’ll find products for a range of concerns, from acne and sensitive skin to wrinkles, pores, sun damage, and even dry, damaged hair. See Paula's Choice Hair Care.

About the Experts

Paula Begoun is the best-selling author of 20 books on skin care and makeup. She is known worldwide as the Cosmetics Cop and creator of Paula's Choice. Paula's expertise has led to hundreds of appearances on national and international television including:

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The Paula's Choice Research Team is dedicated to busting beauty myths and helping you solve your skincare frustrations with research-supported expert advice—so you'll have the facts you need to take the best possible care of your skin.

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