How to dye your hair at home: a no-regrets guide

Follow this expert advice before embarking on a DIY dye job and you won’t need a correction appointment when salons reopen.

Worrying about what your hair might look like in a few weeks’ time might feel frivolous in such serious times. For every person concerned about their natural hair colour making an unwelcome appearance there’s another who hasn’t even thought about picking up a hairbrush since going into lockdown. And guess what? It doesn’t matter which camp you fall into. 

But if you are having regular silent breakdowns about the greys that are poking through or your roots that are growing at lightning speed, don’t stress or feel guilty, we’ve got your back when it comes to attempting a home hair dye

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Of course, trained hair professionals are considered experts for a reason. You’ll never be able to fully recreate what they conjure up in the salon at home, but there are tricks, tools and tips you can take into the bathroom with you. While we’re certainly not advocating a full DIY dark-to-light colour change here, we are saying that if you don’t want to wait until your usual salon reopens, disaster-free upkeep is totally possible to achieve at home.

We consulted the experts on the most asked DIY dye questions and here’s what they had to say.

Do I really need to bother with a patch test?

In short, yes. You should always do a patch test before colouring your hair, no excuse. It ensures your skin won’t react to the product you’re using. 

“All box dyes will have their own way of doing it, so read the instructions beforehand,” says celebrity hairdresser Michael Douglas. “Some colourants no longer contain paraphenylenediamine (PPD), the ingredient that can cause a reaction, but regardless, it’s always important to make sure you’re not allergic to any of the ingredients.”

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Which shade of hair dye should I pick?

If possible, start by consulting your hairdresser on the phone or via social media for their expertise. “Right now, there’s a nation of hairdressers at home who would likely be more than happy to help you,” says Douglas. “But as a guide, try to match the colour on the box to [what your hair looked like after] your last application of colour.”

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Steer clear of anything too adventurous: covering regrowth and greys, and lightening or darkening up to three shades is all very possible at home, but don’t go any further. 

Celebrity colourist Josh Wood agrees, adding: “If you’re in doubt, I advise going a little lighter and warmer rather than darker. Figure out what the lightest part of your hair is and use that as a guide.” Wood, who has his own range of at-home hair colour, offers a complimentary video consultation service (book here) in which one of his experts will help you choose the right shade and answer your questions.

If you’re still unsure, choose a semi-permanent colour instead. “Clairol Natural Instincts, £7, will give around 50% coverage and is low commitment,” explains Douglas. It won’t last as long as permanent dye so if you decide you don’t like it, it’ll wash out relatively quickly.


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What’s the difference between at-home and in-salon hair dye?

“In principle they contain very similar ingredients,” says Nathan Walker, international technical director at Trevor Sorbie. “But in the salon, your colourist will usually create a personalised formula just for you. These recipes are difficult to reproduce at home and, even more crucially, the box dyes don’t come with the experience you pay for in a salon. Colourists train for years and continue to build their knowledge while working.”

While there is little difference in the actual formulations, the key distinction is the expertise and skill of a professional application. That’s why it’s always good to be realistic about what you’ll be able to achieve yourself – don’t set yourself an impossible challenge or try to do something too advanced. Chances are it won’t end well, and you’ll end up in a much worse situation. Trust us.

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What’s the most effective way to use a box dye?

First, get yourself a bowl and a brush to help with application. A brush will make the colour much easier to apply and improve accuracy. “Try not to go over the same section more than once, otherwise you end up with colour build-up, which makes hair look darker and flatter than it is,” says Douglas. “Always apply the dye to the most important areas first – the hair line, parting and greyest areas.”

If you don’t live alone it’s worth roping somebody in to help you reach the back and any other difficult areas. And always follow the timings on the box: leaving dye on longer than necessary won’t make it do a better job, instead it could leave hair dry and brittle.

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Another concern with at-home colouring is that it can appear blocky or streaky. Josh Wood’s at-home dyes come in 12 base colours plus a selection of Shade Shot Plus pigments, £5, that you mix together to create a customised shade. “It works to help emphasise the natural ‘highs and lows’ in your hair; for example, Smoky Brunette will help eliminate any unwanted warmer tones, or to add warmer tones, use Chestnut Brunette,” says Wood.  


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Can I refresh highlights, balayage or bleached hair at home?

OK, so this is probably the trickiest territory and you might not want to hear this, but it’s advised that you just wait it out. “Achieving the natural blend of highlights or balayage is virtually impossible at home,” says Wood. “It’s best left in the hands of professionals because it’s a difficult technique to master.” Consider yourself warned.

How can I extend the lifespan of my existing hair colour?

If you don’t want to dye your hair yourself, but you do want to make your last salon application last longer, choose products specifically for dyed hair. They’ll not only help extend the life of the colour but also work to refine the shade, getting rid of unwanted tones.


MoroccanOil / £6.85

Colour Depositing Mask

Add temporary colour while boosting moisture to revive hair. Amino acids and argan oil help nourish and strengthen, too.


Living Proof / £25

Whipped Glaze

Apply like a mousse into freshly washed hair to enhance the colour. It tones down brassiness in blonde hair and helps to enhance darker shades while improving the condition of the hair.


Bumble and bumble / £26

Color Gloss in Universal Red

This gloss instantly brightens faded red hair and neutralises brassy tones. The shiny, healthy results will last around three washes.


Redken / £37.50

ColorExtend Brownlights Duo

Specifically formulated for brunette hair, blue and green pigments eliminate brassiness and any unwanted warmer tones.

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How do I touch up roots?

From sprays to powders and pens, there are lots of products available to temporarily disguise regrowth while you’re in between appointments.


Josh Wood Colour / £15

Root Smudger

Ideal for dense regrowth and available in three shades, this sponge applicator conceals roots. Designed to be used on dry or damp hair, it has instant coverage and can last up to three washes.


L'Oreal Paris / £8.99

Magic Retouch Root Touch Up

A bestseller for a reason, this spray is available in nine shades and covers roots quickly, is transfer resistant and washes out easily.


Color Wow / £28.50

Root Cover Up

Best for a more precise application, this mineral powder contains reflective particles that blend easily with your hair colour. It’s sweat, swimming, rain and smudge-resistant.


Revolution / £4

Root Cover Up Stick

Best for disguising smaller grey areas along the hairline and around the ears, these pens are packed with pigment that clings onto hair to disguise any regrowth or greys. Available in four shades.

Do I need to treat coloured hair differently?

Ideally, yes, and the key is to keep it hydrated. “That will make your hair [colour] appear more vibrant,” says Wood. Which means now is the time to use all those moisturising treatments and masks you’ve been meaning to use. Walker suggests a weekly treatment in order to help promote healthier hair and longer-lasting colour. If you have fine hair, use protein-based products to keep it strong. If your hair is thicker, you should use moisture-based products to stop it drying out.


L'Oreal Professionnel / £17.40

Smart Bond Step 3 Conditioner

A supercharged conditoner to maintain colour and fortify each and every strand.


Kerastase / £34.20

Nutritive Masquintense Cheveux Epais For Thick Hair

A nourishing mask to replenish moisture lost in the colouring process.


Kerastraight / £26.50

Protein Mask

A protein-rich treatment to scaffold colour-weakended hair.

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Images: Getty Images/ courtesy of brands.