Women have been dyeing their hair for centuries. We have long connected our femininity and beauty to our hair. Today, almost 40% of women dye their hair. The great advantage of changing one’s hair, as opposed to other parts of the body, is that it is an easy and non-invasive way of enhancing your appearance. If your hair is graying and you prefer to look more youthful, or if you prefer being a redhead or blond instead of a brunette, hair dye can provide a beautiful change at relatively low cost and in a (semi-)reversible fashion. Dyes can offer new depth, shine, and volume to your natural hair, as well as add radiance and richness to your natural skin tones. Whether you decide to highlight your natural hair color, or make a full color change, it is always important to know how each of the products work and the effects they can have on your hair.
In general, it’s best to stick close to your natural hair color. Not only will a change to a similar tone be the least time consuming, it will also insure the most natural and credible look. Natural tones are also usually the healthiest for your hair because they are less likely to require more damaging procedures and chemicals. As a woman with brown skin, your hair varies from medium brown shades to dark black. Therefore, the best colors for your hair usually fall in the range of honey colors on the lighter end and chocolate colors on the darker end. Some reds, particularly auburns and burgundies, can also be flattering for brown skin tones.
Hair dyes can be divided into three general categories--permanent, semi-permanent and temporary--each of which has its benefits and drawbacks. In 1907, the hair coloring process was revolutionized when French chemist Eugène Schueller created the original commercial hair dye. His discovery was based on p-phenylenediamine, and was the foundational product for the French dye company that later became L’Oreal. Most chemical dyes contain Schueller’s compound, as well as bleaching agents, such as ammonia or peroxide. These chemicals color the outer part or cuticle of the hair shaft. The typical hair dyeing method is one in which the hair dye ingredients combine with oxygen to form a reaction that permanently binds the hair dye to the hair shaft.
Permanent dyes tend to be the most popular dyes on the market today. These products will have the most long-lasting results, given that the dye fully penetrates the hair shaft. Although the color may fade and new roots will grow in, the permanent dye will remain in the hair until it is trimmed away. Permanent dyes use chemicals that strip the hair of its natural color and replace it with another color—a permanent dye.
There are two basic kinds of permanent dyes: oxidation hair dyes and progressive hair dyes. Both work through a series of chemical reactions that first open the cuticle (outer layer) and then allow the dyes to penetrate the natural pigment hair molecules. Most permanent hair dyes rely on a dual component system. The first part is a hydrogen dioxide component (usually about 6%) in water and the second an ammonia solution of dye components. Together these solutions work to dissolve and remove your natural pigments, and then add new colors and highlights. Once the dye is mixed, the ammonia solution is applied to your hair. It works by swelling the cuticle and stripping your natural pigments, and then allowing the dyes to penetrate the swollen cuticles and pigment cells. The main difference between the two permanent dyes is that oxidation dye relies on a solution of dye intermediates with p-phenylenediamine to achieve colors, where as progressive dye relies on products containing lead acetate as the active ingredient.
The chemicals in the permanent dye react with the sulfur in your hair’s keratin and changes your hair color slowly from lighter tones to almost black shades over a period of time. This also means that the more often you apply progressive dyes, the darker your color will become. In oxidation dyes, darker shades are obtained by using higher concentrations of intermediates. Tones can also be adjusted by adding different chemicals to achieve yellow or red shades. Sometimes dyes are used along with the oxidation dye intermediates to add vibrancy to the tone that is not otherwise available.
Unless you are a trained hair-care professional, you will want to leave these dye-jobs to your stylist to insure that you not only obtain your desired look, but also maintain the health of your hair. Although permanent hair dyes are the most long-lasting, they are also the most threatening to the health of your hair. Over processing from permanent dye can lead to hair breakage due to excessive dryness and brittleness. It is therefore of the utmost importance that permanent color be applied by a professional and followed-up with ongoing hair conditioning and other nurturing. It is NOT recommended that you have your hair dyed if you have a chemical relaxer. These two type of chemical processes together may lead to severely damaged hair shafts and breakage.
Semi-permanent dyes are another option for women who want to change their hair color, but don’t want to deal with permanent dyes-- which must eventually grow out or be re-dyed to match their original color. Semi-permanent dyes last for several shampoo cycles and don't require oxidation. These dyes penetrate the hair shaft, but not as deeply as permanent dyes. Because semi-permanent dyes are absorbed somewhat deeply into the hair shaft, they will not simply rinse off with water. However, they will fade after a while and usually wash out within six to ten shampoos.
Semi-permanent dyes can be purchased over-the-counter and usually come as liquid, gel or aerosol foam solutions. With most of these dyes, your hair will be washed and then the product applies. After waiting about 20-40 minutes, the dye will be worked into your hair and then rinse it off with water. As with permanent dyes, most semi-permanents are also based in p-phenylenediamine. (However, many men’s semi-permanent products use lead acetate and work in ways similar to progressive permanent dyes.) The more frequently the dye is applied, the darker the color becomes.
Although semi-permanent dyes are less damaging to the hair, it will still be important to practice good hair nurturing habits. The hair will still have a tendency to be dryer than normal and will need ongoing conditioning and moisturizing. These dyes are also not recommended for hair that has been treated with chemical relaxers.
Most temporary dyes come in the form of rinses, gels, mousses, and sprays. Unlike permanent and semi-permanent dyes, these solutions do not penetrate the hair shaft, but simply “sit on top of” your hair. They bond to the surface and usually wash out the next time you shampoo. (There are some that can last up to five washings.) The main downside to using temporary dyes is that they will likely wash out the very next time your hair becomes wet. That means that if you go swimming or get caught in the rain, you will lose your new hair color (and potentially end up with it running onto your clothing and face). Since these dyes are easily removed, you must reapply temporary hair colors each time you wash your hair. The color vehicles in these dyes are mostly water, organic solvents, gums, surfactants and conditioning agents and therefore do less damage to your hair when used.
Many women also have begun using natural dyes to temporarily change their hair color. Natural hair dyes are also a good alternative for many people who have allergic reactions to other dyes. These dyes are derived from plant sources and have been used for many centuries. One of the most popular plant dyes is the herbal plant henna--Lawsnia inermis--whose leaves can be dried out and made into a powder. This powder in turn can be used to dye hair (as well as skin and clothing) and rarely causes allergic reactions. In ancient times the Egyptians, and later Indian women, used henna to alter their appearances. Henna dyes provide a range of different colors depending on the type of dye and the color of the user’s natural hair. The dyes range from dark brown to reddish-brown and lighter reds to reddish-blond shades. However, henna cannot be used to lighten one’s natural hair color. As with temporary dyes, natural dyes work by bonding to the surface of the hair shaft and basically color-coating it. Like gradual dyes, natural dyes tend to build up and become darker the more frequently they are used. They have also been known to add thickness and strength to the hair with repeat applications.
Hair coloring is a wonderful way to enhance your beautiful hair. However, as with all chemicals, there is a chance that one will have a negative reaction to hair dyes. It is therefore important to always test the dye on a small patch of skin (i.e. behind your ears or on your elbows) before using it on your entire scalp. Performing patch tests with every application is especially important when using over-the-counter dyes, which can differ from batch to batch. It is very important to strictly adhere to the instructions that accompany the product.
In addition, your stylist should be sure to test any dye solution on your skin to rule out potentially harmful reactions. Although rare, some women do experience hair loss, burning, swelling of the scalp, itchiness, and irritation from some dyes. These symptoms are usually indicative of an allergic reaction. The ingredient in hair dyes that is usually the cause of allergic reactions is p-paraphenylenediamine. If you begin to have an allergic reaction, you should immediately discontinue the use of the product. If you experience a reaction during the dying process, the dye should be immediately washed out of your hair.
Most dyes are not meant to be used on your face and should not be applied to your eyebrows, or eyelashes. Furthermore, pay close attention to the time, and don’t leave dyes on any longer than necessary. Leaving dyes on longer will not alter the color and may even damage your hair or cause it to fall out. Also, be careful not to use outdated products. Aging affects chemicals and their reactions and you may not get your desired results if you use an old product.
The Bottom Line
Do not forget that for women with brown skin that dyeing your hair can be particularly damaging. Putting your hair through too many processes at once can be very damaging and this is especially true with relaxers. The hair may become dry, form split ends, and begin to break. Excessive dyeing can also weaken your hair and make it look limp and listless. Usually it is best to dye your hair as infrequently as possible. It is also advisable not to combining processes (i.e., bleaching, coloring, relaxing, perms, etc). Always have a complete and open discussion with your hair stylist when deciding what chemical processes are best for your hair.