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Colour Theory for Hairdressing

Here we look at colour theory for hairdressing, including where natural hair gets its colour, what depth and tone mean, and how colour theory is used to correct tones. We also look at the various factors that can cause hair to change colour, for instance health and environmental issues.
Pigments that colour our hair are found in the cortex.

Our natural hair colour depends on melanin pigments contained within the cortex of the hair.

There are two main melanin pigments found in human hair – eumelanin and pheomelanin. They blend together in various amounts and proportions to form all the hair colours that we see.

  • Eumelanin provides black and brown pigments and determines how dark hair is. When more of this pigment is present in someone’s hair, it gives the overall hair colour a cool look, like ash. Eumelanin pigments consist of all the three primary colours: blue, red and yellow.
  • Pheomelanin provides red and yellow pigments. This gives rise to warmer colours in someone’s hair, like auburn, strawberry or gold.
 
Black and brown hair contains a lot of eumelanin. Red hair has large quantities of pheomelanin. 
Light blonde hair actually contains relatively little melanin – the pale yellow we see is actually due to the keratin in the hair, rather than pigments. White hair contains little or no pigment at all.
colour theory hairdressing
The two main melanin pigments found in human hair.

Why Natural Hair Changes Colour

We can change our hair colour by choice through using hair dyeing products. Various chemical processes in hairdressing (like bleaching, tinting, neutralising) act on the natural pigments to change the hair’s colour. However, hair colour can change for a variety of other reasons, including:

  • Ageing can affect pigment production. As we age, melanin stops being made in our hair and new hairs grow without pigment, which is why they are white. When white hair is mixed with hair that still has colour, it creates a grey look (sometimes called “salt and pepper”).
  • Blonde children can sometimes see their hair darken when they are around seven or eight years old, and have dark hair in adulthood. It darkens as melanin production increases.
  • Environmental factors can impact hair colour. Humidity and wind brings more oxygen to hair, and sunlight accelerates the process. Oxygen in the air attacks the pigments in hair. Blue pigments are the weakest pigments and are, therefore, the first to disappear, leaving hair with the warm undertones showing through. Our hair often lightens when on beach holidays.
  • Health issues can contribute to premature greying; for example, autoimmune thyroid disease, vitiligo and ageing syndromes.
  • Medication can alter natural colour. For example, certain drugs used to prevent malaria can lighten hair, while some epilepsy drugs can darken it.
  • Pregnancy can darken light hair due to higher levels of hormones oestrogen and progesterone.

Describing Hair Colour

The hair colour we see consists of depth and tone. Hair also has an undercoat of colour, called undertones, which only come into play when we lighten or colour the hair.

Depth or Level

Depth or level simply refers to how light or dark the base colour of the hair is. 

In hairdressing terms, there are 10 main levels. Numbers 1-5 are brown (black, darkest brown, dark brown, medium brown and light brown) and 6-10 are blonde (dark blonde, medium blonde, light blonde, very light blonde and lightest blonde) – see the chart below for numbering. All are neutral shades.

The 10 levels or depths of hair colour.

Tone

Tone refers to the colours we see in the hair, be they natural colours or artificially added. Tonal colours are classed as warm, neutral or cool:

  • Warm tones have reds, yellow and orange in them, and are in colours such as strawberry blonde, copper and chestnut brown.
  • Neutral tones have a balance of warm and cool pigments in them.
  • Cool tones have blues and greens in them, and are often referred to as ash tones.
 

For hair colouring products, the tonal quality of the finished result is often given as part of the colour’s description. For example, intense red, honey blonde, rich copper, light beige blonde, deep chocolate all give us a clue as to what the finished colour will be.

There is also the ICC colouring system, with each tone being given a number.

Undertones

Natural hair has an underlying warm tone, dictated by the amount of the pigment pheomelanin found in the hair. Consequently, undertone can affect the final colour result when dyeing hair.

Dark hair has more pheomelanin present, which creates a red undertone. Blondes have less, resulting in a more yellow undertone.

The undertone becomes more evident when hydrogen peroxide is used to lighten the hair. The undertone also shows through when hair is naturally lightened from exposure to the elements.

Pheomelanin is slowly oxidised during colouring and can produce those difficult-to-remove golden and orange tones in the hair. When dark hair is bleached sufficiently, it will go from having a red tinge to orange, then yellow and, finally, white as the pheomelanin breaks down.

The underlying warm pigment that all natural hair colours have, from red for darker hair and yellow for lighter hair. ICC is the International Colour Chart system.

Correcting Unwanted Tones

Correcting tones in hair needs an understanding of colour theory, as well as knowing what products to use and application techniques. The colour wheel is an easy way to see what colours are used to neutralise – simply look at the colour opposite.

To neutralise an unwanted tone, the opposite colour on the colour wheel is used. For example, to remove a gold brassy look from blonde hair, we use a purple shampoo or a mauve ash toner to knock out the unwanted yellow.

If the brassiness is more orange, then a blue-based product would be used. If hair has a green cast to it (sometimes caused by dyeing hair with an ash colour), a red-based product is used.

The colours opposite each other on the colour wheel are also opposite in terms of tone. That is, warm colours neutralise cool colours, and vice versa. For example, red (warm) and its opposite colour green (cool) neutralise each other.

Completely neutralising the effect of a tone achieves a neutral shade that is neither warm nor cool.

The twelve colours of the Red-Yellow-Blue colour wheel.

What Media Hairstylists Should Know

Hair and makeup artists should know and understand colour theory for hairdressing. Not only does this relate to hairdressing itself, we often have to do things like temporarily cover up highlights for a period production, or use wigs under coloured lighting. Working on stage or under media lights can affect how hair colour can look.

When we look at hair during a production, the colour we see is influenced by several factors:

  • The pigments in the hair itself, which absorb some light and reflect others. Natural hair is made up of many colours and absorbs light better than synthetics, which can be very shiny.
  • The brightness and colour of the light in which we are looking at the hair. Therefore, the perceived colour of the hair can change depending on the type of lighting and how bright it is. Coloured lighting gels can affect how the hair looks on camera or stage.
  • To some extent, the clothing worn by the person, or the environment they are in can affect hair colour. Clothing can reflect light, as can different materials found on set.
 

Understand how lighting affects colour, how the colour and material used for costumes and sets can reflect onto hair and skin. Know how the different hair used in wigs or false hair can look on camera or stage.

Find Out More

Sources:

Lloyd, T & McMillan-Bodell, C. (2005). The Colour Book: The Official Guide to Colour for NVQ Levels 2 & 3. Cengage Learning Vocational.

Palladino, L. & Green, M. (2006). Hairdressing: The Foundations5th Edition. Thomson.
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38 thoughts on “Colour Theory for Hairdressing”

  1. I am so happy I found your blog and I absolutely love your information about colour theory hairdressing! I liked and it is wonderful to know about so many things that are useful for all of us! Thanks a lot for this amazing blog!!One must check this Paulbhair.com it gives us more info on this topic.

  2. Hi,
    My hair was in desperate need of attention ( my rots were way over due and at the stage where I couldn’t do anything with it!!! you know that stage when its about 2 months overdue for attention!!)
    So being a little lazy and a little cash strapped i was trying to avoid the salon!!! i used a packet dye, which i don’t usually like to do and my roots came out a horrid Orange!! My hair is blonde and I know it does throw alot of gold however i thought I chose the correct dye, obviously not!! I tried to combat the orange but nothing worked. I then trotted back off to the hair shop and purchased another 2 tubes (this time) of colour, it was a permanent colour 9C Solfine colour Very Light Ash Blonde, however it did not lift any of the orange at all, Previous to this I did use some lemon juice and baking soda with head and shoulders to strip some of the old colour first which seemed to work quite well.
    So I am guessing nothing is going to actually lift my roots but bleach, now I have bleach and have done all of this at home before, but my question is even though i have put my hair through so much torture over the last couple of days can I now bleach my roots? or should I give it a couple of days at least.
    My hair feels really good as I have been loading it with good conditoners and treatments in between the washes. I also didn’t put any colour of my hair past my roots (maybe a bit here and there which is unavoidable!!!) my next question is once I have bleached my roots to get rid of the orange can i then reapply another colour over the top? I have another colour of tube colour which is Solfine 32(101) HL ASH, and do i apply this on dry hair or apply on wet hair as a toner and what developer do i use for this, I have 5, 10 or 30v at home now.
    thanks in advance and sorry for the lengthy question!!

    1. I would go to a salon. By the time you pay for all of these colours and mess around with your hair trying to fix it, you will end up with a band that WILL be difficult to come out.
      Don’t touch it! Let a qualified hairdresser do it.

    2. It wasn’t the color you chose; it was the method of application. The hair closest to the head has heat so you always do your roots last when your going lighter or dying virgin hair/regrowth which results in hot roots (why box color dye still has this in their directions is beyond me; I would have hoped they would have changed it since I was a teenager using it lol). Color never lifts color; it can be used to deposit color, darken, or tone correct, but it doesn’t lift. If you hadn’t put the 9c permanent in your hair I would suggest bleaching the area from your line of demarcation to a 1/4 of an inch away from your roots in 2 weeks making sure not to overlap on your previously lightened hair ( I like to stroke conditioner onto my previously lightened hair to make sure there is not overlap) and then go back in and pack a bit on the root area (not on the scalp and using a detail brush) if the product doesn’t swell enough (it should depending on which one your using) to touch them up. Since you did so much to your hair its best to leave it to a specialist because you could get a lot of underlying pigments popping up as the dye oxidizes and your base color shows through like it is at the root area. In the meantime if the roots are bothering you can use a blue based conditioner to cancel out the orange tones making it look muted.

      1. A demi permanent in the right color would work as well, but always do a strand test so you know the results ahead of time. Good luck

  3. Hi. Please help. I am just new in hairdressing field, still confuse of hair color.
    My client wants a caramel like color. Her hair naturally a level 2 and was colered level 4. She wants a lighter color. Im thinking of giving her a low density full hed hilights and color 6.31 revlon.What do u think?

    1. You have to prelight hair at level 6 then you can deposit loreal majirel 6.34 or 6.43 on that hairs to get caramel shade

  4. Hi can you please give me some advice, I put highlights in my hair with a home highlighting kit then I put a home colour in hair very light ash blonde over it a there now tint of green off the highlights. What can I do..

    1. You will need to lift Your hair using a good bleach,as tinit won’t lift tint,and that what colour you getting with using them,so you will need to lift the hair (lighten)

  5. Thank you so.. much for the basic hair colour information in detail. Now I understand what is the natural colour and how it form the secondary colour and so on… thank you

  6. This article is a great refreshment on helping you with colour.
    I watched a video last night and she was going over colour theory which she got wrong with what 1-3 underline pigment colour is. This really confused me that I was thinking after 16+years I have been doing everything wrong?!!!. Then I found this very thorough wonderful article and thank God it wasn’t me it was her giving out the wrong information. Thank you I will be saving the site and use it from now on.

    1. Hi Dawn – thank you 🙂 and glad we could help. There is a lot of nonsense on the internet. We do try and make our ramblings factual 🙂

  7. I dyed my ends blue, eventually it became green/blue but I put a brown over it and got a darker green. After that I added a red which only made my hair purple? like a dark reddish, thinking it was fine to add brown, I did. Now my hair is blue brown at the bottom, no matter what I do I simply cannot have brown again. I dont want to bleach it again, I refuse but what can I do?

    1. Best thing would be go to a good colourist at the hairdressers – sorry, without seeing your hair it’s tricky. And trying to resolve it at home, you’re likely to keep going round in circles.

    2. It became green because brown has blue in it. I would go to Sally’s and buy color removing and depending on the tone your hair comes out after using the removing will depend on the toner you use.

  8. I had purple (direct dye) (One ‘n Only Argan Oil Hair Color Perfect Intensity Pure Purple) over a demi permanent level 7N (age beautiful) It was for an event and I needed to wash it out (it said 6-8 shampoos) so I tried several methods of removal. washing with clarifiying shampoo, vitamin c powder mixed with shampoo, honey mixed with conditioner, etc…Well I finally had it faded out to the point that It mostly looked natural when I went into Sally’s and the “helpful” sales associate suggested Color Oops… This is where the story gets weird. I used the color oops, not realizing that the color base of my beautiful purple was green (like I said previously it had faded to a mostly pink color) So my normally already weird hair (I pull yellow and a coppery red in the sun) on what looks like dark ash blonde hair. So I have dark blonde hair with a green cast to it. I am currently sitting with my hair full of ketchup hoping to avoid a trip back to Sally’s to exchange my normal demi permanent color (7N) for a Dark strawberry blonde. Note to self NEVER listen to Sally’s Associates (no offense to them, but Color Oops does not like direct dye evidently) I was hoping to end up with a med to dark honey blonde color previous to the green cast, but is that even a possibility at this point? I normally only use demi permanent color because although my hair soaks up color it tends to fade out quickly due to it’s light color and I really just want to give my hair a boost normally. I will NEVER use direct dye again even if it says it washes out >.< Thanks for any advice

    1. Your problem wasn’t so much the sallys product NOT working-as it was that you had two different dyes on your hair and it worked on both. The purple was mostly gone already so it removed your 7N and left its base tone of green.

  9. Wow… this is one of the best and most easy site which i came across during my traning i use to check lots of sites but i didn’t see the proper site which I’m looking for but finally just before i complite my course i found this site I’m so happy that i can understand this articles very easyly…. Thank you so much… and please give use some more…..i love to read… Thank u again….

  10. Thank you so much for spending your valuable time posting this easy to understand information. It was extremely helpful to me! Have an awesome day!

    1. Hi Leslie, thank you for letting us know – it’s good to know it’s useful! You too have an awesome day 🙂

  11. I never leave feed back but after reading this I feel I need to. I’m an apprentice in a salon which is very colour based. I have been there for nearly 3 years and am just coming to the end of my training. Although I have had colour theory training I still felt there was a lot l didn’t understand but after reading this is it seems to have clicked! Normally these things are really boring and just repeat the same thing over and over making them horrible to read. But I found this so easy to read and the more I read the more it seemed to click. This post is actually amazing and I will definitely will be sharing it with friends/other trainees.
    Thank you ☺

    1. Hi Letitia – thank you so much for your kind words and, wow :), so glad our post has made sense of colour theory for you. Good luck with the remainder of your training and enjoy 🙂

      1. WOW – what an awesome website filled with in-depth information on colour understanding which forms the base for understanding hair colouring and how it works. Thank you so much.

  12. This is a nice blog. It is informative about hair color and its care. I just learned more about hair color and care from here too. Great site!

  13. Wow, this is interesting and educational too. I now understand more about hair and how we should take care of it especially if we want to change its color. I have black hair and I love red heads and so I want it too in my head, so I tried dyeing mine. But it just turned like reddish-purplish. At least it is reddish. Great site! Cheers!

    1. Hi Elysse. Really appreciate your comment. We sometimes wonder if our posts are too long, but there is so much to say! (And one can always skim read!) So thank you. Handbook Team 🙂

      1. Too long? I wish they were longer and in more detail!

        Speaking as a non-professional/ amateur, I understand that not as many people will be interested in an in-depth analysis as most tend to stick to 10 minute tutorials at most. Those of us who are interested in these aspects though and are lucky enough to chance upon your site will be interested because this is exactly what we are looking for. I don’t particularly care about what company brings out which product every 10 minutes, but this right here is gold!

        Reading your posts has changed my understanding on a lot of aspects of hair and make-up and has pushed my skills forward! Frankly, I wish all this was an obligatory class for every hair and make-up artist out there since it’s their inability to understand these basic principles that left me disappointed every time I sought their council or to help me with my style.

        In fact I just went out earlier to buy ink for my printer in order to print out a few of your posts and keep them with me next time I have time to spend in front of the mirror and to keep notes!

        1. Hi Elysse,
          Yes, the modern world seems to have a short attention span! One of the reasons this site was set up was to “fill in the gaps” of a MUA’s understanding as, sadly (and as you have experienced) makeup training so often falls short and too many people who do a course think they know it all. They know bugger all – makeup/hair takes years to truly master. Many thanks for your insightful comment, and we’re chuffed you find our posts useful. Have a great day.

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