The Art & Science of Switching Unnatural Hair Colors

So I got bored over the weekend and colored my hair again. This time, I went from one wildly unnatural color (a deep navy blue) to another (pale lilac).

The process of changing your hair from one exotic color to another is part design, part chemistry, part foolish bravery, part pure vanity. And it requires one to have loads of colorist information that doesn’t seem to be readily available to non-professional colorists.

Sadly, as I began researching this topic of switching between unnatural colors, I found the Internet was bereft of information on the subject. I resolved to help fill that gap myself. I’m not a professional; I’ve just been doing awful things to my hair for about 10 years. I would like to think you can trust me on this topic. I’m including pics of my own hair through the process.

NOTE FOR FIRST-TIMERS: If this is your first time dyeing your hair an unnatural color, welcome to the cult! We are kind to newcomers. Go read Gala Darling’s exhaustive and charmingly written instructions on how you should get started, including tips on keeping your color bright and fresh.

So, if you’ve done this whole bleaching-Manic Panic-retouching rigamarole in the past, your hair is likely far from virgin. The sad consequence is that you won’t be able to do too much lightening before you’re smack dab in the middle of Breakage City, where they sing unending blues tunes about premature and overly short haircuts that salvage what’s left of your mangled scalpy bits. You DO NOT want to go to Breakage City.

PART ONE: Light to Dark, Dark to Light

If you’re going from a lighter to a darker color and the colors are roughly adjacent on the color wheel (say, pink to red), bully for you! You have a much easier time of it. Just wash out what’s left of your dye with a strong shampoo and twiddle your thumbs until we get past the next part.

If you’re going from a darker color to a lighter one, like I did, you need to proceed with extreme caution. You’ll need to pick up a few extra supplies:

  • Color corrector
  • Bleaching kit or powder/developer
  • White toner (optional)
  • Protein mask
  • Hair mayonnaise
  • Heavy leave-in conditioner and shine serum

I highly recommend processing your hair only once with the color corrector and once with the bleach kit. And this time around, don’t play fast and loose with package directions to lift more color. Given your hair’s condition (and trust me, it’s likely not as strong as you may think), you need to be super duper careful. Remember Breakage City.

Also, give yourself around 24 hours between processing to lift the color if you’re doing so more than once. I know it’s hard to wait around the house with half-faded hair, but in the long run, your hair cuticles will thank you.

As your hair lightens, you’ll begin to see the undercolor. If your haircolor was natural, you might notice reddish or orange tones popping up as you lift color away. However, this might not be the case with an unnatural color. Your red may lift to orange, or it might go pink. That blue may lighten to lilac or a yellowish green. I highly recommend checking out the charts at Good Goth and doing a strand test to ensure you’re making realistic plans.

When lightening, use the color corrector first. It’s less damaging to your hair and doesn’t contain bleach or ammonia. It’ll also help you get an idea of your hair’s undercolor.

If you need to lighten your hair another couple levels, turn to the bleach, but FOR THE LOVE OF GOD, I beg you to use a restorative treatment between (and after!) color-removing processes, and wait 24 hours between color corrector and bleach. Throw on a thick layer of hair mayonnaise and heat process it — or even leave it in overnight. You can also get a deep-conditioning treatment, a protein mask, etc. But be extra kind to your abused and fragile hair as you lighten.

If you need white-white hair to achieve your desired result, or if you want to lift out brassiness, check out Manic Panic’s Snow White toner.

When you’re done bleaching and dyeing your hair, use a super-thick leave-in conditioner emulsified (fancy word for rubbed together vigorously and thoroughly in your hands) with a super-thick shine serum. I recommend heading straight to the ethnic hair care section for these and the hair mayonnaise.

After the lightening is finished, you may look in the mirror at your faded, brassy, damaged locks and experience a sinking, “holy shit, what have I done” feeling. Like your busted-ass cuticles, this too shall pass. Onward to the dye!

PART TWO: The Color Wheel

The color wheel works the same on hair as it does with other elements. How the color wheel affects your hair dyeing experience will depend a lot on the undercolor — what tones your dyed hair has pick up as it fades or as you chemically lighten it. If your undertones are too warm (orange or deep yellow), your blues will turn green and your purples could go bright pink or even orange. If the undertones are too cool for the color you’re attempting, you’ll have a similar mess on your hands.

1. The Adjacent Move
If you’re making an adjacent move (e.g., blue to green, orange to pink, red to purple), your task is much easier.

If this is, in fact, the case, in many cases, you can just apply new dye over your faded old dye. That will all depend on the level of lightness you want from the new color; if your brilliant blue has faded to a peckish turquoise, then feel free to slap the forest green right on top. It’ll look about the same as if you’d re-bleached your hair, and you won’t need to do any additional damage. Just give your hair a good, hot washing with normal shampoo before you get started. Some folks even recommend mixing peroxide developer with the shampoo to get more lift.

2. The “Near Neighbors” Move
If you’re making a slightly more drastic move along the color wheel (not opposite but not adjacent, e.g., orange to purple), or if your old dye hasn’t faded enough, use color corrector (not bleach) to lift out some of the color. You can find it at most drugstores or any beauty supply store.

It’s not as harsh as bleach on your hair, but it also won’t lift nearly as much color. This isn’t as much of a concern if your beginning shade is lighter than your desired shade.

3. The Polar Opposites Move
If you’re trying to make a move to the opposite side of the wheel, especially from a darker to a lighter color (like deep orange to silvery lavender or dark green to pink), proceed with caution, color corrector, toner, multiple test strands, and the number of an emergency stylist with experience in exotics. Or better yet, pick a color in between the two, and give yourself a full 12 weeks or more to gradually transition from your current color to your desired color.

For example, I was bright red and decided I wanted to go blue. So I lightened my hair to a medium yellow (as light as it would go without serious damage, then threw on the blue dye over it and had a “green period.” As the green faded to a pale mint color over a few weeks, I was able to reapply a darker blue with lovely results.

If you try to jump from one extreme to the other too suddenly, or you try to go from a super dark to a super light shade overnight, you could end up with a real mess on your hands — I’m talking gray hair, muddy brown hair, Breakage City, and no dates until you’re forty.

PART THREE: Test Strands

Whether you’ve color-corrected, bleached, or faded your color over time with a stiff shampoo, you’ll want to do a test strand first. Grab a skinny strip of hair from the underneathy parts of your hair, and slather on some of your lovely new hair dye. Leave it on for the recommended processing time (longer if you want a more intense look, less time if you want a pastel) and rinse out the strand. Let it dry.

Like it? Great! Glop on the whole jar o’ dye; you’ve got nothing to worry about.

Now, if you DON’T like the looks of your test strand, that’s when you need to put the brakes on your plans and go back to the color wheel armed with the data gathered from the test strand.

If the undercolor and the new dye didn’t mesh like you had hoped, try this trick: Take a close-up picture of your hair as it is now — just the hair itself, not your face — and open it with Photoshop (you can get a free trial if you don’t have it already). Create a new layer, fill it with the color of the dye you’re putting on your hair, and set the layer blending mode to multiply (what freshly dyed hair might look like) and then to overlay (what it might look like when it fades a bit or if you rinse the dye out early).

This should help you plan a new color strategy without messing up your hair too much. Just remember to test, test, test before you dye.

Alternatively, you can grab your Visa and head to a stylist. The stylist will scold you, make everything better, then ask you for your life savings. It will be worth it.


It’s finally time to dye!

You’re an old pro by now, so you know to wear a black T-shirt and plastic gloves. You probably have favorite processing tricks, like applying heat, using vinegar, or leaving the dye in for 8 hours at a time.

And I certainly don’t need to tell you to really saturate the hair root to tip to ensure even coloring. If you’re going for uneven coloring, well look at you, Little Mister or Miss Creativity! Experimentation is the root of all awesome dye jobs.

As you well know, this is the fun part. Enjoy it!

I was going for a rather desaturated, pale color this time — no tips on the Internet for that, my dearies. So I made up my own instructions: I left the deep purple dye in my hair for 20 minutes only and used — pearls clutch! — shampoo when rinsing it out. It’s perfect and will be even paler next time I shampoo.

STEP FIVE: Aftercare

Dear god, it’s finally over, and you look fabulous.

However, in all likelihood and especially if you used a lightening treatment, your hair has sustained some damage. Pick up a salon-worthy hair treatment like the Protein Rx Anti-Breakage Treatment Mask by Frédéric Fekkai and some thick leave-in conditioner. Give your poor hair a good overnight bath in hair mayonnaise, an olive oil-based hair mask, or some kind of restorative and moisturizing treatment. You can wrap your hair in plastic wrap and/or a plastic bag to avoid drenching your pillow in ooze.

Be sure to use a good, sulfate-free, color-safe conditioner every time you wash. Also, pick up some dry shampoo; it’ll keep you fresh while allowing you to avoid color-killing washings. And only wash in lukewarm water, natch!

Also, particularly for those with longer hair, stock up on a leave-in cream and/or shine serum, and be careful about how and how often you style with heat.

Finally, take some pics and post them online with lots of good advice! The Internet needs more instructions on going from one weird hair color to another.

10 thoughts on “The Art & Science of Switching Unnatural Hair Colors

  1. AWESOME article… even as someone who’s done the colour thing many times, this was very insightful.

    My most extreme experience (because I feel the need to share) was to go from a dyed blue black to a light ashy blonde… a trying experience. Love the doo, Jolie.

  2. I was a bright hair colour junkie for years. Had to stop because it was taking its toll. I miss it though! I’ve admired your fun hair. =) Have you tried Elumen? It’s by Goldwell and has fantastic punky colours. they’re supposed to last pretty long too…

  3. Thanks for this article. I have always wanted crazy colored hair but end up in black just because it’s easiest. I had pink for awhile and wish I had all these tips then as I probably would have kept it.

    I follow you through mashable and you have always been that cool chick with the amazing hair.

    Thanks again.

  4. Lovely article; excellent instructions and tips for first-timers and veterans alike. I have dyed my hair strange and unnatural colors since the age of thirteen; I’m blessed with hair so light I don’t need to bleach unless I’m going very light with the color. However, I do recommend cheaper, semi-permanent haircolor like Color Jamz for those who don’t want a lot of damage or tend to like to change things up a bit.

  5. Excellent article about dying hair. I am a professional hair stylist. At the salon we use Clairol Professional (Soy 4 Plex), but like your previous commenter said, if you want to dye your hair more frequently it’s better to use the semi-permanent dyes. I’ve been seeing quite a few women these days with hair damage or hair falling out and I think that some of it might be because of the harsh dyes that they were using.

  6. man, you are a LIFESAVER. google wasn’t of much help while researching. i will heed all your warnings & stick to your plan of action. red to purple, here i come! (perhaps to blue later on?)

  7. you have explained why my hair went pink instead of pale purple. Thank you. Now all I need to do is let my hair recover and then try and lighten it some more later. Lucky I like pink.


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