The Best Way to Cover Gray Hair at Home

Due to recent salon closures customers have been looking for ways to keep their gray roots in check without visiting a salon. Of course I wouldn’t normally recommend this but desperate times call for desperate measures and sometimes those measures include a journey into the box color aisle at your local retailer. There are ways to use these tools safely to look and feel better until you can get back to your stylist.

As a professional cosmetologist who has spent the last 8+ years specializing in the science of color and color corrections I thought I could put together some basic info on how color works so you can make informed decisions about your hair. Most clients’ top priority is a beautiful end result, and most stylists’ priority is long term hair health. Together we can come up with a solution that makes everyone happy.

How Permanent Color Works

Permanent haircolor is the only way to cover gray. There are other types of color but they are temporary or translucent which may be a better fit for you depending on your goals. “Permanent” does not mean it will not fade, it just means it causes a permanent chemical alteration to your hair structure. 

Permanent color is a 2-in-1 process: lifting your natural color and depositing new color in a single step. “Lifting” is the professional term for lightening your natural color but chemically it consists of breaking down the melanin molecules inside your hair. Permanent color only has the ability to lift your hair about 3 levels, high-lift color can lift about 4 levels and after that you’ll need bleach. It’s also important to note that artificial haircolor can only reliably lift your natural hair. If you’ve ever experienced “hot roots” by trying to use a lighter color over existing haircolor after you’ve let your roots grow out, this is why. 

What did the 40 volume say to the 5 volume? Do you even lift bro?

The color itself consists of color “building blocks” called dye intermediates in an alkaline solution. Ammonia is the most common alkalizing agent, there are alternatives sold as “ammonia free” permanent color but they contain MEA or another alkalizing agent that serves the same function. This is mixed with an acidic developer, stabilized peroxide in different concentrations, to begin the reaction. When you buy a box kit, you use whatever developer comes in the package. Box colors are known for using a stronger developer than necessary so just be aware.

There is no reason to use anything stronger than 20 volume (6%) to cover gray.

Higher peroxide concentrations increase the lifting power and decrease the pigment deposit so you will get less gray coverage and faster fading by using a developer over 20 volume. If you regularly DIY and your favorite box color is packaged with 25 volume or higher, buy a bottle of generic 20 volume developer from a public beauty supply to keep on hand. 

After mixing the color and developer, you have about 10 minutes to apply your home color before the reaction starts. First, the pH of the color swells open the protective cuticle layers to allow the color into the cortex of your hair where the melanin pigment lives. Your melanin is then broken down, lightening your natural pigment. This is the “permanent” change. This allows room for the artificial pigments to fill in the cortex. Depending on the strength of the developer and the actual color you’re using (lighter colors spend more time lifting, darker colors spend more time depositing) this takes between 10 and 20 minutes. Then, the depositing action begins. The dye intermediates are little “raw” color molecules that enter the cortex and take anywhere from 10 to 20 more minutes to develop and swell in size. Once they are fully developed, they are large enough to remain stuck inside the cortex, giving your end color result. 

Choosing a color

If you’ve experimented with hair color before you might have noticed that the color on the box isn’t always the color you get. Why? The main reason is that your hair has underlying pigment. That’s the pigment that’s naturally in your hair, or the pigment that’s left over after lightening. Even “white” hair has underlying pigment because the keratin protein that makes up your hair is pigmented. If you lighten white hair it turns yellow.

Underlying pigment is warm. This is why your hair turns “brassy” when you color it, or lighten it, or spend a lot of time in the sun. So, your underlying pigment needs to be taken into account when choosing a color. Green neutralizes red, blue neutralizes orange, and violet neutralizes yellow. If you use a cool color, you will get a neutral result. If you use a neutral color you will get a slightly warm result, if you use a warm color you will get a warm result. You cannot get a cool result in a single process, only neutral. If you desire a super cool result that’s a job for a professional because it can go south pretty quickly. 

Hair color under tone chart

The tricky part is, you’ll never see a color labeled “medium blue based blonde” you will see terms like “beige, cool, ash, smokey, and cendre.” Also, different manufacturers use different base tones in each of their colors. For example: “ash” can be straight green, blue-green, or the complementary cool color for whatever level is in the tube. For this reason I recommend selecting a color that is as close to your existing color as possible to avoid disasters.

Application

Gather all your materials before you begin because once the color and developer are mixed, the reaction begins. The reaction is carefully timed and you’ll get the best, most predictable results if you complete the application quickly. Read all the directions. Yes, all of them. Part your hair into sections and work with one section at a time. Begin with the most resistant areas (typically the hairline or temples) and carefully apply color to your roots only. Overlapping permanent color can have serious effects on the condition of your hair, and can create color banding leaving you looking like a less-than-exotic animal. 

If your roots are longer than 1 inch your adventure has been upgraded. Buy a second box. New hair growth is softer and lacks the full strength keratin the rest of your hair has so it’s like tender new skin without it’s protective layer. It takes about 6 weeks for hair to become fully keratinized which means new growth less than 6 weeks old will accept color more quickly and more easily, which can leave some silvers showing through on hair that’s older and has the potential to leave obvious bands. If you’ve ever experienced “hot roots” while attempting to color your natural hair all one color, this is why. The easiest remedy is to color your roots before this happens. If it’s already been too long (maybe you were faithfully waiting on your out of work stylist) there is still a solution. Color the older hair first, then go back and do your roots. The fresh color will have a better chance of penetrating the more stubborn hair and then you can go back and cover your fresh new growth.

DO NOT pull the color through your ends. 

You need a different type of color on previously chemically treated hair and pulling permanent color through previously color treated hair only increases the damage and makes your color fade faster. Once your color is applied, let it process according to the directions and shampoo it thoroughly after. This would be a great time to use that deep conditioning mask collecting dust under your bathroom sink.

Tips and Tricks

Gray coverage is one of the most popular salon services for a reason: it’s a bit tricky to do yourself. Your best bet is to choose a color that closely matches your existing color and not try to change things up too much. 

If you can recruit a helper I highly recommend it. It’s a great activity for a girls night or bonding with your teenager. If you have a willing partner that works too! It’s just so much easier to apply color to someone else’s head. 

If you’re concerned about timing, mix half your color and half your developer at a time. Once you’ve applied that mixture, mix the other half and apply your fresh new batch. This is great for beginners or people who don’t have an extra helper to apply. When it comes to covering grays you’re better off letting it sit too long than applying it too slowly. 

Optimal gray coverage is found in levels 8 (medium blonde) and lower. If you want super light hair or you’re very white and trying to blend it with blonde, you’re going to have to sacrifice coverage. In the salon we would use a double process of lifting and coloring separately if you want to be light and cover gray which I do not recommend you try at home.

Heat opens the cuticle. If your hair is fine or damaged, process your home color in open air, your body heat is enough. If your hair is coarse or your gray resists color, cover it with a processing cap and wrap a towel around it to hold in your body heat for the first 20 minutes. Avoid applying direct heat from a blowdryer or other source because this may accelerate the reaction too much and cause damage. 

Extra resistant areas? Apply unmixed color directly from the tube to resistant areas first for 5 minutes. Then mix your color as usual and apply to the entire head, including the areas where you’ve applied the color directly. This is called “pre-softening” and the high alkalinity helps open the resistant cuticle and give it an extra dose of unbuffered dye intermediates. They still require the peroxide to fully develop but this gives tough areas a head start.

I would love to hear if this helped you, or if you’ve experienced any at home hair disasters! Comment below or tag me in your pictures on instagram @megrunswithscissors

Published by megrunswithscissors

Collecting human experiences and sharing them. Dog mom, wife, licensed cosmetologist, lifelong student.

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