Hair Speak: How to Describe Hair Color

Hair color – it’s the backbone of nearly every salon and arguably the most popular service in any salon and for good reason, it gives beauty professionals a way to stretch their creative legs and their clients either a quick beauty pick-me-up or a complete transformation, depending on the service. Hair color can shave decades off, revive dull complexions, and even give the illusion of added density and volume if applied correctly. Truly, hair color is one of man’s greatest inventions.

It’s also a potential consultation nightmare.

The trouble with color is that it’s highly subjective. There have been countless articles written about “how to describe color to your stylist” and most of those articles reference food as a jumping off point. Food, after all, is something that we are all familiar with. How many times have you heard a hair color described as “honey blonde” or “Champagne highlights” or even “a deep, rich, chocolatey color.” These descriptive phrases conjure a certain image in our minds, the problem is it’s a different image depending on what specific honey/champagne/chocolate you’re familiar with.


Chocolate, while delicious, comes in many colors.

Case in point, do a quick Google image search for butter. What you’ll see is an array of yellowish tones that start off ultra-pale, almost white, and run the color spectrum down to a deep, nearly marigold color. If you’re debating the benefits of grass fed v. conventional, you have a compelling case. However, if you’re describing the shade of highlights you are going for, you are leaving yourself wide open to interpretation.

Let’s say that you opt to call a color out by name, eschewing the trendy food association technique. Let’s go with burgundy. That’s a pretty specific color, right? Go ahead and see for yourself. A Google image search of “burgundy” returns images that range from a vibrant red to a deep purple. Hair color truly is in the eye of the beholder.

Let’s cut the fat and get a real roadmap for describing color, in the native tongue of those who are trained in it. Let’s talk color.

What’s a formula? A hair color formula is essentially an equation to your desired color result. A professional colorist will take into account your natural level, prelightened/colored sections amongst other factors when devising a unique formula that is specified to your hair’s individual needs.

Tip #1. Level Up

Professional colorists do not refer to your natural color as a “lightish brown, like a Starbucks dark roast with a little too much half and half added to it.” A colorist has been well trained to view color in a standardized way, specifically to cut down on any possible miscommunications. Have you ever looked at a swatch book in the salon or heard one colorist advising another? If so, you’ll have probably noticed that they will refer to their client’s color as a “level.” The natural hair color level spectrum ranges from a level 1 (black) to a level 10 (ultra light blonde-like platinum). In between are all of the most common natural hair colors. This is where all color consultations begin, with your natural hair color level. From that starting point, a colorist can determine how far up or down the spectrum you should go. Your first step in understanding your hair color and being able to make informed choices is to ask your colorist what your natural color level is. Generally speaking, if you are looking for a more natural look or a color that’s easier to maintain, you should never go more than two levels up or down the spectrum.

Tip #2. The Ash Effect

Color levels are just the beginning. The next thing to take into consideration is whether or not your natural color holds a warm or a cool undertone. Warm undertones typically pull brassy when lightened, which will need to be counteracted when applying color. This is where the terms “ash” comes in. If you’ve ever been puzzled by a colorist recommending “nice ashy blonde highlights,” rest assured that you will not walk out the salon doors with gray stripes running down your head. Your stylist is simply referring to the type of color that they will be using to counteract any inherent brassiness in your natural color (unless you were going for the orange “sun-in” look). the same rules apply to cool tones, who often need a little “warm up,” which can help make skin look more youthful and vibrant when applied strategically.

Types of Hair Color:

  • Temporary: A quick change color that will usually last for up to five washes, although the color begins to fade after the first wash. Some newer temporary colors can last longer, but for the most part, these are meant to be a way to test out a color before committing for the long term. These colors can come in many different forms: liquid, paste, gel, sprays, powder, even semi-solids like a rub-on stick.
  • Semi/Demi Permanent Color: These two terms are not, in fact, interchangeable. While the effects of demi and semi permanent hair color are similar, their formulations are different. Semi-permanent hair color is designed to only deposit color, which means it cannot lighten existing color. Semi-permanent hair color rests on the shaft of the hair and does not penetrate to the cortex (the inner layers of the hair shaft). Demi-permanent color is also designed to only deposit (which means no lightening) but the molecules of the color itself are smaller, which allow it to penetrate deeper into the hair shaft. Simply put, both semi and demi permanent color last roughly 6-8 weeks (depending on how often you wash) but demi-permanent color is better for gray coverage.
  • Permanent Color: Permanent color is not as simple as “oh, it will last longer.” Permanent color is complicated. This hair color is designed to penetrate the hair shaft down to the cortex, which requires the use of a developer. The developer assists with raising the cuticles of the hair, allowing the permanent color to work its way deep down into the cortex. Additionally, permanent color is the only type of color that can “lift,” meaning it will make your hair lighter than it already is. Confused? That’s why it’s best left in the hands of a professional. Permanent color (all hair color, for that matter) requires in-depth knowledge, training and a background in the not only chemical reactions but anatomy as well. We cannot stress enough how important it is to see a professional colorist for the best results. Permanent color is extremely difficult to correct, and this process is often more costly that it would have been to have your desired color transformation applied by a professional in the first place. Improperly applied permanent color (which includes lighteners or “bleach”as it is most commonly referred to as) can cause severe and often times, permanent damage to hair.

Tip #3: Break out of the Box

At the risk of sounding like a broken record, it is imperative that you see a professional for color services. What you cannot account for (even with the help of this handy article) is what condition your hair is in before it’s colored. The color services that you have had in the past, along with the general health of your hair and your lifestyle are all important factors in your hair color formulation. Only a professionally trained stylist will know how to properly adjust a hair color formula for your individual needs. If you are considering heading to your local drug store to cover up your regrowth or flirt with life as a brunette for a minimal investment, just keep in mind that it will affect your color services for months, even years to come. Boxed color is difficult to remove and can react badly with professionally applied color. The formulations are completely different. That $12 transformation is NOT the same as you would get in the salon. If you have gone the boxed route in the past, be sure to let your colorist know, prior to your next service.