Switching up your hair color is never as simple as pointing at a model on the front of a hair dye box and proclaiming, “I want that!” Either we’ve heard enough horror stories from friends, or worse, been the protagonist of our own, to know this. That’s why when you’re trying to find your best hair color, you should take in account your skin tone, color theory and even science.
In fact, it’s less about the hair color you like and more about what hair color your skin likes. The perfect hair color will not only complement your skin tone and make your best facial features pop, it can also help you look years younger. Get it wrong and you could end up looking washed out, tired, unnatural and older!
This is a little known fact, even though 55% of women color their hair these days, and spend an average of $330 annually on hair color, according to a recent survey by Tresemme. “It’s a big point of confusion for a lot of consumers when they’re coloring their hair,” said Kelly Van Gogh, hair colorist and creator of Kelly Van Gogh Hair Color (who also majored in chemistry at Columbia University).
“The biggest rule of thumb is that your natural hair color is the shade range that you should stay within,” says Van Gogh.” Go too far outside of it and you’re likely to wind up with hair that is not only damaged and dull, but fake looking against your skintone. Why? Because though they may be completely different colors at first glance, your skin and natural hair color have the same underlying pigments.
Hair Color Pigmentation
When you change your hair color with permanent hair dye, it lifts the outer color and reveals the natural underlying pigments—or highlights—in the hair. So for the longest-lasting and most natural-looking color, think about the color that the sun turns your hair during mid-summer months. Those tones are what come naturally and what you should stick with when you dye your hair.
Hair color is measured in two ways: by the level and the shade. Color level runs on a scale of one to 10 with one being the darkest color, like jet-black and 10 being the lightest color, like platinum blonde. Within each of those levels are the color pigments—eumelanin (black-brown) and pheomelanin (red-brown), which control the shade of the hair. Dark hair (levels 1-4), contains many red pigments and blonde hair (levels 7-10) consists of mainly golden pigments. If your hair shade is somewhere in the middle (levels 5-6), you’re going to have more orange pigments, a combination of the red and yellow.
Skin Undertones and Hair Color
Your skin tone also contains these underlying pigments. If you were born with black or brown hair, you will likely have warmer, earthy undertones in your skin like orange, brown, gold or orange-based red. If you were born with blonde hair, you probably have cooler skin undertones like blue, green, pink or blue-based red.
Those with warmer undertones in their skin will look better with a warmer hair color, like golden blondes or honey browns. Conversely, those with cooler undertones in their skin will look better with cooler hair colors, like ash blonde, black or auburn brown.
“Generally the makeup you are using should already tell you if you are a warm- or cool-toned person,” said Mark Garrison, owner and celebrity stylist at Mark Garrison Salon in New York. “But if you are unsure, look at a vein in your arm under natural light. If it appears green, then you have warm tones, if it is blue then you have cool-toned skin.”
A good colorist will study the overall skin tone, color of the eyes and age, according to Garrison. “The skin tone tells you what tone the hair should be.”
Eye Color and Hair Color
“The color of the eyes is another indicator,” says Garrison. If your eyes are deep brown, black-brown, gray blue, dark blue or hazel with white, gray or blue flecks you look best with cool tones in your hair. However, if your eyes are golden brown, green, turquoise or hazel with gold or brown flecks you will look best with warm tones in your hair.
Age and Hair Color
“The age of the client lets you know how far from the natural-born hair color you should go because softer colors look better as we age,” said Garrison. “Yet, extremes (platinum blondeor black hair color) tend to bring out the imperfections and wrinkles in the skin, so save those for your younger years.
”Be aware that your skintone changes as you age. “Right before you turn gray, the hair gets a little darker,” said Van Gogh. “Your skin is preparing to lose pigment as you age. Then, when your hair turns gray, your skintone gets lighter.”
What’s growing out of your head naturally today may be different than what you had when you were a teenager, so just remember to stay within two levels of lightness or darkness of your current natural color. “That prevents mistakes from happening,” added Van Gogh, “and keeps you looking the most natural.”
But if you want something bold, you can always make extreme color changes more smoothly if you keep within the correct warm or cool tones, according to Garrison. “And if you don’t care if your hair color looks natural, have fun with it!”
According to Ludovic Audesson, senior colorist at Pierre Michel Salon in New York City, choosing the right blonde tone goes hand-in-hand with your skintone. Here are his recommendations:
Blonde hair color for light skintones
Opt for a golden, strawberry or light blonde. Warming up your hair with highlights can add some color and interest to your locks and your face. But because you are fairer skinned, stay away from shades that are white, ash and reddish.
Blonde hair color for medium skintones
Because your skin has more color to it, you can add more color to your hair. A golden hue is beautiful, as is a beige-blonde or even a light blonde. Just be sure to maintain some warmer tones to match your skin. Ashy or orange-based tones will make you look washed out.
Blonde hair color for dark skintones
Stick with darker blonde shades on your hair. Remember, you don’t want to move more than two shades from your natural hair color, so if you have dark skin, chances are your hair is naturally darker too. Caramel or golden highlights can be beautiful. You should avoid tones with too much white, platinum or orange because these will look unnatural with your darker skintone.
Here are Nikki Ferrara, a senior colorist at Sally Hershberger Downtown in New York City recommendations for choosing the perfect shade of red for your skintone:
Red hair color for light skintones Fair skin looks best with a light, golden, strawberry blonde to a bright copper or red. Avoid wine-colored red and burgundy though because these shades will make you look too pale.
Red hair color for medium skintones Because your skin has more pigments, your hair can too. Opt for a medium coppery blonde to medium auburn shade. Just steer clear of dark eggplant hues as these shades will make your skin appear yellow.
Red hair color for dark skintones Darker skintones look gorgeous with a medium auburn to chestnut brown shade. Super red hues, however, have too much blue in them and will make you look green, so be careful here.
According to Mark Garrison, owner and celebrity stylist at Mark Garrison Salon in New York, some women shy away from this hue. “’I don’t want to see any red’ is many a client’s mantra,” he says. Instead, they request more caramel or honey tones. Either way, when choosing the perfect shade of brown, look at your skintone first. Here are Garrison’s top recommendations:
Brown hair color for light skintones
Staying within two levels of your natural color most likely means keeping your hair a medium brown shade. Warm red tones can look beautiful as well as lighter strawberry tones, particularly as highlights. Unless you were born with it, avoid really dark hair—faired-skinned women usually don’t have enough pigment in their skintone to carry this off.
Brown hair color for medium skintones
For those with sallow or yellow undertones, medium browns are great. You have more versatility here and can go lighter or darker from a caramel shade to a rich, auburn shade. Just keep it more neutral and don’t go too warm (blackish) or too cool (blondish).
Brown hair color for dark skintones
For olive skintones, dark colors work best and look the most natural. You can pull off deep tones of brown with darker red highlights. If you have pink undertones in your skin, try something softer, like an amber shade. Again, stick within two shades of your current color. And (again, unless you were born with it), avoid going too light as this will clash with your skin.
Nikki Ferrara of Sally Hershberger Downtown in New York agrees. “Dark black hair is a great statement especially if you have light eyes—it really makes them pop.” Here are her suggestions for matching the perfect shade of black to your skintone:
Light skintones: Dark neutral tones that border on the dark brown side are best. Don’t go too dark though because it will wash you out and highlight any red pigments in your skin.
Medium skintones: Choose a shade that is dark brown, almost black, to complement the color in your skin. Just avoid a reddish-black hue because it will bring out too much yellow in the skin.
Dark skintones: Because you have a darker skintone, you can go with a super-dark-and-bold brown or black hair color. Steer clear of anything with a blue-black tone though. It will bring out too much olive in your skin and may give it a green hue.