I've been dying my hair red for over 16 years and have tried just about every product that purports to give and maintain vibrant color. In the past 8 years or so, I've had my hair various shades extremely bright red, ginger red, auburn, wine, and fuchsia. Red dye molecules are very large compared to other colors, eclipsed only by blue dye molecules, which is why it's so difficult to make your hair hang on to them.
For those after a bold Red look but struggling to find the products and techniques that work, I offer you my life's research and tips for upkeep so that you never have to feel faded again, and also don't have to break the bank. You'll get tons of compliments, but red does take work.
The above are photos of the reds/ pinks I have had in the last few years, using the method described in this Ible. The last photo shows you my natural color.
Step 1: Choosing a Colorant
I never bleach my hair because I'm terrified it will fry and fall off. The brands and techniques I'll be focusing on work well on untreated blonde to medium brown hair, though they will certainly apply to bleached tresses as well.
If you choose to bleach more than just highlight streaks, I highly recommend going to a salon. A professional will be able to offer you products that are less damaging to your hair and will know the proper timing for the lift you need. You'll also avoid coming out with a deep yellow orange base that may influence your end color result. You can still do your coloring at home if you find salon color cost prohibitive.
The Big Dye Breakdown: Here are the pros and cons of the vibrant red/ pink dyes I've tried. Weigh the experiences as they apply to your hair type and hair goals. I encourage you to read reviews of any hair color online before buying something.
Manic Panic --Pros: great color selection, affordable at about $10 per tub. Fuchsia Shock, Vampire Red, Pillarbox Red, Hot Hot Pink, Infra red, and Cleo Rose all work well on unbleached hair. This color is also vegan friendly, if that concerns you.
Cons: Best results achieved if you leave it on at least 40 minutes, which is not terrible but it does take commitment. If you shampoo 3+ times a week, fading will begin within 5 days. I find that Manic Panic seems to stick all over you after you get out of the shower; you're covered in a thin film of red that you don't really notice until you touch your keyboard and leave red fingerprints, or realize your shirt collars are getting tinted. I also found this stuff will sweat off down the back my neck in the summer, so dark shirts are a must for at least the first week of color.
Punky Colour --Pros: Uhh...really didn't find any. Cons: Does not stick to unbleached hair very long. Expect fade out within one week. Best used for accent streaks rather than all over color.
Beyond the Zone Color Jamz -- Pros: Another dud for me. Wouldn't recommend it!
Cons: Literally had zero affect on my hair, even after being on for 30 minutes. I looked the same after as I did before without so much as a tint.
Special Effects --Pros: great color selection and results last a bit longer than MP colors, even on unbleached hair. Slightly creamier formula than MP makes application more controlled. Devlish, Candy Apple Red, and Cherry Bomb work very well.
Cons: This brand is slightly harder to find an a little more expensive at $12-15 dollars a bottle. Also provides most vibrant results with about 30-40 minutes on your head, heat application a plus. Stains skin easily, so use protective garments or petroleum jelly to keep color off ears, brow ridge, etc.
Ion Color Brilliance Brights --Pros: Right now this is my holy grail of color! Red and Magenta work very well on unbleached hair and last about 2 weeks with regular shampooing before you feel faded. They're also readily available at Sally Beauty Supply for around $5 a tube (and often on sale for less), making it very affordable to stock up on.
Cons: The consistency is VERY thick. For a smooth application you'll want to mix with conditioner. The color selection is limited, but you can combine them to make a custom shade like I do and they periodically put out seasonal colors. This stuff wipes off skin easily if you get it right away, but does tend to stain your scalp for a few days. If you have short cropped hair, this may not appeal to you.
"Ultra Red" Box Dyes (Feria, Garnier, L'Oreal, etc. Basically, any of the brands you can buy at a pharmacy that offer a selection of specialty reds)-- Pros: Easy to come by and typically longer lasting because these will be permanent dyes. Those with dark hair can expect to find products that lighten while coloring, so there's no bleach step in-between.
Cons:Over time, these will seriously wreck your hair. Before i knew better, I used to use box dye every 4-6 weeks and the bottom half of my hair felt like corn tassels. The "super amazing fruit oil infused mega conditioners" that come with the box will not save you. Use only every few months, or for root touch up, but do not repeatedly apply to your ends unless you're thinking of getting a bob soon. If you use box dyes, opt for ammonia free options like Natural Instincts as they are the lesser of the evils.
Step 2: Ion Color Brilliance Application
Since ICB is my recommendation for bold red, I'll be showing you how to apply it effectively and maintain your color using the same affordable ingredients.
As mentioned int he breakdown, ICB is very thick. You'll want to cut it with an inexpensive conditioner so you can make it more spreadable. This helps you get more milage out of the tube and ensures you'll saturate every strand evenly.
My preferred conditioner for this task is Mane n' Tail, available at Sally and most pharmacies. The beauty of this product is that you can get a huge bottle for about $6 and it really does deliver intense moisture without a lot of bogus additives. This is also a good opportunity to use up hotel sample size bottles of conditioner that you've been hoarding and have never actually used.
Squirt a generous amount of conditioner into a plastic mixing receptacle.
Add ICB color. Squeeze from the end of the tube like toothpaste to dispense.
1/2 tube for short hair, Full tube for medium-long hair.
I like to mix "Red" with "Magenta" to get a deep red with a true red to pink base (rather than an orange red base), so I use 1/2 tube of each color per full head application to my medium long hair.
Mix thoroughly with a tint brush until you have a cream color with no streaks.
Apply to your head with latex or plastic gloved hands and/ or the tint brush. If you get some on your skin, wipe it away promptly with a towel (preferably a towel you've designated to the hair dye process and don't care about). Petroleum jelly applied to the ears and hairline will prevent dye contact with skin if you don't trust your application to be very precise.
Best results on unbleached hair are achieved in 30-40 minutes. Put a shower cap on to hold in the heat and moisture, allowing the dye to process without drying out. Go check Facebook, eat breakfast, watch an episode of something on Netflix.
Rinse in the shower. Some frequent dyers suggest your first rinse be accompanied by a diluted white vinegar rinse to help seal in color. I have tried this before while using Manic Panic colors and didn't notice any difference in retention, but perhaps this tip is best used on bleached hair.
When you first get in the shower, it will look like you have just murdered the Kool-Aid man in there. Many dyes say "rinse until water is clear." That will never happen. Rinse until the water is barely pink instead of full cherry red, then towel dry. Your towel will absorb the last of your run off. Pro Tip: If you dye often, invest in a dark towel so you never have to confront your stains. Guilt free living!
A note on temperature: Most people suggest avoiding hot showers because the heat will open up your hair shaft, thus releasing more dye. I hate cold showers, so I am often guilty of violating this. Be mindful of your water temp and try dialing it back to warm-cool for your hair rinse only, to see if it makes an impact on your color's staying power.
Step 3: Maintenance Recommendations
A lot of beauty blogs will tell you the only way to keep color long term is to give up washing your hair more than once a week. I'm a greasy little person and that does not work for me --not even with dry shampoos! The following are my tips to prolonging your color without having to feel unkempt or changing your daily shower routine.
Shampoo Strategy-- Sulfate free products will not strip your color as quickly and are often advertised as color care products. Focus your application on your part and bangs, if you have them. These are areas that show grease the fastest. Keeping your frequent shampoo applications restricted to these areas prevents all over color fade out or drying up your ends. Every few days, do a shampoo application on the underside of your hair (back of the neck), to eliminate oil buildup there. Once a week, if you like, you can do an all over shampoo.
Color Depositing Shampoos (optional) -- I'm on the fence about these, but they are available. The best I have tried is Watercolors brand in Crimson Splash. It does help replenish red tones in your hair with each wash, but it can also be drying if applied frequently. Thoroughly condition after use.
Color Depositing Conditioners-- I find this is the real key to long term vibrance, and it can only help your hair's overall state. The best brand I've tried is by far Overtone, which offers color lines for both natural reds and "extreme" bright red/ pink. Its color depositing capabilities are so strong that I've actually just straight up dyed my hair with their deep conditioner before. It is great stuff, easy to apply daily, and smells nice. The downside is that it becomes an expensive habit at about $50 per conditioning kit. I have since decided to make my own daily color conditioner for less than a third of the price.
Step 4: Homemade Color Depositing Conditioner
I've been using this homemade mix for a few months. Since it uses the same two products as the original dye application, I can whip up a batch to have on hand in the shower anytime for under $5.
Find a plastic container, either a tub or a bottle. Make sure it is easy to use and cleansed of its previous contents.
For a tub mix, squeeze in the amount of ICB hair color you would normally use for one full head application. Again, in my case this is 1/2 tube red and 1/2 tube magenta.
Cover with a very generous amount of your cheap conditioner. You want a 3:1 ratio of conditioner to color. This filled my tub a little over half way.
Mix until creamy and color is consistent throughout. The color will appear a but more diluted than when you did your coloring batch due to all the extra conditioner stretching out the dye. *Bonus: Add a few drops of peppermint essential oil to the cream for some extra wake up zing in the morning. This is just an option if you like the smell. It will not affect the function of the conditioner at all.
*For a bottle mix, layer your products int he bottle like a parfait. Squirt of dye, squirt of conditioner, shake to mix. Repeat until bottle is nearly full. Don't wait until the bottle is full to do your shaking and mixing, because it will be very hard to get even color distribution at that point.
Seal container and place in the shower for easy use every other day. Apply a palm full to your scalp/ bans and another palm full to your ends. If you have longhair, you will get a more even distribution by loosely splitting your hair into pigtails and applying a portion to each half of your ends.
Be mindful to spread it all around with you hands, working it through the hair evenly. If you tend to slap it on your head in the same place every day, you'll end up with some places that are noticeable brighter than others (I made this mistake in middle school and earned the nickname "Spot"). Gloves are not needed unless you prefer it. The color conditioner may stain your hands immediately after use, but it will go away by the time you're finished with your shower.
Try to leave the conditioner on for at least 2-3 minutes. Hold your head out of the water while you scrub your face or shave your legs to give the color conditioner time to deposit pigment. Rise and dry as usual.
Following this regime will ensure that every day you shampoo or rinse out pigment, you are immediately re-depositing pigment to replace the loss. You will stay much more vibrant for longer. I now go 2-3 weeks at a time without looking faded. The work is being done while I shower, which is a huge time saver.
Step 5: Being Smart About Touch Ups and Roots
Bright semi permanent dyes sometimes do not stick to virgin growth very well. So how do you create a base for it to cling to without bleaching and without having to take a break from your vibrant red in favor of an all over lifting dye?
My stylist had a smart suggestion for me. Obtain a bright "natural" red semi permeant dye that requires an activator with mild lift. For me, a developer level of 10 is sufficient. If you have previously bleached your hair you may end up using a 20 or 30.
Mix the products as directed and then brush lightly on to your roots and fine areas like sideburns with a tint brush. If you wear your hair up a lot, you could also do the underside of your hair closest to the neck.
The chemicals in the dye will lighten those areas slightly, making it more amicable to receiving your bright red hair dye in the future. If you have white hairs coming in, like I do, these chemicals can also help straighten out their wiry texture. As long as you get a very bright natural red, like this one called "Fire", the color will blend pretty seamlessly with your extreme dye. You've saved your hair a lot of damage by concentrating the lifting application only on the areas of new growth.
Use this touch up dye as directed. if the package says 15-20 minutes, do not exceed that. Going beyond the recommended amount of time may give you unexpected color results that do not blend with your intense red.
Should you feel the need to do a vibrant dye touch up but don't want to deal with all the hassles of a full head application, try this trick:
Section off the top half of your hair, as you might for blow drying or styling.
Pull the lower section into a loose ponytail, just to keep it out of your way.
Apply a half batch of dye to the top section ONLY. Since this is the portion of your hair that most people see, this is really what matters. Apply, sit, and rinse as usual. ICB dye runoff tends to stain un-dyed hair it comes in contact with, so your lower section will still receive a bit of color deposit without the full dose mess.Depending on how faded you've allowed the lower section to become, sometimes you can even get an interesting ombre effect this way.
Step 6: Clean Up
If bright red hair is going to be your thing longterm, I highly recommend buying a few dark towels, pillowcases, and maybe even a dark bath mat. No matter how meticulous you try to be, you are going to drip on something. If that something is a gleaming white bath mat, you'll be kicking yourself. The after effects hair dye can have on home goods may be especially important if you live with someone who is not an avid dyer and may get touchy about their linens becoming your victims. Even if the dye will ultimately come out in the wash, I find the dark towels that make the dye invisible keep everyone a little happier.
Rubbing Alcohol is the best thing for getting rid of staining on skin. If your ears, forehead, or shoulders got stained, apply rubbing alcohol on a cotton ball and wipe. It may take several passes if the stain is dark, but it's effective and safe to use on your body. Just be aware that alcohol is drying, so you may feel the need to moisturize after.
Cleaning Products: Before you fear that this dye job is going to cost you the deposit on your apartment, let me assure you that it will almost always come out.
Scrubbin' Bubbles is the best thing I've found for getting dye stains off of countertops and tile. Spray, sit, and rinse/ wipe away. The color lifts away with the foam and even tough stains are usually gone within two applications. The quicker you address the stains, the easier they will lift.
Soft Scrub or a regular diluted bleach wash will get the staining out of the grout in your shower. That said, so will time. If you stop dying your hair red for a while the water, soaps, and cleaners you use during that period will ultimately wear away the stains without you really having to put direct elbow grease into it.
Step 7: Going Back to Normal
Super bright red hair does take a lot of work. Should you want to go back to a more natural (lower maintenance) look, I highly recommend using a semi-permanent, ammonia free dye somewhere between medium auburn and deep burgundy.A gradual transition will be healthiest for your hair and help you avoid unfortunate surprises in color results. After a month or two of this bridging over, you're probably good to go in any direction you like.
If you want to make an immediate dramatic change, like vibrant red to honey blonde, see your stylist for a consultation. They can put you on the path for best results and the least damage to your hair, and may have additional recommendations as to what you might want to do with your brows, new products to use in the shower, etc. The good stylists will not try to gouge you with services you don't need!
I hope this Ible has helped some aspiring Reds/ Pinks out here. If you enjoyed it, please send me a vote in the Hair and Makeup Contest. Viva la Roja!