Introduction: How to Do a Color Melt

About: I'm an animation director by day and Queen of the monsters by night. I picked up most of my costume and prop building skills through hands on experimentation with materials. Experimentation led to addiction,…

Unconventional hair colors have become more, well...conventional, now that celebrities and fashion magazines have brought them into the mainstream. For the adventurous dyer, this is great because more products for the maintenance of "crazy" colored hair are becoming readily available to the average consumer, and being perfected for easy everyday use. The downside is that we long time dyers, who enjoyed vibrant hair as a means of appearing unique, have had to get even more creative with our color to stand out.

"Color melts" are one of the most popular requests at my hairdresser's salon. They're beautiful and versatile; as bold or subtle as you want to make them. If you like changing colors often, melts also provide aesthetically pleasing transitions if you want to move your way around the color wheel (next door--not across!).

In this Ible I'll run through some of my favorite coloring products and two methods for using them to create a dark-to-light melt dye job. I'll also provide a few tips for maintaining and altering your melt. This look has garnered a lot of compliments for me this summer, and I hope you'll enjoy giving it a shot.

NOTE: This Ible is aimed at intermediate home hair dyers who are probably familiar with the basics of prep and clean up, and who have basic knowledge of hair dye procedure. If you're a first timer or are unsure what products would best suit your hair type and color goals, consult your salon professional or a knowledgeable rep at a beauty retailer (Sally's, Nigel's, etc).

Step 1: You Will Need...

Have your basics on hand:

Plastic gloves

Smock or towel to protect any clothing you wear.

Towel, plastic, or newspaper to protect your counter top or floor (if needed). If you're not familiar with the consistency/ behavior of your dye brand, I highly recommend protecting surfaces. Even we veterans drop a blob on the bathmat once in a while!

Rubbing alcohol --for cleaning dye off of your skin

Semi Permanent Dye--to achieve this look, you must be using a semi-perm pigment additive dye, NOT a permanent dye that uses a chemical process to change or lighten the appearance of your hair. See the following pages for cautions and recommendations.

Conditioner --the thicker the better, and you can use the cheap stuff! You will use this to thin out thick dyes, and also to protect areas where you don't want dye to go. I like Mane n' Tail and Suave because you can get huge bottles at a good price.

Mixing Tray or Tub --for thinning thick dyes or mixing shades.

Tint Brush -- not needed, but helpful for small areas like around the ears

Dark towels --a set of dark colored towels will be your best friends during your color adventure. You won't see the stains your hair leaves, so you won't worry!

Step 2: Dye Selection

This is a point that bears repeating. To achieve a successful color melt and keep your hair safe, you must be using a semi-perm pigment additive dye, NOT a permanent dye that uses a chemical process to change or lighten the appearance of your hair.We are adding or darkening color, not stripping it. For further explanation on the different between perm and semi-perm dyes, see my Ible on the Hair Dye Science.

I am dying on a base of medium natural auburn with slightly lightened tips. If your hair is brunette to start, please see a salon professional for a pre-lightening to get the best results. Bleaching is absolutely something worth paying for and having done right!

Select up to 2 Colors -- Your 2 dye colors should be shade variants of the same color (red/ pink) or neighbors on the color wheel (like orange/ yellow or blue/purple).

Seen those amazing rainbow my little pony dye jobs on pinterest? Me too. Amazing, but best left for the expert home dyers or worth getting the assistance of a salon. Stick to 2 colors for today's Ible!

Here are two simple phrases to help you remember the color rules:

Neighbors Make Good Melts

All diagonal roads lead to BROWN.

DO NOT cross the color wheel! If you've ever taken a painting class, you know that crossing the color wheel will always get you muddy brown. Always. This means no red/green, yellow/purple, or orange/blue. These won't work to create a melt, and you'll be sending me angry messages when your head looks like a mud pie.

Step 3: Recommended Dyes for Best Results

Below are some of my favorite brands, each with traits that suit it better to some tasks than others. Photos included to show how some of these colors turn out on unbleached medium-light hair. Select your dye based on your desired results, how to expect to care for the look over time, and when in doubt, google the brand and color you like to see how it looks on other people!

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 -- *ICB dye is known to run down and stain whatever is in its path, which can be a pro or a con, depending what you're trying to do. Keep this in mind.

Pros: Red and Magenta work very well on unbleached hair and last about 2 weeks with regular shampooing before you feel faded. They also offer some very pretty pastel shades, like the Salmon I use for this melt. 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: Pastel shades do not seem to have the same staying power as more saturated hues. Plan on doing a quick touch up of your pastel with a weekly conditioning treatment. The consistency of Ion 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.

Manic Panic--Pros: great color selection, affordable at about $10 per tub. Fuchsia Shock, Vampire Red, Pillarbox Red, Hot Hot Pink, Infra red, and New 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.

One N' Only -- Pros: This line offers an excellent natural fire red (think Peg Bundy) and a good amount of staying power. It also smells really nice and makes your hair look healthy and shiny. I have met people who really rave about their blues and teals, though I haven't tried them myself.

Cons: I can only speak to magenta and purple, but thus far the "crazy" colors I've tried do not have much affect on unbleached hair.

Adore --Pros: Very vibrant colors and very affordable. Perfect for someone who likes to change it up often, as these deliver a burst of fresh color but don't tend to stick very long.

Cons: The formula is very thin and runny, so take care during application and watch out for drips. Since they don't last very many washes, this is not a long term or low maintenance solution.

Step 4: Application Methods

There are two variations on the melt application that I have tried, both fairly easy to achieve. Whichever method you choose, bear in mind that you need to have a fluid attitude toward your hair color. With time and washing, your colors will continue to change and "melt". This is what gives the look such a pretty, organic feel. You need to be ok with these subtle changes and know that there are ways to influence and change your colors if you really don't like the result. More often than not, I've been pleasantly surprised when the dye does what it will.

Method 1) Dye Does What it Will -- in this method, you'll apply your two dye shades, blend halfway up the length of your hair, and then allow the water from your rinse to take the pigment where it wants to go, naturally flowing downward. This method is great if you want brightly colored tips or if you just like surprises!

Method 2) Preserving Pale Tips -- Use this method if you want to preserve blonde tips of pre-lightened hair as the lightest shade of your melt. You'll use thick conditioner to coat your tips, thus blocking the dye molecules from depositing there. To preserve blonde requires an extra step, special rinsing, and is not always 100% bulletproof, but the results overall are very pretty and perfect for pastel fans

Step 5: Method 1: Dye Does What It Will

Part your hair as you typically wear it.

Using gloved hands, apply vibrant dye from your roots to just past mid length (bottom of ears-chin level) for long hair. If you have bangs, include them in this pass. Use a tint brush to get around your hairline and ears if you prefer.

Make sure to work the dye into the strands, do not just pat the surface for a superficial application. I find it works well to slather my gloves with a medium coat of dye, then scrunch my hands throughout, especially at the crown of my head where I don't have visibility and would be more likely to leave a bare spot.

If your hair dye is especially thick, combine it with a quarter sized dollop of conditioner in a mixing tray. This will give you a smoother formula that will coat strands more completely. Super thick dye can result in a patchy application if you aren't used to working with it.

Next, apply your lightest or pastel shade to the tips.

Rinse or change your gloves prior to handling the pastel dye to ensure the purest color.

Saturate the tips of your hair with the pastel dye and work upwards, overlapping your first color by at least 2 inches (likely in the region of your ears). I've provided a diagram to demonstrate color distribution since my hands were too covered in dye to work the camera here.

Note how the pastel salmon dye doesn't look very visible on my hair color. Not to worry --it is there and doing it's thing, and will influence the shade I get when the red runs down and melts with it.

Comb through the length of your hair generously with your fingers (stopping short of the tips), moving downward to bridge the two colors.

*To be certain you get a smooth transition between the two, you can put a little conditioner into your palms to help smooth the deeper color down into the pastel, mildly diluting it in the process.

Use a mirror to check the back of your head for gaps and address as needed.

Allow the dye to sit on your head for the recommended amount of time per the dye product bottle. If I've used the product before and trust its results, I will often give it an extra 10-15 minutes for maximum saturation. If you're using a product that is brand new to you, stick to the directions until you see how your hair takes the dye.

After the dye has processed, rinse in the shower as usual. Allow the water to flow down your hair, which allows the pigment molecules to travel and deposit in an organic gradient.

Follow your rinse with a douse of white vinegar or a moisture intensive conditioner to help seal the cuticle and hold on to your color. Most sources recommend doing the final blast of your rinse with cold water.

Do not expect to rinse until the water runs clear. Rinse until you feel the excess of dye is out and then use a dark towel to pat your hair dry. Expect the dye to bleed out a bit for your next few showers (reds and blues are the worst offenders).

Dry/ style as usual.

You're results will reflect the natural migration of your most vibrant color down through your strands. Your tips will be a beautiful blend of the pastel shade you applied and the vibrant dye that trickled down to tint it.

As you can see, my tips are not salmon, BUT the salmon dye did influence the red run off to make this beautiful rosey pink. This will fade to a lighter pink over time, if I choose not to do touch ups.

Step 6: Method 2: Preserving Pale Tips

Start by coating the tips of your hair with a thick layer of conditioner. By "tips" I mean the lower 2-3 inches of your hair, depending on length and how much blonde you want to save. The conditioner will be a barrier to help block out the deposit of pigment. Goop it on!

Now repeat the dye application steps as in the first method, using one vibrant and one pastel dye. The application and blending process is the same, only you're bumping your transitions higher and ignoring your tips.

Rinse or change gloves.

Comb your fingers through your hair where your pastel dye meets your conditioner. Mixing the conditioner with the last inch of pastel territory will smooth the transition into your preserved blonde.

Allow adequate dye processing time.

**Special attention to rinsing is what will keep your tips preserved from dye deposit! You'll need to make this a shower habit to keep the tips free of run off deposits in the days to come.

Hold your tips out of the flow of water and rinse the excess vibrant dye from the top of your head FIRST.

Keeping holding your tips and rinse them separately.Think of this process like elevating a limb. Keep your tips higher and away from the vibrant dye so dark colors can't "bleed" downward.

If you have a detachable shower head you can use to direct water flow --use it! This may be especially handy if you're trying to do this look with very short hair.

When you're done rinsing, gently squeeze hair dry to further avoid color bleed.

The first photo shows a fresh melt with blonde tips preserved. To maintain these color separations, you will need to coat your tips in thick conditioner PRE-shower and rinse as directed here for the lifespan of your color.

The second photo shows how the melt will evolve over time if you give up on protecting your tips and just let the water flow re-deposit dye. Color will gradually creep down and turn all the blonde to a pastel shade. This can be pretty in its own way and can be a good transition to another hair color adventure.

Step 7: Scrub Out Unwanted Color

Did your tips turn out darker than you'd hoped? Fortunately/ unfortunately dye molecules lift out pretty easily with some sulfate-laden shampoo and a little scrubbing.

The ingredient to look for is 'Sodium Laureth Sulfate". This is the stuff in soaps and detergents that makes them lather. Regular shampoos (which deteriorate hair color) can help you dial back the saturation of your dye. Chances are you already own something you can use, as most major brands have sulfates.

*Pro Color Tip: to help keep your color longer, use sulfate free shampoos and conditioners for your daily routine.

Simply apply shampoo to the desired area and rub the hair back and forth between your palms. You will see the lather become tinted with your color. As you rinse away the suds, excess dye will go with it and leave you with a more pastel version of your color.

Since sulfates and physical rubbing can literally beat up your hair, follow this action with a deep conditioner.

To prevent future dye seepage into your pastel areas, coat generously with thick conditioner BEFORE you even get in the shower. Hold your tips away from the flow of water to be extra certain they do not become tinted by run off.

Step 8: Maintaining a Melt

Need to boost your vibrant top color every other week?

Combine 1:4 ratio of your hair dye to cheap conditioner in a plastic tub.

Mix until smooth.

You can apply this custom color depositing conditioner any time you shower to give your roots a boost.

*Just remember, even this diluted dye will flow and deposit with your rinsing, so follow your tip preserving protocol if you opted for blonde tips!

Step 9: Enjoy the Rainbow!

Once you get comfortable with doing a simple 2 color melt, the rainbow is yours! Post your coloring adventures in the photos below and consider sending me a vote in this year's Hair contest if you enjoyed this Ible!

Hair Contest 2016

First Prize in the
Hair Contest 2016