One of the most popular ways of getting a fresh start is changing your hair length or color, as it gives us gals a renewed sense of bodily autonomy. But sometimes, these well-meaning attempts can go awry. In the case of haircuts, it’s not too worrisome; hair grows out, so you’ll most likely get back to your normal ‘do in a few months’ time.
But what happens when a dye job goes bad? Chemically damaged hair is much harder to fix (and hide), so the stakes are higher. Going into a hair dyeing appointment without the right knowledge is like a car mechanic trying to fix a monster truck—you might have some idea of what you’re doing, but you’ll probably ruin something along the way.
Fortunately, towheads will have a much easier time going from light to dark than their chocolate-haired companions. This is because light hair is simply easier to dye than dark hair. It’s less time-consuming and ultimately less damaging to your hair since you won’t be using as many chemicals. But don’t reach for that box of Clairol yet; there are a few things you should know before going to the dark side.
Now let’s talk about some of the basics you’ll need to know before embarking on your hair transformation journey.
- Hair Dyeing 101 for Blonde-to-Brown Hair
- 4 Things to Know Before Dyeing Blonde Hair Brown
- A Final Word Before You Go to the Dark Side
Hair Dyeing 101 for Blonde-to-Brown Hair
When debating whether a dye job is worth it, it’s important to understand what hair is made of, how hair dyes work on it to change its color, and which shade is best for your skin tone.
Anatomy of the Hair
There’s (quite literally) much more than meets the eye when it comes to a single strand of hair, which is made up of different layers of proteins and dead cells.
This is the part of the hair we see—its outer coating. The proteins and dead cells overlap and form layers down the hair shaft, which are scale-like in appearance. These scales help keep the hair shaft strong and free from breakage. The hair cuticle also contains progenitor cells, which help maintain and regenerate the dermal papilla, or the “root” of the hair strand. Progenitor cells also play an important role in hair growth.
The hair cortex is the thickest layer of the hair strand and is located between the hair cuticle and the medulla. This part is where you’ll find most of the hair’s melanin, which gives our hair its color.
The innermost layer of the hair, also called the “marrow,” is the medulla. It’s long, thin, and delicate, and is hard to see unless under a microscope.
There are many more parts to the hair, but these three will be the most important to keep in mind when choosing the right color for your hair.
The Components of Hair Dye
Long before our beloved box colors existed, people were using henna, indigo, and ochre to turn their hair a few shades darker. Nowadays, most hair dyes—both salon-grade and store-bought—are made of a mixture of conventional hair-coloring chemicals and naturally sourced pigments and oils.
For more info on how hair dye works, you can check out this helpful video. Keep reading for the lowdown on the main components of hair dye.
This is usually the principal ingredient in hair dye, as it opens the hair cuticle so that the pigment molecules can reach the hair cortex and douse it in that sweet, sweet color. Hair dye without ammonia is all but useless, as there’ll be no way for the pigment to get inside a closed hair cuticle.
To illustrate how ammonia works on the hair, envision a strand of hair as having overlapping scales like a pangolin. Ammonia essentially lifts those scales and keeps them open so that the pigment can reach the hair cortex. Chemically speaking, it also helps the color adhere to hair better; hair is acidic by nature, so alkaline ammonia helps balance the pH of the hair, so that color can stick to it more effectively.
Even though hydrogen peroxide is more prevalent in hair dyes that turn dark-haired heads lighter, it’s still worth mentioning here. If high school anecdotes about DIY hair bleaching have taught us anything, it’s that hydrogen peroxide is designed to lighten hair. This is because it strips the hair of its current pigments so that the new stuff can fill it in.
However, your old hair color isn’t the only thing that hydrogen peroxide will strip your hair of—it’ll also sap most moisture, thereby compromising the structural integrity of the hair shaft itself. This is why heads with finer or more damaged hair should supplement all the moisture that’s sucked out of their hair after using a product with hydrogen peroxide. We recommend this deep conditioning argan oil hair mask to get your tresses right again after using a hydrogen peroxide-laden hair dye.
You’ll find alcohol in most commercial hair dyes. Like hydrogen peroxide, though, it has a similarly drying effect on the hair. Depending on what type of alcohol is in the hair dye, you could find yourself needing to reach for a deep conditioner once everything’s said and done. The alcohols you want to steer clear of, in particular, are short-chain alcohols, which are notorious for leaving hair brittle and prone to breakage.
In contrast, long-chain alcohols like stearyl alcohol and cetyl alcohol are less damaging. They have 12 or more carbon atoms in each molecule and are usually derived from more natural products. These long-chain alcohols help smooth the hair cuticle to the hair shaft’s surface. The more carbon atoms in an alcohol chain, the “oilier” and more moisturizing the chain becomes, which is why they’re also popular ingredients in skin creams and other emollients.
Hair dye wouldn’t be hair dye without the pigment that delivers the color. Pigment molecules react with the melanin already present in your hair to change its color. Most commercial hair dyes use a blend of natural and synthetic pigments to get certain shades.
For a color to take hold in your hair, your hair’s natural pigments must be broken down first; this is where ammonia, hydrogen peroxide, and alcohol come in. This triple threat sparks a chemical reaction that successfully disintegrates the current pigment bonds in your hair, making way for the new stuff.
Types of Dyes
The decision to go from blonde hair to brown doesn’t have to be permanent; there are a few different options when it comes to how long you’d like your new color to last.
Also called wash-out colors, temporary hair dyes only color the hair shaft—the outside of the hair. Since the color never permeates the hair cortex, the color will only last for a wash or two at most. Temporary dyes are a great way to experiment with a color before fully committing to it. However, those with damaged hair should know that your hair could look stained by temporary dyes since your hair is more porous than healthy hair.
Color from semi-permanent dyes can last anywhere between four and 12 washes. Even though they are ammonia-free, they don’t require mixing with a developer before application, using a similar and weaker alternative instead. Semi-permanent dyes are great for blending in grays and enhancing your natural color. You can also use them immediately after perming or relaxing your hair.
These kinds of hair dyes are designed to last up to 24 washes or so. Because they’re ammonia-free, though, they need to be mixed with a developer that will help open the hair cuticle. They’re great for correcting hair dyeing blunders, giving your natural hair color some pep, or blending in gray hair.
Permanent dyes penetrate the hair more deeply thanks to a more complex chemical process. This means you’ll be able to retain your color for weeks after the initial dye. Like demi-permanent dyes, they’re great for darkening, lightening, or toning your hair, as well as blending in gray hair.
However, you’ll need to stay vigilant and keep on top of your maintenance with permanent dyes—expect that you’ll have to continually cover up your ever-growing roots. Permanent hair dyeing is also a bit of a slower process than its semi and demi counterparts; depending on how drastic of a color change you want to make, it might take a few treatments to gradually color your hair.
Your Skin Tone
If you thought hair dye would only change the color of your hair, think again. A darker brunette shade could end up framing your face completely differently, depending on your face shape. Another common discovery is that a new color unexpectedly washes your face out, which is why it’s crucial to pick a shade that complements your skin tone. Fortunately, we’ve put together a list of different brunette shades that suit different skin tones:
- Fair, cool skin tones – These types should steer clear of shades with red or gold undertones. Since your skin has blue or violet undertones, a light ash brown or sandy brown color with some blonde undertones will complement it nicely. This will also help you avoid washing your complexion out and looking ghostly, which is the likely outcome if you opt for too dark of a shade.
- Fair, warm skin tones – If you have a fair, warm skin tone, that means your skin is light with gold, peachy, brown, or yellow undertones. For these skin tones, opt for golden brown or caramel brown shades. Throw in some tawny or golden blonde highlights to play up your skin tone’s natural glow.
- Fair, neutral skin tones – Fair, neutral skin tones have undertones that are very close to their actual skin tone—no cool blues or warm golds to be found. Cool, pearly cocoa browns will look lovely on these skin tones, as they’re neither too warm nor too ashy. Light cocoa shades can be livened up by creamy, blonde highlights, too, so consider that if you’re thinking about going with this shade. Similarly, coffee brown shades offer the same pearly balance for fair, neutral skin tones, making them another great option.
- Medium, cool skin tones – Dark chocolate and khaki brown shades will suit these skin tones well. The colors’ cool pigments will tastefully play off the blue and violet undertones in your skin, and the deepness of the shade won’t wash you out, thanks to your naturally olive complexion.
- Medium, warm skin tones – For those whose olive complexions are accented by warm undertones, your best bet will be auburn or butterscotch brown shades. Auburn shades with warm red hues will play up your skin’s buttery, golden undertones, while a butterscotch color with a warm brown base will enhance your skin’s natural, golden glow.
- Medium, neutral skin tones – Since your skin is olive throughout with no cool blues or warm golds, truffle brown and beige “bronde” (i.e., a mix between brown and blonde) shades will flatter your complexion without adding any unnecessary warm or cool undertones. Ask your stylist for a neutral brown base to help give the top color a glossy boost.
- Dark, cool skin tones – Darker skin tones can afford to play with deep, rich browns, so your cool undertones will look lovely offset by plum-brown or espresso hair colors. The former highlights the blue or violet undertones in your skin, while the latter creates a daring and dramatic look.
- Dark, warm skin tones – Dark, warm skin tones have gorgeous red and ochre undertones, which makes them perfect for brunette shades with reddish casts. Following this, mahogany browns and dark toffee shades play up your skin’s natural crimson undertones. Dark toffee shades, in particular, will bring out some of your gold undertones as well.
- Dark, neutral skin tones – Chestnut brown shades offer deep, rich colors that look good on most skin tones, making them some of the most versatile hues for hair dyes. Depending on the direction you want to go, you can ask your stylist to add pearly or caramel highlights to give your color more dimension.
With this new knowledge in mind, let’s move on to a few tips you should keep in mind when debating whether or not to go dark.
4 Things to Know Before Dyeing Blonde Hair Brown
Veteran hair dye-ees will tell you that there’s more to a killer color than just dumping a box of hair dye on your head. For such a drastic change from blonde to brown, there are a few crucial considerations in particular—ones that could save your strands in the process.
1. Hire a Pro
Dyeing your blonde hair brown yourself may be tempting; after all, the average cost of a hair dye appointment in the United States is $80, with some going up to $150 depending on whether you’re getting a more complex treatment, such as ombré, balayage, or ‘babylights.’
Not only will a salon professional be able to help you get the color you want, but they’ll also do it the right way—slowly. Like we mentioned above, drastic color changes take some time, meaning you could end up hitting the salon two or three times to get it just right. As for the dye applications themselves, those can take around four and a half hours. In short, it’ll be at least several hours before you get your desired shade.
Of course, these considerations are applicable mostly for permanent and demi-permanent dye jobs. Temporary dyes and semi-permanent dyes wash out relatively quickly, so you might have more luck experimenting with these on your own. Either way, booking an experienced and trained hair care professional for a color job will help you transition smoothly, so it’s definitely worth the investment.
2. You’ll Have to “Fill” Your Hair In
Fill your hair with what exactly? When it comes to dyeing blonde hair brown, you’ll have to add a few extra shades beforehand so that the main brown color can stick and not look brassy. Depending on the shade of brown you’re after, you’ll have to fill your hair in with reds, coppers, golds, or even oranges so that the final color doesn’t turn muddy, dull, or ashy over time.
This step is especially crucial for blonde converts hoping to return to their natural brunette ways. Since your hair has already been stripped of its natural pigments, you’ll have to take extra care to restore the underlying pigments needed to regain your original hue.
Keep in mind that the blonder your hair is, the longer this process will take, so platinum blondes will need to sit tight in that salon chair for a while.
3. Don’t Skimp on Aftercare
If you want to preserve your color as long as possible, you’ll have to be extra mindful of the products you use when washing your hair. What’s more, washing your hair with super-hot water will also cause the color to fade faster since the dye has left the hair cuticle partially lifted. If washing with cold water sounds a bit much for you, opt for lukewarm water instead.
Shampoos and conditioners that are designed for color-treated hair have less detergent and sulfates in them than regular shampoos and conditioners, which translates to less color stripped from your hair per wash. Most color-safe shampoos and conditioners also contain a polymer called Polyquaternium-7, which prevents color loss by coating the hair cuticle in a protective film.
Be on the lookout for shampoos and conditioners that boast antioxidants, amino ions, and UVA/UVB filters, too—these will help maintain the vibrancy of your color. Similarly, steer clear of color-safe shampoos and conditioners that list sulfates (other names include SLS or SLES), MEA (monoethanolamine), DEA (diethanolamine), and PEGs (polyethylene glycols). These will dry out the hair shaft, creating the optimal conditions for rapid color loss.
Here is a list of some of our favorite shampoos and conditioners for color-treated brunettes:
- Matrix Brass off Blue Shampoo – The trick to maintaining your coffee-like hues is by keeping brassy reds and oranges at bay. Thankfully, this shampoo does exactly that by depositing blue and violet pigments into your hair, thereby balancing the color with complementary pigments. However, this shampoo works best on lighter shades of brown, so more chocolatey shades will have to look elsewhere. You can find the complementary conditioner here.
- Matrix Dark Envy Green Shampoo – For darker shades of brown, go with this color-safe shampoo instead, which deposits green pigments in your hair to fight off unwanted reddish hues. It’ll also give your color base a boost to help preserve the color longer. Additionally, it smells like citrus and cedarwood, which certainly doesn’t hurt. You can purchase the complementary conditioner here.
- Redken Color Extend Brownlights Blue Shampoo – This drugstore find achieves the same effects as the Matrix Brass Off Blue Shampoo by toning the hair and downplaying brassy, orange undertones. Better yet, it’s sulfate-free and packed with botanicals, giving your vulnerable tresses a much-needed dose of moisture. Find the complementary conditioner here.
- OGX Bamboo Radiant Brunette Shampoo – Protect your hair from fading in the sun with this sulfate-free, UVA/UVB-filter color-safe shampoo. Its blend of almond extract and bamboo oil boosts shine and moisturizes the hair, which gives your color-treated hair a fighting chance at holding onto its color for longer. Buy the complementary conditioner here.
4. Stay Out of the Sun
Because sunlight oxidizes hair color, you put your hair color at a greater risk of fading or getting brassy by catching too many rays. Fortunately, a clarifying and toning shampoo for color-treated hair can help counteract the brassiness, so we highly recommend looking into the shampoos and conditioners we mentioned above.
If you’re looking for an extra toning boost, though, then consider an apple cider vinegar hair rinse. Not only will this fend off brassy tones, but it’ll also leave your hair feeling soft and silky—a bonus for color-treated hair that’s more prone to drying out.
If this information is too little too late and you’re already struggling with brassy hair, check out this guide — we’ll show you how to restore your hair back to its former glory.
A Final Word Before You Go to the Dark Side
Clearly, there’s much more to dyeing blonde hair brown than a simple, one-time color job. We hope you’ve learned something new and interesting that you can put to practical use in the near future—something that will have you walking away with a gorgeous shade of brown. As always, thanks for reading, and best of luck on your new hair coloring journey!