At the end of November, I decided to do something wacky. Well, wacky for me. I decided to get light pink highlights throughout my curly locks. As someone who has never dyed their hair before, this was a big step for me—and once it was done, I absolutely loved them.
For fear of my pink hues fading back to bleached blonde, I took freezing cold showers and washed my hair as infrequently as possible, just like my stylist told me to. But I wasn’t entirely sure exactly why I was subjecting myself to this painful hair care routine and began to wonder if there was anything else I could do to elongate the life of my fun new color.
So I did some research and spoke to Lindsey Herring, a NJ-based stylist who’s been dyeing, cutting, and styling hair for over 14 years to learn more about why color fades and how we can make our locks stay vibrant between trips to the salon.
Why does hair dye fade?
It’s important to note that no matter how good your stylist is, your hair color will fade over time. Vivid colors like pink fade faster than, say, a dark brown, because the pigments in vivid dye are layered on top of the hair as opposed to being deposited into the hair the way natural color dyes do, Herring told me. Natural dyes are more permanent, but will still lose some luster. Herring explained it to me as vivid colors are like temporary tattoos. They sit on the surface and wash away over a short period of time. Natural pigments act more like real tattoos. They'll stay longer, but will still fade gradually over time.
“I believe if you're paying to get your hair colored—regardless of what color it is—you're making an investment in your hair, which means you should make the same investment in your products,” Herring said.
Whether you have bright hair like mine or you dye your hair a more natural hue, there are a few things you can do and products you can use to keep your color from fading and extend the time between salon visits.
1. Wash your hair in cold water
As most stylists will tell you, washing your hair in cold water is the first step to maintaining color-treated hair. According to Herring, hot water will open up the cuticle of the hair and release color, but cold water keeps it closed, so the dye won’t bleed out nearly as much.
“The water should be as cold as you can handle, and if you can handle, it is not cold enough,” she said.
But I think we can all agree that showering in cold water is the worst. If your body can’t stand the freezing cold (because why would it?), we recommend using a detachable shower head—like our favorite from Hydroluxe—to wash just your hair with cold water before cranking up the heat for an actually enjoyable shower.
2. Go easy on heat when you're styling too
Heat may make it easier to style your hair, but it can also ruin color. Similarly to hot water, heat from hair dryers, curling wands, and flat irons is going to open up the cuticle layer and can steam out the color in your hair. As shown in hair stylist Guy Tang’s Instagram video below, it only takes five seconds for a flat iron set at 400 degrees to significantly fade color in your hair.
If you must use a hot tool, consider bumping the heat down significantly by upgrading your hot tools to ones that allow temperature selection. Herring told me she’d rather have her clients take longer to style their hair at a lower heat than use their tools on a high heat. For example, the Paul Mitchell Neuro Smooth Iron is the best affordable flat iron we’ve ever tested and it has the option to set your preferred temperature level. It can heat up to 450 degrees, but you're better off keeping it at 300 degrees for the sake of your color.
3. Always use a heat protector when styling
To further protect your colored hair from the damaging heat, Herring recommends using a heat protector or a shine spray. She prefers a shine spray like the Chi Royal Treatment Ultimate Control or Bed Head Headrush. They add a layer of heat protection that will keep color fresh and give your hair a nice shine as well.
- Get the Chi Royal Treatment Ultimate Control at Chi for $23
- Get the Bed Head Headrush at Ulta for $20.99
4. Scrub with a sulfate-free shampoo
We need shampoo to wash our hair, but many popular brands like Herbal Essences and Tresemme contain sulfates that will ruin your color. Sulfates can strip natural oils from the scalp and hair and are also harsh enough to significantly strip color from your hair.
"Any time you color your hair, you should use something that's sulfate-free and doesn’t lather as much,” Herring said.
She also told me it’s actually more the act of scrubbing rather than the lather that actually gets your hair clean and recommends using a foaming shampoo like Co+Wash by Joico or a sulfate-free shampoo meant for colored-treated hair that will be gentler on your tresses.
5. Wash your hair less frequently
Even with a sulfate-free shampoo, you’re still going to want to wash your hair as infrequent as possible. Each time you shower, you’re going to strip some of that color away, no matter how cold the water is. I’m lucky because I can go four to five days without washing my thick, curly hair. But someone with finer or oily hair might want to invest in some quality dry shampoo to make their washes last longer than a day.
This one from Dove is the best dry shampoo we’ve ever tested because it actually left our hair feeling and looking clean. It’s probably your best bet to keep your hair looking washed without any residue or chalky buildup.
6. Use a colored shampoo or conditioner for a refresh
When your hair does start to fade, you can use a colored shampoo (sulfate free!) or conditioner to give it a little boost. Although it won’t completely restore your original dye job, it will keep your color from looking too faded. Herring recommends washing your hair with a color-specific shampoo every two weeks just to give your locks a refresh.
“You really only need to use them when your hair starts to fade,” she said. “It's the best investment you can make for your hair because you're already spending so much to have it colored in the first place.”
For vivid hair, Herring recommends Celeb Luxury and KeraColor for a brightly colored refresh in either shampoo or conditioner form. And although natural browns, reds, and blondes won’t fade as fast, you can still give them a little update with something like these enhancement shampoos by Tressa
- Get the KeraColor Color + Clenditioner at Ulta for $22
- Get the Celeb Luxury Viral Colorwash at Amazon for $35
- Get the Tressa Watercolors Color Maintenance Shampoo at Walmart for $16.38
7. Get a cut when you're getting color
While getting your hair dyed, it’s important to get at least a trim if you're not already planning on a cut too.
“I roll my haircuts into every color service because every time you're doing a color service, you are affecting the ends of the hair,” Herring said. “Who wants to walk out of a salon with the bottom of their hair looking jacked up?”
Herring says hair should always be cut after being dyed to snip away any damage caused by the dye. This will leave your hair looking much healthier and fuller when you leave the salon than if you just dyed it. The only time you should cut before you dye is if you’re planning to cut a significant amount off, which would use more dye than needed and end up costing you more.
8. Wait at least four weeks in between colorings
If you do want that constant fresh color, and can afford to go to the salon often, Herring recommends not getting a permanent color treatment any sooner than four weeks after the last visit. This is for hair health reasons, as each time you dye your hair, you’re causing a little bit of damage to the core structure of the strands.
Prices are accurate at the time this article was published, but may change over time.