Is this Internet-famous home hair color the best for covering grays?
I risked my hair to see if Madison Reed delivered on its perfect-color promises.
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I started graying at 16 and began coloring my hair while in college. I’ve dyed my hair for so long I’m not sure what my natural color is, but early on I settled on auburn-y brownish reds, as I like the vibrancy of the shade as well as how it looks next to my brown skin. I’ve mostly had my color done professionally at salons, but I also made sure I knew how to do it myself for those times when my coins didn’t align with my vanity requirements.
When the pandemic sent most of us to the house to hunker down for 2020, I immediately ordered several boxes of the L'Oreal Creme Excellence hair color (in 6R Light Auburn) that I normally use when doing my own hair. The world being in chaos was no reason to let my gray roots run amok.
Still, while doom-scrolling through my social feeds, I kept seeing posts and ads and recommendations for a different at-home dye: Madison Reed hair color. I am not an impulse buyer or hair-product junkie—once I find what works, I generally stick with that. Plus, I’m miserly. This time, however, I decided to try something new, as I had seen good reviews and the photos of the color coverage looked great. And I was at home, so if it turned out badly who would know but me, my mirror, and my S.O.?
What is Madison Reed and what does it cost?
Madison Reed is an at-home hair coloring product named for the founder's daughter that claims it’s “free of ammonia, parabens, resorcinol, PPD, phthalates, and gluten.” I’ll confess, aside from gluten, I have no idea what any of that is or why I should be concerned about it, but I figure fewer chemicals can’t be a bad thing? In any case, this is the selling point that caught my eye: “results in multi-dimensional color that looks beautiful, healthy and natural.” Plus Madison Reed says it includes keratin, argan oil, and ginseng root extract, all things my coily, low-porosity, fine-strand, low-density hair loves.
The fancy brand is pricier than drugstore box dyes at $26.50 per kit on the Madison Reed site or at Ulta, or $22 each if you opt for the subscription membership (only available direct from the company), which auto-delivers a new kit every eight weeks. But if it does what it says, I'll happily pay more to get my hair closer to the salon results I get when I cough up the cash to see my stylist.
Upon further review of the website, it seems Madison Reed touts a "two-step salon-secret system for healthy‑looking hair color with brilliant shine" that's different from other home color brands in that it promotes using a permanent color to tint the roots and a semi-permanent "Color-Reviving Gloss" to use on the lengths of the hair, both of which are products it sells ... though, curiously, not in a kit or subscription in conjunction with one another. My editor even chatted with customer service about it and, after some discussion, the agent offered her a subscription to both products for $40 or a one-time purchase for $48.50, but the agent said there was no purchase page, only that promo available via customer service. We didn't learn about this until after my test, so I reviewed the Permanent Color Kit only.
What's it like to use Madison Reed?
I went to the Madison Reed website and took its color quiz to figure out what shade it recommended for me. My best match per the site is something darker than I would ever use on my hair, so I went rogue and ordered Sardinia Red (6NCG Medium Amaretto Red) Permanent Hair Color Kit, which is similar to the L'Oreal product I have in reserves at home.
The box arrived pretty quickly and I immediately ripped it open. There was nothing surprising in the kit, though it included a plastic cap to wear while the color soaks in, as well as barrier cream and a cleansing wipe to help keep the color off your face—things my usual at-home kit doesn’t have. Also in the box, of course, were the hair color, the developer, a pair of gloves, and two tiny packets of color-protecting shampoo and conditioner. I perused the directions (which also weren't too different than what I was used to) and did a skin test as instructed. I experienced no reaction, so a week later I pulled all the parts and pieces out and prepared to get my roots together. I had let them go for more than my normal six weeks this time, so Madison Reed had a job ahead of it.
I read the instructions closely several times. I applied the barrier cream, sectioned off my hair, slapped on the gloves, mixed color and activator together, and got to work. Because I wasn’t coloring for the first time, I focused on my roots first, paying particular attention to my side edges and temples because the gray there is really disrespectful and often refuses to cooperate. The directions said to leave it on for 30 minutes and add 10 more minutes for covering stubborn gray hairs. I added. Edges and temples, you will not win this war.
After a half hour, I went back to apply the remaining color to the rest of my hair and worked it through using a comb applicator tip from my regular at-home color kit. (Had I not had that, I'd have grabbed a wide-tooth comb to be sure my strands were evenly coated.) I tried to empty the bottle, because I hoped squeezing it all onto my hair would make the color last longer or take hold better. I have never had long hair (sigh), but someone with longer or thicker hair might want to buy two kits, just to be on the safe side. I realized I'd forgotten to wear the cap for the first 40 minutes (remember: no cap in my usual kit), so I put it on and let the color sit for five more minutes. I spiffed up the margins of my face with the cleaning wipe before rinsing out the color and using the Madison Reed shampoo and conditioner.
I also decided to deep-condition my hair to help with moisture retention, as my coily hair is naturally very dry. For this bonus step, I used a combination of the last of a bottle of Suave Keratin Infusion Smoothing Conditioner and SheaMoisture Conditioner for Curls Red Palm Oil & Cocoa Butter with Flaxseed Oil, let it sit on my hair for about 40 minutes, then rinsed out and immediately blow-dried and flat-ironed my hair.
What I love about Madison Reed
Because I hadn’t gone with their recommended color, I was a little worried what I had chosen might be too bright or too red or just overall awful. But when I finally got a chance to see the color, I loved it. It was darker than my regular shade, which I really liked, but most important, the roots were handled. My hair felt really soft and manageable, and still does two weeks later.
One of the things that stood out to me is there was no odor, which I am guessing is due to there being no ammonia in the ingredients. I wasn't expecting a strong smell—and, to be honest, I can't say that the L'Oreal smells a lot, either—but it just struck me that it didn't have any scent at all.
Also, the whole thing was easy. Again, I’m not new to at-home coloring, but the directions are simple, all the pieces and parts are there, and the website offers a number you can call for help if you need it. (I didn’t use it, so can’t speak to how helpful they may or may not be.)
What I didn't like about Madison Reed
If I had to change anything about it, I would make the gloves bigger or include two pairs in different sizes. Thirty minutes (or more if you have stubborn grays) is a long time to sit around with hair dye-covered gloves on. I took mine off but then couldn’t put them back on—they were inside out—so I used a pair I had saved from my other at-home kit for the 5 minutes of overall coloring at the end. There's a disclaimer on the Madison Reed site that says kits would be coming with only one set of gloves (normally there are two, apparently) because of COVID-19 shortages and, indeed, mine came loose in the box, rather than neatly packaged as shown on the site. Also, not having a comb attachment tip for the applicator was a disappointment. Being able to squeeze color from the applicator while I am combing through my hair is a better way to ensure good coverage in the back where I can’t see what’s happening as, unlike my mom, I don’t have eyes back there.
It's also odd that the company doesn't sell a complete kit or an advertised subscription that combines its two-part system in a logical, usable way. Sure, you could buy each thing separately, which would mean a one-time coloring session would cost you at total of $56.50, or $26.50 for the permanent color plus $30 for the Color Reviving Gloss (or, apparently, $48 if you think to message customer service like my editor did). But, aside from possibly the ingredients, the system (or the suggestion of it) seems to be the real thing that could set Madison Reed apart from other home hair-color products.
Is Madison Reed worth it?
I would use Madison Reed again. The color results are better for me than my usual L'Oreal, because the tone appears less brassy. My hair also seems softer with this, though I changed deep conditioner products and perhaps that has some bearing on the smoothness of my hair. The difference isn't enough to make me not use the four boxes of L'Oreal that I have in here now, but I will buy Madison Reed again, especially when it happens to be on sale at Ulta.
If you aren’t ready to go back to a salon, want to try a new color, or just want to save some money, try Madison Reed. It’s easy and economical (as compared to a stylist), and the color turned out vibrant and seems long-lasting. If you usually see a stylist for a multi-process look or you prefer to wear your hair long and therefore don't get it cut often, you may want to mention your home hair-color plans to them first (lest you potentially set yourself up for a costly color correction later).
Prices were accurate at the time this article was published but may change over time.