Color Yourself Younger

Whether or not you dye your hair, the latest at-home highlighting kits can make you look terrific—even if you’re not a blond

From the WebMD Archives

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You can turn the clock back-way back-simply by changing the color of your hair. Yes, covering gray does help, but with the latest technology, you can do more than that, says colorist Patrick McIvor, owner of the eponymous Color Studio in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. "You want to recapture how your hair looked when you were a child, with a subtle contrast of colors," he says. Called the multi-tonal effect by pros, it's not only a huge salon trend, it's also the most flattering hair color any woman can have. Benefit number one: It softens your features (and wrinkles, too). Benefit two: By reclaiming your little-girl hair color (or even copying your daughter's), you'll end up with the most natural-looking hue. And though this multi-tonal process was once better left to a professional, it's now something you can do at home.

Who Should Try It

Multi-tonal color just means there'll be contrast in your hair-a nice mix of highlights and lowlights against your base color. You may associate highlights only with blondness, but every hair color has its own complementary highlight (picture tiny ribbons of chocolate, caramel, red, or gold), says Julia Youssef, assistant vice president of L'Oréal USA Technical Center. "Whatever your shade, highlights will make it look more natural," explains Michele Fury, a color specialist at Roy Teeluck Salon in New York City. "Untreated hair has a variety of different tones; that's why hair that's been dyed all one color can end up looking flat and harsh. Knowing this, salons usually blend more than one tone." Plus, once you go multi-tonal, your roots won't show as fast (they're much more obvious against a solid color), and you'll need fewer touch-ups.

3 Ways to DIY

Before you choose a product, decide how much contrast you want. Here are your options-all of which will work whether or not you've already colored your hair.

For Subtle Dimension

Go for single-process color with built-in highlights-they'll refresh your own hue and bring out its different tones in one step. We like L'Oréal Féria Multi-Faceted Shimmering Colour or Clairol Nice 'n Easy with Color Seal Technology.


For More Visible Contrast

Add dimension to your base color by painting on highlights or lowlights wherever you want them. To try: Garnier Color Breaks or Revlon Custom Effects Highlights or Lowlights (both products use a foil-free technique similar to the salon process called Balayage, in which colorists paint on highlights where clients need them most).

For a Little Drama

Look for a two-step kit that contains (1) a single-process shade to deposit color, and (2) highlights. To try: L'Oréal Couleur Experte Multi-Tonal Color System. Or you can paint on highlights and lowlights using the Garnier or Revlon kits shown below.

Tips for Doing It at Home

Before you even open the box, read these suggestions from the pros:

  • Choose a base color that's one shade lighter than your own hair. It's usually more flattering, and if you don't like the results, you can always go darker. Tip: To help you choose the perfect color, log on to and use the tool that allows you to try various hues on your own (uploaded) photo.
  • Always read the package instructions thoroughly, especially if you're switching to a new product. Process time can vary greatly from brand to brand, even if they come from the same manufacturer.
  • Always apply your base color first, then illuminate with highlights or lowlights-not vice versa.
  • Don't brush or comb your hair before; instead, let your hair fall naturally. That way you'll add highlights where the color will be most visible.
  • Map out a where-to-paint strategy. Here's how: Working from front to back, focus on just the top layer of hair and pick up about 15 tiny sections (each about one sixteenth of an inch thick), spaced out at least two finger-widths apart. As you decide where you want your high- or lowlights, use metal roller clips or bobby pins to section off and mark the pieces you'll paint.
  • Place lowlights near the ends of your strands and highlights close to the top. If you're doing both, it's OK to lowlight certain sections and highlight others. Or you can paint the same strands half-and-half (with lowlights near the bottom and highlights near the top). That way the effect will be subtle, not stripe-y.
  • For the back of your head, have a buddy on hand to help. If you're on your own, paint only the strands at your crown and near your face (where color variation is most natural).
  • To prevent color bleed, wedge a cotton roll or several cotton squares (available at most drugstores) in between each piece you paint. The cotton will stay put because the color makes your hair sticky.
  • How much product should you use? Enough to saturate your strands with color. If blobs develop, flatten them out with the application tool in your kit.
  • When you've finished applying the product, loosely cover your head with a clear wrap (to avoid getting color or bleach on anything and to keep an eye on the process). Then let the chemicals do their work-but follow the directions about process time. A common mistake when doing blond highlights at home: "A lot of women don't leave their color on long enough, and their hair turns out too brassy," says Fury. How do you know when you've lightened your blond just enough? Hair should look pale yellow-not orange or white-just before you rinse. Orange indicates the hair is still developing color, while white could mean it's been overprocessed.


Fight the Fade

The more active you are, the more likely your hair is to lose color. Here's why, says McIvor: The salt in your sweat causes a mild bleaching effect, just as if you'd been swimming or sunning. Every shampoo and blow dry will also cost you color, by opening the hair cuticle and letting pigment escape. What the pros recommend: color-protecting shampoos and conditioners that slow fading by closing the cuticles. "Using these products isn't bulletproof, but it's definitely better than doing nothing," McIvor says. To try: Pantene Pro-V Expressions Daily Color Enhancing Shampoo; Nexxus Color Ensure Replenishing Conditioner & Detangler; Redken Color Extend Highlight Fuel (a deep treatment for highlights or lowlights) or John Frieda Color Hydrate Fade-Defying Moisture Masque; and Trésemmé Color Thrive Color Daily Color Lock In Spray (a protective styling spray).

Add Some Shine

A popular but pricey salon-only service for improving hair texture-usually called a gloss, glaze, or shine treatment-has found its way into drugstores in the form of Clairol Shine Happy. We asked several women to test-drive it, and they all saw an immediate and noticeable improvement. In a second test, GHRI treated natural hair swatches with Shine Happy, and gave other swatches to the Ted Gibson Salon in New York City for a professional treatment. Our findings: The at-home product added shine and smoothness to the swatches in 10 minutes, which is comparable to the professional results. But over our four-week test period, the salon treatment seemed to leave the hair silkier-for about $70 more (price includes the luxury of having someone else do it!).

Hair Dye Safety

If you've heard about the potentially cancer-causing hair dyes that were outlawed in Europe, don't be alarmed. Though 22 chemicals were banned across the pond this month, it does not appear that any of them are actually used in products there-or here. In fact, only one of these chemicals (2,3-Naphthalenediol) is even listed in the U.S. Food and Drug Administration's voluntary cosmetics registry.

New! Highlight with Gray

Covering silver or white hair will generally make a person look younger, but here's another take on gray: "Consider using it as a highlight against your original color for a more modern look," says Marcy Cona, Clairol's creative director of color and style in Columbus, Ohio. The easiest way to do it: Use permanent hair color with built-in highlights (see "3 Ways to DIY," previous page), but aim for one shade lighter than your original color. (Going darker can be too severe.) The translucent dye will both disguise grays and use them to your advantage-turning them into shiny, slightly lighter strands that create a highlighted effect. "If you're brunette, this is your chance to be in the blond family without going through a double-process treatment [i.e., dyeing or bleaching and high-lighting]," says Julia Youssef of L'Oréal USA. If you still want more high- or lowlights, you can add them with a separate kit.

Protective products will help color last. Other smart steps: Wear a hat outdoors and a swim cap in the pool.

WebMD Feature from "Good Housekeeping" Magazine
Reprinted with permission from Hearst Communications, Inc.