How to color your hair without completely messing it up

No doubt, coloring your hair takes a little more commitment than applying a cat-eye or a bold lip, but trying a totally new shade or just a few baby highlights is a great way to express yourself (hi, every model and celebrity we follow). So we asked hair color experts for their pro tips on dyeing your 'do without it ending in disaster...

Be realistic about what you want

The shade you were born with will tell you a lot about how to achieve the color of your dreams. "The rule of thumb is to never attempt to transition more than a couple of shades outside of your natural color without the help of a professional," says celebrity hairstylist Phillip Nathaniel. 

So if your hair is naturally super dark and you want to go icy blond, make that salon appointment ASAP (read: Def don't DIY). Just hoping to try a shade lighter or two darker than your natural color? Box dye can do it.

Honor your hair's past 

"Hair that's been colored will always react differently," explains Aaron Bradford, colorist at Cedric Salon in New York City. So if you've already bleached your locks (or your tips are a different color than your roots), that will affect the approach needed for your new look. Make sure you let your stylist know what you've already done (psst: if your hair history is, well, colorful, best to leave your next look to the pros).


Find a shade that flatters 

Use your skin's natural undertone to clue you in to your ideal hair color. "Warm undertones are red, pink or yellow and cool are blue or purple," says Bradford. If you have warm undertones, consider colors like gold or copper, Nathaniel suggests. If you are cool, try an ashy tone.

Know your (upkeep) limits 

Think about how much time and money you want to spend on your look before taking the plunge. "The more drastic the change from your natural color, the more upkeep and investment it will require," explains Bradford.

Balayage highlights are low-key, but bleaching or keeping vibrant colors looking fresh is way more work (and way more money). Be honest with yourself about how much effort and cash you want to put into it.

Complement your cut

Whether you're sticking with your current style or mixing up both your cut and color, you want the two to work together. "Your color should always accent your cut," says Bradford. For example, soft, painted-on highlights will give a long-layered style lots of dimension, while an overall hue might be better for a blunt bob to keep things sleek.

So you want to DIY your color...

People on the internet make coloring your hair at home look so easy. But is it really? Truth is, there's a lot of room for error when taking things into your own hands, wants Nathaniel. "Application can get really messy," he says. "And if you make a mistake, getting it corrected at a salon can be expensive." Of course, that doesn't mean you can't give it a shot. Here's what you need to know before you dare to dye. (Oh, and just make sure to get the OK from a parent first.) 

Prepare your kit

Coloring your own hair isn't as simple as combing some dye through your strands—you'll need the right tools to get the look you want. "Make sure you have a wet brush for detangling, a rattail comb for clean partings and clips to hold any sections in place," says Nathaniel.

Try temporary

"I always recommend using a demi- or semi-permanent dye when you are doing at-home color," says Nathaniel. It won't fully wash out, but if you make a mistake, it *will* fade over time.

Buy extra dye

You should always buy more dye than you think you need, says Bradford. You definitely don't want to run out midway through the process.

Go for a gloss

Applying a gloss can be a great way to give your color a boost without completely changing it. Try Kristin Ess Hair Signature Hair Gloss ($14, to make your hair color warmer, cooler, deeper or more vibrant—plus it'll add lots of shine.

Learn your colors 

The key to getting the result you want? Understanding the lingo, Nathaniel walks us through what these common hair color terms actually mean, so you know *exactly* what to ask for.

Full coverage


It's just what it sounds like: one color on all of your hair. It's a great choice if you've already got highlights or if you're going back to your natural color (or totally switching it up).



"These hand-painted highlights mimic how the sun naturally lightens your hair," explains Nathaniel. Shoot for shades just a few hues lighter than your natural strands.



Anytime you want to add dimension to your hair, highlights will focus on isolated pieces with bleach or color. "Remember, not all highlights are blonde!" says Nathaniel.



When you want to add a bright pop of color or drastic contrast in your hair, this is the perfect look, states Nathaniel. His pro tip? Try three-toned for a trifecta effect.



"This is a technique when you apply a gradient of shades that go from dark to light," explains Nathaniel. The color should semlessly transition from the roots to the ends.



Color on just the ends of your hair adds a little someting without going all in. You can even snip them off when you're over it. Nathaniel especially loves this technique on short hair.

Be kind to your color

JVN Nurture Deep Moisture Mask, $24

Dyeing can leave damage—especially if you're lightening your hair. "I always recommend using a deep conditioning treatment after color to maintain your hair's health," says Bradford. Incorporate a treatment designed to nourish your hair like JVN Nurture Deep Moisture Mask ($24, into your routine at least once a week. You can also use a color-depositing conditioner like L'Oréal Le Color Gloss One Step In-Shower Toning Gloss ($15, to amp your shade between dye jobs.

On the search for more hair inspo? Check out these posts:
💇‍♀️ *This* is your sign to cut your hair short
💇‍♀️ 3 easy ways to elevate your hairstyles this weekend
💇‍♀️ *This* is the hairstyle for you in 2022 (thanks to your astro sign!)

Hey, girl! Just wanted to let you know that this story originally ran in our April/May 2022 issue. Want more? Read the print mag for free *today* when you click HERE.

Edited for digital by Jinny Kim and Eva Mandelbaum.

Top image: @hairby_chrissy


by Erin Reimel and Erin Sargent | 4/2/2022