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When colouring your hair, do you opt for professional salon treatments or risk store-bought box hair colour?

If you mention the words “box  hair colour” to a hair stylist, they will immediately pale. And if you truly want to insult your stylist, tell her or him that you prefer to do your own home dye job.

As Shelene Shaer, expert stylist and owner of Tanaz Hair and Body, comments: “Please don’t use box colour! If time and budget are problems, we have so many solutions.”

But it is hard not to be swayed. Simply walk into your favourite supermarket or pharmacy, and you will find rows upon rows of home hair-colour products, each promising long-lasting colour, extra moisturisation, and a completely new you.

According to a report published in the Wall Street Journal, a number of women turned to home colour solutions during the height of the recession. And, the report says, despite the upturn of finances, women seem to be sticking to their box options, either for touch-ups or to lengthen their time between colour.

Research conducted by L’Oréal Paris indicates that more than half of US women colour their hair, and a 2011 Mintel survey revealed that six in 10 people who used home hair colour switched from a salon in order to save money. The Mintel survey also revealed that home hair-colour sales reached an estimated $1,9 billion (around R22 billion) in 2010, up 3,1% from the previous year. The research firm estimates that this number will rise by another 16%, reaching around $2,2 billion (R25 billion) in 2016.

Paula Begoun, author, beauty expert and founder of and, is internationally recognised as a consumer advocate covering the beauty industry, with the aim to educate women on making the right beauty choices. She notes that around 75% of women dye their hair to hide grey, add highlights or change their look altogether. That’s a huge market. “Most of us have at least one hair-dye horror story, and it doesn’t matter where we got it done, at home or at the salon,” she says.

Begoun explains that colouring hair can be a striking makeover – or a complete nightmare. But does Begoun, cosmetic cop, believe in home colouring? Yes, she does. “The most obvious reason to choose an at-home hair-dye kit is cost. If you dye your hair six to 12 times a year at a salon (six salon visits is common), you could save $400 (R4 500) to $2 000 (R22 000) (or more) by doing it yourself. Also, dyeing your hair at home allows you to do it when your schedule permits, and the process is less time-consuming than going to a salon.”

And while you may have been told that home colour treatments are inferior or harsher than the dyes used in salons, Begoun doesn’t believe this is true. “The way hair dyes function and the ingredients used to make them do not differ between the [shop-bought] dyes and the salon dyes. In fact, many of the companies that manufacture dyes for the major drugstore colour lines also make the dyes used by salons!”

Would you be more satisfied with the results of having your hair professionally done at a salon? Probably. “But statistics show that women who colour their hair at home are as pleased (or displeased) with their results as women who have their hair dyed at a salon.”

However, there are times when you do need to rely on the expertise of a professional. As Begoun says, they do have the experience and skill. “A professional colourist has the advantage of knowing the ins and outs of dyeing hair, because of their training and education, and their daily experience. This is especially true if you want to add highlights or lowlights without frying your hair or applying the strands unevenly.”

Cosmetologist, American Board-certified hair colourist and founder of, Erika Brown, comments: “I did go through seven months of intense studying and practising to further my hair colour from chemistry to psychology. We are colour perfectionists and consider box colour to be the lowest of the low that you can go with colouring your hair. So trust me or any other colourist that you admire, relax and wait for the final result.”


Brown’s 7 reasons why you should choose salon over box:

  1. One size does not fit all: “In order to achieve the colour you want, a stylist considers several factors and customises your developer with different hues to make the perfect shade.” She adds that box colour is made so that it can potentially alter a wide range of hair types and shades.
  2. Hair colour must be customised for each person: Hair stylists consider several factors when selecting the right shade for you, says Brown. She adds that they look at the natural level and underlying pigment, your skin tone, level of porosity of your hair, previous artificial pigments and percentage of grey (if any).
  3. Hairstylists understand the terms: “Do you know what semi, demi and permanent really mean?” she asks. Brown adds that it is important to note that no colour will wash out completely. “In a salon, there is a huge difference between the three types, and each process has its own factors. There is no way a box can do all of those things for you.” However, she does say that temporary colour will stain only the outside of the hair strand and will last one to two weeks.
  4. You can’t replicate professional application: “There is no such thing as a good bottle application of colour,” she says. “In order to keep your hair healthy and avoid banding of colour, it must be applied precisely, from the regrowth to the demarcation line.”
  5. It messes with the hydration and texture of your hair: “Your hair will feel like straw.” The reason why your hair feels like straw is because it is travelling further and further down the porosity scale. “This means that the damage level is rising and you’re getting close to losing some hair,” Brown adds. Plus she says, you should ideally apply only on the demarcation line, and refresh the ends when needed. This is why sometimes your hair can appear lighter on the scalp and much darker as you head to the tips. Your hair will also lean towards being less manageable and more frizzy.
  6. Your box colour can result in an unwanted haircut: Brown explains that the risk of damage to your hair is high with repeated use of box colour, with the mid-shaft and ends being the most affected. This may result in the need for a change of hairstyle, whether you want one or not…
  7. It may seem affordable, but is it? Over-processing your hair or the box colour makeover was not what you expected – it may end up costing you much more to fix these mistakes. Plus, your hair will need special shampoos, hair masks and treatments to get moisture back and sort out the damage done. Most hairstylists (particularly if you are a regular customer) will make a plan to suit your budget, if you ask them. Plus there are colour-extending shampoos, coloured mousses or temporary spray products that can help between appointments.


When should you go to a salon?

If you choose to use a box colour for convenience, or affordability, or simply as a touch-up, there are still times when you 100% have to go to a salon, says Begoun. These include when:

  1. You want to lighten your hair more than three shades from your natural colour.All dark hair contains some red pigment, and this can suddenly reveal itself when you are trying to lighten your hair at home. It is also extremely difficult to lighten your hair in one step. “Making dark hair lighter is a two-step process: first, removing the existing colour from your hair, and second, toning or adding the shade (and its nuances) you want it to be. Those two distinct processes are difficult to get right on your own, so your odds are far better with an experienced hair colourist.”
  2. You have dark hair and want to dye it red. ”This is one you shouldn’t do at home or at the salon, but at least someone at the salon will tell you not to do it, and give you some better options. There is no way around this one; it is impossible to make black or very dark-brown hair red or even dark red, without ending up with a very strange hair colour, often an odd shade of purple or burgundy that looks drastic and artificial,” warns Begoun.
  3. You have natural red or blonde hair and want to dye it red. You need specialist advice for this one… You don’t want to end up looking like Raggedy Ann or Annie. “Those with light to medium-brown hair tend to have the most success dyeing their hair a red or auburn shade, whether at home or at the salon. But, if you try this at home, ALWAYS do a strand test first so you know how long to time the dye and what the colour will look like.”
  4. You’re trying to fix a problem. Mistakes happen – both at home and in a salon. However, at the salon you have recourse. Trying to fix a problem on your own will probably result in a bigger (more expensive) problem to solve.
  5. You have light hair and want to make it darker. You would think this would be the easy part, but it’s not. The problem is that, ultimately, you want a natural-looking hair shade, or even tonal shades – this is not always possible with a box dye. Plus, all hair is different, and you will never end up with the same shade as the model on the box. “If you opt to try this at home, it is essential that you perform a strand test first, as indicated in the instructions for the dye, and note how long it takes your light hair to process to the colour you want. Skipping this step is a recipe for light-to-dark-hair disaster!”

Em Sloane

I am an introverted nature lover, and freelance writer. I love sharing new insights on how to live a healthier life using nature's gifts. Be kind. Be generous. Love. Peace. Humanity.

The content in this editorial is for general information only and is not intended to provide medical or other professional advice. For more information on your medical condition and treatment options, speak to your healthcare professional.