HAIR COLOR 101: THE BASIC CHEMISTRY BEHIND HAIR DYE AND COLOR PROCESSING

When you’re sitting in the salon, sipping a latte and rifling through Allure, with your hair pinched and poking out folded foils, we bet the last thing on your mind is “the science of hair dye.” You’re probably not wondering, what is ammonia? And how does it affect my hair cuticle?

Even if it IS the “mane thing” happening on their head, of the 75% of women who get their hair colored regularly, very few have a clue… or a care… about the chemical reactions that are not only changing the color of their hair, but dramatically changing the condition and physical composition of each color-treated strand.

We get it. Who wants to know the chemistry of color processing?

Most women only care about the post-processing magic in the mirror.

After all, it’s been documented that “great hair dye” is a major mood boost. A go-to confidence kick-starter we all count on!

But, there’s absolutely nothing magical about hair color. As any colorist will tell you, it’s all about knowledge of the color wheel and hardcore chemistry, coupled with years of experience, a deft touch and an artistic eye.

So why should you bother learning about hair dye? Well top colorists will tell you, knowing the basics of hair color chemistry will help you know how to keep your color fresh and keep your texture healthier and stronger.

Celebrity stylist, Bradley Leake (@hairbybradleyleake) is known as the mane man who gave Vanderpump Rules’ Stassi Shroeder a super sexy, edgy chop that triggered mass hair envy. But he’s also a color-and-cut maestro and he’s going to help us break down the basics of hair color chemistry.

 

HAIR COLOR BASICS: HOW DOES HAIR DYE WORK?

Permanent hair color doesn’t just wash across your hair and leave a lovely shade of stain. It’s a little more aggressive. An act of “breaking and entering”, if you will. Because the only way new color can get inside your hair shaft is by breaking down your hair’s natural barrier - the cuticle. 

WHAT DOES HAIR DYE DO TO YOUR HAIR CUTICLE?

The hair cuticle is your hair’s sturdy outer layer. It’s made up of scales, that lock tightly together like a protective coat of chain link armor.

The only way to deposit new color is to lift those links. And the way to do it is with ammonia.

 

WHAT IS AMMONIA? WHAT AMMONIA IN HAIR DYE DO TO YOUR HAIR DURING COLOR PROCESSING?

According to Bradley, “You'll find ammonia in hair color, most permanent hair dyes contain ammonia, which elevates the pH of the hair, causing the hair to swell and push the cuticle open, like a trap door. This exposes your hair’s natural pigment (aka the color molecules) contained inside the hair.”

Enter, peroxide. (Literally.)

Peroxide and bleach are the same thing - and this ingredient is crucial in the next step of color processing. Peroxide goes into the hair shaft where it oxidizes your natural color proteins, leaving them colorless. Peroxide makes room for the NEW color molecules (your colorist has chosen) to fill each strand.

New hair color molecules are small, so they can easily enter the hair shaft. But once inside the hair, these molecules inter-react, join together and become polymers - much bigger molecules that can’t fit through or escape through the raised cuticles.

The result of this process is fresh color, captured within your hair. “Your colorist does all the work to embed the color molecules into your hair,” says Bradley. “Then its up to YOU to keep that color captive.”

That is one critical reason to always use professional hair care products made exclusively for color-treated hair. Unlike generic cleansing and styling products, which can actually strip your hair of color, these formulas are designed to protect against fade, and to maintain your shade.

The other reason to always use formulas made exclusively for color treated hair?

“Damage control”, says Bradley Leake. “Because damage is an unfortunate side effect of color-processing.”

It’s inevitable: chemically lifting your hair’s cuticle layer causes some destruction, leaving the hair in a more fragile state. The more dramatic the color process, the more likely the hair will be compromised.

 IS THERE A WAY TO UNDO DAMAGE DUE TO COLOR PROCESSING?

“Fortunately,” says Bradley, “Today there are breakthrough conditioning and treatment technologies… not to mention smarter, safer styling formulas… that can help repair and mitigate the ways hair is damaged by hair color.”

So now you can have the color love, and the healthier hair you crave!

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