5 Steps to Vibrant Color

At-home hair coloring used to be a risky undertaking: Too often, hair ended up looking like a botched science experiment. Luckily, home hair-color products have come a long way. While still a quick, affordable alternative to a professional job, using today's versions benefits from virtually goof-proof directions, gentler ingredients and advanced formulations that have improved the shine and richness of most colorants. But first figure out your hair-hue goals, and know when to call on a salon pro. "Women have the best luck coloring their own hair when they're only going a shade or two lighter or darker than their natural hair color or they're covering some gray," says Los Angeles-based colorist Patti Song. Read on as the pros guide you through the process to successful at-home coloring -- from preparing your hair to choosing the right products and following the proper techniques.

Step 1: Assess your tresses.

Consider what kind of condition your hair is in before coloring. The healthier it is, the better the results will be, Song says. She suggests pampering hair several times in the week before you color it. Use hair treatments that contain the hair-strengthening B vitamin panthenol, such as Kiehl's Leave-In Hair Conditioner with Panthenol and Coconut Oil ($29; 800-KIEHLS-1). Or try products with hydrating ingredients like vitamin E, avocado or coconut oil. However, "if your hair is really dry and damaged with split ends, use a color-depositing conditioner for a few months instead of coloring it," suggests celebrity colorist Giselle of the Pierre Michel Salon in New York City. Color-depositing conditioners leave behind color-boosting pigments and give you a less-drastic, temporary change. Post-coloring, use hair-conditioning treatments twice a month.

Step 2: Pick the right color.

Choosing the right color is the key to success. Aveda colorist Ana Karzis, technical director of Civello Salons in Toronto, suggests taking a good look at your natural hair color in bright daylight. Then pick a shade that will complement your eyes and skin tone. For example, if you have a warm complexion (yellow or olive tones), select colors with names like auburn, copper, red or sienna. Cool skin types (fair, ivory or ruddy skin) should look for colors with ash or beige tones. For help choosing, call the manufacturers' consultants (they're listed on any hair-color box); they can suggest a color and product that will give you the best results.

If you want highlights and at-home products are all your budget will allow, Giselle suggests highlighting just a few pieces around your face. Her favorite: Clairol Herbal Essences Highlights ($10; at drugstores), which has an easy-to-use comb and a color formula that shows up either blue, yellow or red (depending on what color you're using) so that you can see exactly where you've put the highlights.

Step 3: Choose a formula.

Most pros suggest starting with a demi-permanent color or rinse (see "Hair-color Glossary" at right), such as Clairol Natural Instincts ($8; at drugstores). These are gentle and last up to 28 shampoos. If you want permanent color, opt for drip-free formulas (they're less messy), such as L'Oréal Excellence Creme ($9; at drugstores), which also comes with a pre-color treatment to take care of dry ends.

Step 4: Get prepped.

It can't be emphasized often enough: Read and reread the instructions before applying color for the first time. That also means following the instructions, especially the recommended first-time allergy and strand tests (the latter allows you to preview the exact color your hair will be), application tips and timing.

Step 5: Maintain the color.

After styling and, hopefully, loving your new hue, you'll need to protect and maintain the color. Minimize your exposure to sun and chlorine, and avoid overusing heated styling appliances (such as blow-dryers and curling or flat irons); these can fade color and damage fragile hair, says color director Christian Fleres of Nubest Salon & Spa in Manhasset, N.Y. To keep hair shiny and hydrated, use shampoos, conditioners and treatments specially formulated for color-treated hair. Editor's favorites: Redken Color Extend Total Recharge ($15; 800-REDKEN-8) and Pantene Pro-V Color Revival Shampoo and Complete Therapy Conditioner ($4 each; at drugstores).

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