These days, it's no casual matter to spend $100 or more on hair color at the salon. But what's a woman to do, let her roots show? Necessity is pushing even the timid to consider taking color into their own hands, and new techniques and formulations are making the boxes on the shelves look more appealing. "I saw a commercial about hair color you put on with a comb and thought about trying it to save money," says Holly Charron, a human resources manager.
FOR THE RECORD: Salon Mario Russo: An article on at-home hair coloring in Sunday's Image section said Salon Mario Russo is in New York. It is in Boston. —
"At-home hair color is becoming much more user-friendly," says Lisa Evans, senior colorist at Salon Mario Russo in New York, who has seen a number of her clients turn to at-home tints to extend the life of their professional color. "People are choosing a shade that is close to what they [have] and putting it on their roots, then coming to see me for their full touch-ups, giving them that extra couple of weeks" between visits, she says.
To get women to switch to at-home color, companies such as Procter & Gamble have been addressing three key consumer concerns: ease of application, the length of time involved and finding the right shade. And at least on the first two fronts, new products have recently made great strides.
Early last year, Clairol released Perfect 10 by Nice 'n Easy in 15 shades ($13.99; www.perfectcolorin10.com), incorporating its AminoGlycine technology and cutting processing times by more than half, from 25 to 10 minutes. The product integrates the first significant change in formulation for Clairol since 1956. L'Oréal Paris follows suit this month, launching Excellence to-Go in 12 shades ($9.49; www.lorealparis.com), a formula offering the same results as its original Excellence product in just 10 minutes.
Both brands use a pH roughly 10 times less alkaline than previous formulations. "When you operate at pH 10, you damage the surface of the hair," says Linda Jacobs, Procter & Gamble's principal scientist of hair color research and development. Perfect 10 uses a pH of 9, which helps preserve the fatty lipid layer that binds to the cuticle of the hair, making it appear smoother and shinier. The AminoGlycine also hinders the formation of free radicals that react with the keratin, she says.
Application has gotten easier with the development of no-drip formulations that smell less of ammonia and more of apples. "Hair color should be a beauty experience," Jacobs says.
Both Perfect 10 and Excellence to-Go feature screw-on combs that distribute color evenly through a series of holes across the tines, making the process as easy as combing your hair. Instead of the old squirt bottles, the combs offer a more precise and even application with much less mess.
But scientists can't yet take the guesswork out of choosing the right shade. Websites such as www.clairol.com offer interactive questions to help you find the perfect shade, but ultimately -- and frighteningly for some -- the choice is yours.
There are ways to make the process less risky, though. "Hair color shades should enhance your skin tone and complement your eyes," says celebrity colorist and Clairol color director Jason Backe. The key is to determine whether you have a warm or cool complexion.
"You're likely warm if you have golden, olive or dark skin -- most Latinas, Asians and African Americans fall into this category," says Evans, the New York colorist. Women with fair skin and light eyes tend to have cooler complexions. Those with warmer tones should pick golden shades with key words such as bronze, auburn or gold, she adds. For cool tones, stick with ash blonds or cool browns.
"Do not be surprised if the color result is [slightly] different than what appeared on the hair color box," says David Dawson, senior colorist at Tom Brophy Salon in Beverly Hills. "Box color is not customized for you, your pre-existing color and hair texture."
But following skin tone guidelines and sticking within two shades of your natural color will help avoid any mishaps. If you're not satisfied with results, seek professional advice instead of recoloring your own hair. "Once your hair is tinted, it will react differently to another color," Dawson says, "and repeated applications will result in flat darker color and dry stressed hair."
My own test drive of Perfect 10 found that it delivered what it promised: color that matched my own. The process was quick, with fewer ammonia fumes and virtually no dripping. The only question from my husband as I worked the dye through my hair: "What smells like cucumbers?"