Consumers Tried 6 Home Hair Dye Brands. Here's What They Thought.

With many people avoiding salons, CR looked at how well these popular dyes work and how easy they are to use

A person wearing latex gloves mixing hair dye with a brush. Photo: iStock

As cases of coronavirus spiked in various locations across the U.S. this year, hair salons were among the many businesses that had to close. Without access to professionals, some people who usually go to a salon to color their hair turned to at-home color kits. And many people still hesitant to go to the salon are continuing to treat their hair at home today.

With all this at-home hair care going on, Consumer Reports wanted to find out what consumers who switched to coloring their hair at home thought about the process, and whether some DIY products were easier to use than others, had clearer instructions, and provided users with more satisfying results when it came to color accuracy and gray coverage.

So CR’s consumer experience experts enlisted the help of 29 mostly new users of DIY hair color from across the U.S. with a variety of hair textures and types. Most had brown hair, and all had some grays.

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We had them try one of six widely sold permanent color kits: Clairol Nice’n Easy, Dark & Lovely Fade Resist (which is marketed to Black consumers), Garnier Nutrisse Nourishing Color Creme, L’Oréal Excellence Crème, Revlon Colorsilk Beautiful Color, and Madison Reed. Many of the volunteers usually had their hair colored at salons but switched to DIY color during the COVID-19 salon shutdowns, although some of our participants who tested out Dark & Lovely were more regular users of home hair dye kits.

The good news: Our consumer volunteers mostly felt they could do a good job at coloring their hair and were generally pleased with the color they achieved.

As one participant put it, “Having had to switch to coloring my own hair from a kit at home because my salon is shut down during the pandemic was NOT something that I was looking forward to doing at all. But I happily discovered that the process was a lot easier than I had first expected.”

Still, some wished they had an extra set of hands or tools like hair clips to get the job done, and a few said that the resulting hair color they got wasn’t quite what they wanted.

Before we get to the results, here are a few things to consider.

Which Hair Dye Is Right for You?

DIY hair color, which has long been available in boxed kits sold in supermarkets and drugstores, allows users to change or refresh their hue, touch up roots, and/or cover gray hair, by simply combining a few ingredients, applying the mixture to their hair for a set period of time, and rinsing it out (and often applying a conditioner or conditioning treatment).

At-home color comes in a few types, according to Crystal Aguh, MD, assistant professor of dermatology and director of the Ethnic Skin Program at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and author of the book “90 Days to Beautiful Hair: 50 Dermatologist-Approved Tips to Un‘lock’ The Hair of Your Dreams” (U&C Publishing, 2019). There are the temporary colors or “rinses,” which last for one or two washes; semipermanent, which wash out after about six to eight washes; demi-permanent, which typically last for 10 to 12 washes; and the permanent varieties, which are designed not to wash out at all. (All the products we evaluated were labeled permanent.)

Note that even permanent dye fades over time, says Keya Neal, a colorist, curl specialist, and beauty brand diversity and inclusion strategist based in Crofton, Md. Dark & Lovely’s label, for instance, notes it will provide up to “8 weeks of vibrant color.” A spokesperson from Clairol told us Nice n’ Easy would also last for about eight weeks. (We asked representatives of the other brands we included in our study how long their permanent color lasts. A Revlon spokesperson was unable to tell us how long the brand’s color lasts, and representatives from other brands didn’t respond to our queries.)

Before choosing a DIY hair dye, experts say it’s wise to ask yourself a few questions:

What color are you aiming for? A drastic change in color, especially one that’s lighter than your natural tone, might not be possible with a DIY hair dye kit, notes Kiyah Wright, an Emmy Award-winning hair stylist and colorist based in Beverly Hills, Calif. Boxed kits can be a great option for a color newbie, she says, but can only lighten your hair a few shades.

It’s also important to keep in mind that your results likely won’t look exactly like what’s on the box, Neal says. “When you buy out of the store, you’re looking at a picture of someone else who may look completely different from you,” she says. If you’re using a kit, darker colors are more likely to meet expectations than lighter colors, she says.

How well will your hair tolerate being colored? This question is closely related to what color you’re aiming for because, as Aguh says, “the further away you are from your desired color, the stronger the dye solution needs to be to get the result.” Stronger (and longer-lasting) solutions are more likely to damage hair. In her book, Aguh explains that permanent dyes usually contain ammonia or ethanolamine (these products may be labeled ‘ammonia-free’), which both permit dye to sink deep into the hair shaft. To bleach hair in order to lighten the shade, a kit may contain hydrogen peroxide. All these ingredients can leave hair feeling dry and brittle. Semipermanent and demi-permanent dyes tend to be gentler, though they may use some potentially damaging chemicals, such as hydrogen peroxide.

Still, Amy McMichael, MD, professor and chair of the department of dermatology at Wake Forest Medical Center in Winston-Salem, N.C., says these nonpermanent dyes may be a better choice for some people with damage-prone hair, including Black people, whose hair tends to be drier than Asian or white people’s hair.

Other folks who may want to think twice before using a permanent dye: people with chemically straightened or relaxed hair, because chemicals in these products can harm the hair shaft. “If color is added, this can further weaken the hair shaft and cause hair breakage,” McMichael says.

Whatever your hair type, McMichael recommends using the mildest product you can to get the color you want, and avoiding other chemical treatments. If you color, “use moisturizing shampoos and conditioners, including leave-in conditioners,” she says.

And keep in mind: When you apply dye, be sure to follow the instructions on how long to leave the product on. You might think that leaving a dye on longer than recommended will provide better coverage of grays or color saturation, but it can do more damage than good, Neal says. That’s especially true if you have curly hair—depending on how sensitive your hair is, hair dye can change your curl pattern, and the risk of this is greater if you leave dye in too long.

What to Expect From Home Hair Color Kits

DIY hair dye kits generally contain the color, a developer or activator substance that’s meant to be mixed with the color before application, a conditioning treatment for use before or after applying the dye, and a pair of disposable gloves.

Many of the hair kits are relatively inexpensive: At the lower end of the price range are the kits you typically see in walk-in or online drugstores. The L’Oréal, Clairol, Dark & Lovely, Revlon, and Garnier kits our participants used all cost less than $10. They come in an array of shades, from black to platinum, and tones, such as warm or cool.

For those struggling to choose a shade, some manufacturer websites offer helpful tools, such as detailed questionnaires about your hair color and texture, or the option of uploading a photo of yourself and doing a virtual “try on” of different colors.

Newer (and pricier) entries into the field include Madison Reed, which costs $27 for one kit or $22 with a monthly subscription, and may provide additional tools such as wipes for cleanup. Other newer products, such as eSalon, $28, and L’Oréal’s Color&Co, $27, offer color that’s customized for each customer.

What CR Learned

For CR’s study, our Consumer Experience and Usability Research team asked users to score their hair dye kit based on five key metrics:

  • Ease of instructions
  • Ease of setup, meaning mixing up the dye and color activator or developer
  • Ease of application
  • Satisfaction with coverage of gray hair
  • Color accuracy (how well it met the participant’s expectations)

We also asked them to score their overall experience. Each kit was tested by four or five volunteers.

Our volunteers, who were screened from more than 1 million consumers who signed up to participate in research on common products and services, were generally pleased with the products and the results, giving high marks on almost all measures, says Linda Greene, test program leader in CR’s Consumer Experience and Usability Research program.

Still, about half said they would use a home hair dye kit only if salons were closed. “Just missing the more indulgent and relaxing feel from being at a salon,” one participant commented.

Even though the level of satisfaction was high, our volunteers did encounter some challenges.

Some needed more advice than the packaging offered. Though most of the participants said the instructions were easy to understand, several sought out additional advice, such as how-to videos. Some companies, including Madison Reed and L’Oréal, provide hair coloring tutorials online.

The kits don’t necessarily contain everything you might want. A couple of participants said they needed bowls and brushes for mixing and applying color. “Get hair clips, brush, and cape,” another participant advised, plus cleansing wipes to clean up any dye that ends up on the skin. Another item that might be useful: a shower cap or plastic head covering to use while the dye is setting. (The Madison Reed kit comes with a cap, plus a cleansing wipe.) Some volunteers improvised, turning to items they already had at home: “I also used an old plastic takeout container for the mix so that I could easily apply it with the brush,” one respondent said. One participant had some difficulty keeping the area around her neat when mixing together the color and developer creams. “I put a towel down by the sink and I mixed the products together, hoping not to get any spillage, but once I started trying to squeeze the small bottles into the big bottle to mix, I got a lot of leakage. So unfortunately my towel got completely ruined,” this person said.

It isn’t easy to do it all by yourself. A few volunteers said applying hair color to areas like the back of the head was difficult to do on their own. “My advice would be to get your husband to apply it for you. I don’t know how anyone does this themselves!” one user said.

Long hair may require using more than one kit. About half of our participants said they didn’t need to use all the dye in the kit, though the rest said they did—longer, thicker hair requires more dye to achieve total coverage. “I think that if my hair grows much more, I am going to need two kits each time I do it,” one participant said.

It’s wise to test the dye on your skin first. The instructions in each of the kits we evaluated recommend testing a small amount of dye on a patch of skin before use, to check for potential allergic reaction. But most participants skipped this step—and a few reported irritation or itching after coloring their hair. According to Aguh at Johns Hopkins, the chemical paraphenylenediamine, commonly used in home hair color to darken hair, is a frequent cause of allergic reactions.

If you’re planning on coloring your hair at home, we have more advice and tips in our guide to dyeing your hair. Giving yourself a trim while you’re at it? Check out our guide to cutting your own hair. And below, members can see the complete user experience scores and CR’s takes on the six hair dye kits CR’s consumer experience experts evaluated with users.

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