You may have noticed that, over time, your dye job ends up looking brassy and “off.” If that’s the case, you need to know how to tone your hair at home.
I color my hair regularly. As a self-appointed expert on at-home hair coloring, I’m here to tell you that almost all of us dye jobs end up with brassy undertones. Sometimes that’s because of the things we do to our hair. Sometimes it’s not our fault at all.
Even natural tresses can end up with brassy streaks where they aren’t wanted. Chlorine, hard water, and even the wrong shampoo can create brassy undertones in undyed hair.
No matter how you end up with brassy undertones, learning how to tone your hair at home can go a long way toward maintaining your color, whatever it is.
What the Heck Is This Stuff?
Hair toner is a neutralizing agent. Specifically, it works to get rid of brassy tones in hair that’s been bleached or lightened. When you use a hair toner, you’re using pigment to create a neutral tone that calms the brassiness that’s developed.
Toners are used during the hair dying process and can be used weeks after you’ve had your color done. In fact, if you’ve wondered if it would be a good idea to learn how to tone your hair at home, you may not need to learn. Depending on your hair care routine, there’s a chance you’ve been toning your hair this whole time.
How do hair toners work?
Before you learn how to tone your hair at home, it’s helpful to have a little info first. Understanding how hair toners work means understanding a little bit about how colors work. When you look at a color — any color — you actually see two colors: mass color and undertone.
Mass color is the first color you see. For example, when you look at the color blue, you see, well, blue. But the longer you look at it, the more you may realize that it’s not “just blue.” That’s where the undertone comes in. Undertone is the color that’s “under” the mass color.
For example, turquoise is in the blue family but has a green undertone. That’s why it looks blue and green. Blue is the mass color, and green is the undertone. Turquoise “works” as color because green complements blue (even though blue and green are not complementary colors).
What is brassiness in hair color?
When you look at your hair weeks after you’ve colored it, you notice yellow, orange, or red undertones that you didn’t ask for. These unwanted warm tones are what we call brassiness. The brassy colors occur for two reasons.
First, brassiness sometimes happens when the natural pigmentation of your hair isn’t completely removed during the dyeing process.
For example, if you’re a natural brunette and you’ve gone lighter, you have underlying hair pigmentation of orange or red. As your dye fades (as it always does), this natural pigment starts to show through the dye.
Second, all hair dyes have red, blue, and yellow pigments. The molecules in the blue pigments are smaller and tend to wash out faster than the red and yellow ones. When that happens, you’ll start to see red and yellow tones in your hair.
How do I get rid of brassiness?
To get rid of the brassy undertone, choose a toner that neutralizes them — something that’s on the opposite side of the color wheel.
For example, yellow and purple are on opposite sides of the color wheel. So, if you’re blonde but your hair starts looking more banana than Marilyn Monroe, find a purple toner. The purple will neutralize the yellow making you a blonde bombshell once again.
Different toners for different goals
Three types of hair toners neutralize brassy hair tones. You can use these toners on dyed hair or your natural color.
Permanent hair toner
Whether you dye your hair at home or the salon, permanent hair toner is what gives your hair color. It’s what changes you from mousy brown to the vibrant redhead. This color does not wash out over time. However, it will fade and, depending on your color, will show brassy tones.
Demi-permanent hair toner
Unlike permanent hair toners, demi-permanent toners don’t last. Without getting into the science, demi-permanent toners don’t require you to open up the hair strands to infuse the hair with pigment. Demi-permanent toners deposit pigment on to the hair shaft, which means they only last between 5 and 12 washes.
Shampoos and conditioners
Believe it or not, some shampoos and conditioners are hair toners. These are usually purple-based and generally for blonde, grey, and silver hair tones.
One word of caution. Use purple shampoos and conditioners sparingly. Though shampoo and conditioners are the most temporary of hair toners, they will, over time, deposit color into your locks.
You’ve heard of blue-haired old ladies, right? Grey hair, for example, will take on a bluish undertone after too many washes with purple toners.
How to Find the Perfect Hair Toner
Before we explain how to pick the right hair toner and how to tone your hair at home, you should know that hair toner will not change the color of your dye job. It cannot correct color, and it’s not going to darken or lighten your hair if it’s like Snow White’s.
There’s nothing that can neutralize dark brown or black hair whether it’s from a bottle or your parents.
That said, some brunettes (myself included) and blondes find that their natural hair can become brassy. If that sounds like you, you can use a toner to even things out.
Hair toner for blondes
Blondes may have more fun, but that doesn’t mean they want funny hair. Yellowish tones can undermine true blonde colors. You can easily neutralize these tones with purple or purple-ash toners.
Hair toner for auburn hues and redheads
It may not be Christmas, but if your red hair is too red and needs to be toned down, find a green based toner. Green tones help dial back the intensity of red colors and can neutralize any copper tones that have become too clown-like in auburn shades.
Hair toner for light brunette shades
Brunette dye jobs (and natural brunettes) can get brassy orange tones. Look for toners made specifically for brunette hair that neutralizes orange and red undertones.
Hair toner for a silver fox
Naturally, gray hair tends to have yellow undertones (trust me!). Purple toners are the only way to go. But, go easy on these. You don’t want to accidentally create a blue undertone either.
Toner isn’t just for dye jobs
While you’re more likely to get brassy tones in dyed hair, that doesn’t mean it can’t happen to non-dye jobs.
For example, if you swim a lot, the chlorine will fade your hair and create brassy tones. And, lots of people find that during the summer (when they’re more likely to be outdoors), their hair takes on a lighter tone that’s not always “sunkissed.”
Don’t Tone Your Hair like You Tone Your Body
When we talk about toning our bodies, we mean having a regular exercise routine and hitting the gym daily. While we should have a regular hair toning routine, that does not mean toning your hair daily.
In some respects, how often you tone your hair depends on how often you color your hair, how fast it grows, and how often you wash it.
If you color every three weeks, your hair won’t have a lot of time to develop brassiness. But, if you wash your hair twice a day in hard water, you’re probably going to fade the color quickly and need to tone more frequently.
How to Tone Your Hair at Home
If the thought of trying to figure out how to tone your hair at home makes you slightly queasy, don’t worry. Toning is never permanent, and the results only last about 4 to 6 weeks.
The one thing you can’t tell about your hair by looking at it is how porous it is. The more porous your hair, the more pigment it will absorb, which may mean you end up with too dark of a color if you leave the toner on for too long. To make sure you don’t overdo it, complete a strand test before you using toner all over your hair.
There are two ways to do a strand test. In the first method, you test the toner on a small section of hair while it’s still on your head.
The second method has you cut the lock off your head. It might sound crazy to cut off your hair for a test. But, on the off chance you’re allergic to something in the toner, cutting the hair off means less chance of exposure.
In either method, apply the toner to the hair sample. Then, at the least amount of time recommended by the instructions, rinse the toner off and dry the hair sample. Check your results and, if you’re not happy, try again, leaving the dye on a little longer this time. Repeat until happy.
How to tone your hair at home: demi-permanent edition
Like a permanent dye, demi-permanent dyes mix pigment with a developer. Some demi-permanent kits include a plastic squeeze bottle (like a catsup bottle). However, you may prefer to mix it in a plastic bowl (never metal!) with a plastic spoon.
Apply the toner to the areas that need the most help. If you can’t tell where those areas are, or you feel that everything is brassy, start in the middle of the hair strand and work your way out — up to the roots first, then down to the tips.
Leave the toner in for anywhere from 5 to 20 minutes. If you skipped the strand test, rinse a small section to see what the toner looks like after five minutes. If you’re not happy, rinse another small section in another five minutes.
When you’re satisfied with the color, rinse per the instructions, and voila! Neutral, less brassy hair.
How to tone your hair at home: Shampoo and conditioner edition
To tone your hair with shampoo, wash your hair with the toning shampoo. Use a small amount of shampoo the first few times, so you can see if you like the results. Leave the shampoo in your hair for the amount of time it says on the bottle then rinse.
Use toning conditioner like you would any other conditioner — apply after a thorough shampoo. Again, leave the conditioner in for the recommended time on the bottle.
And, yes, you can use toning shampoo and conditioner at the same time. But, be careful about depositing too much pigment on your hair. Also, make sure you rinse these purple conditioners into the drain as quickly as possible. They will stain the grout in your shower.
No More Clown Hair
Once I discovered that I didn’t have to have clown orange hair anymore (seriously — there are pictures), a whole new world opened up to me. Adding an at-home toner to my haircare routine has saved me so much time and money. And embarrassment!
I promise. Learning how to tone your hair at home is a lifesaver. It lets you maintain your beautiful color longer, saving you time and money. No more emergency trips to the salon for color corrections. All you’ve got to do is find the right color toner, and you’re on your way.
Do you have any tips on how to tone your hair at home? Share them in the comments below!
Jenni Haward has been working as a hairstylist for almost 11 years. With that much experience, she was able to start her own business. It has been two years since she started and had made three salons in three different cities and is still growing. She is continuing to pursue the career hoping to impact more with her skills and knowledge.