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Dos and Don’ts Of Touching Up Home Hair Color

By Amalah

Hi Amy,
I am a huge fan of your work and I have a beauty question that I figured would be right up the Advice Smackdown alley. I dyed my hair last month from brunette to auburnish using a home kit. (And by “I dyed” I mean I made my husband dye my hair) It came out great and I loved the color. Unfortunately, I was an idiot and did not switch to a color protecting shampoo. The red has faded quite a bit and looks more brown with a hint of red. It is time to dye my hair again and it says to mainly dye the roots and then cover the rest of the hair with dye for a significantly less amount of time. I worry that because my hair faded so much I will end up with crazy red roots and brownish hair! Should I follow those instructions or dye the whole thing over but with the same color? Will that leave me with most of my hair really red and only kind of red roots? Argh! I don’t know what to do!
Please help me oh wise Amalah!

In my experience with home dye, following the instructions is generally the best way to go, and that focusing on the roots and then combing it through the ends to “freshen” the color is way better than dyeing your whole head from scratch again.
lorealpref.jpgWhy? Because applying hair color over already colored hair is just asking for trouble — even when you’re applying the same color dye. Blonde dye on hair that’s already been lightened is a one-way ticket to orange, brassy hair, and I learned that one the hard way, oh yes I did.
Reddish hair dye. I am now tempted to run away from your question screaming, because aaaaaaeeeeeeiiii. Reddish hair dye! The most difficult and temperamental color to work with, even at a salon. Still, I’d say you should follow the instructions. The red may have faded from view, but there could still be red pigment lurking in your hair shafts, and overdoing it with a touch-up job could be YOUR one-way ticket to magenta hair. (Hi! I also did that one once. Which is kind of why I never set foot in the home dye aisle ever again.)
Also based on my own experiences with boxed dye (and for the record, I started lightening my hair with L’Oreal in junior high and continued coloring my own hair until The Great Magenta Hair Disaster of 1999), the highlighty colors of the dye — the platinums, the reds, the etc. — just tend to fade sometimes, no matter what shampoo you use. So while your roots might end up with slightly more auburn than the touch-up application gives your ends, you’ll probably see at least some fading, probably fairly quickly.
So. Yes. Follow the instructions. Put the dye on your roots, and by that I mean “have your husband put the dye on your roots,” for the recommended amount of time. Then comb it through your ends for the shorter amount of time. (Oh, and do it when your hair is as dirty as possible — shampoos and conditioners protect your hair, and you want to apply dye when your hair is nice and defenseless so the color really “takes.”) Switch to a really, really good shampoo for colored hair — I’d encourage you to use a salon-quality one like Pureology, even for your non-salon-quality color. Get into the habit of only lathering up your roots, since this REALLY helps prevent the fading and the dryness/damage that home dyes can cause. Condition the ends every days, also with a colored-hair conditioner.
If the color STILL fades sooner than you’d like, well…why not just get some auburn highlights at a salon? Your hair is already brunette, so clearly you don’t need to be adding the brown color (and yes, any boxed dye classified as “auburn” will contain a good deal of brunette tones, no matter how red the photo looks). I know, highlights are expensive, but you can generally go about six months in between them (provided they are done right), so…twice a year instead of sitting in your bathroom every six to eight weeks, ruining your towels and making your husband wear plastic gloves while you both gag on the chemical fumes? You can totally accuse me of being a salon color snob, but really, I’m just flipping lazy.

Published August 1, 2008. Last updated August 1, 2008.
About the Author

Amy Corbett Storch


Amalah is a pseudonym of Amy Corbett Storch. She is the author of the Advice Smackdown and Bounce Back. You can follow Amy’s daily mothering adventures at Ama...

Amalah is a pseudonym of Amy Corbett Storch. She is the author of the Advice Smackdown and Bounce Back. You can follow Amy’s daily mothering adventures at Amalah. Also, it’s pronounced AIM-ah-lah.

If there is a question you would like answered on the Advice Smackdown, please submit it to [email protected].

Amy also documented her second pregnancy (with Ezra) in our wildly popular Weekly Pregnancy Calendar, Zero to Forty.

Amy is mother to rising first-grader Noah, preschooler Ezra, and toddler Ike.

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  • Jenny

    August 1, 2008 at 12:47 pm

    As a long time home kit hair dyer, follow the instructions this time. Auburn needs the longer time to change your roots and much less time to revitalize the rest of your head. I would also keep a watch on how long you let the dye work. Just because the box says 20 minutes (or whatever), my hair never needs that long. I normally cut 5 minutes off and the color comes out good (except for the time I was newly pregnant and crazy hormones somehow made for crazy uneven hair dye bleached spots…who knew?) But don’t let that scare you. Follow the instructions and get some color protecting shampoo like L’Oreal Color Vive. You’ll be fine.

  • caleal

    August 1, 2008 at 1:01 pm

    Totally follow the instructions.
    I home dye my hair, and once I was in this exact situation. So I thought, screw it, I’ll do it how I do it.
    Even though I was dying my hair brown, my roots were an ENTIRELY DIFFERENT shade of brown. I forget which soaks up the dye more, or whatever term they use, the new roots or the old dyed hair, but either way, they react *very* differently to the same dye.

  • AmyM

    August 1, 2008 at 1:35 pm

    I get several colors of low/high-lights put in my hair (dark brown, blonde, coppery-red) and the latter are always the first to fade. My stylist said that’s just how it is with reds, they don’t stay very long. But using cool water to wash your hair will help delay the fading for a bit, as hot water opens up the shaft and causes fading faster.

  • Stephanie

    August 1, 2008 at 4:32 pm

    Might be worth trying once, but a salon might not be much help either. Red is tricky, as I’m finding out. I’ve been home-dyeing my dark blond hair to a lighter blond shade for YEARS, but I let my stylist convince me to spend the big bucks to get get red highlights. I like the look, but the first time, I went on vaation immediately after and didn’t pack the good shampoo… the highlights were gone in a week. I got it done again about a month ago and used Pureology religiously, but STILL, two weeks in, the red was mostly faded out gone. At $185 bucks a pop, I’m just not sure it’s worth it!

  • Mel

    August 1, 2008 at 7:36 pm

    I’ve also had pretty mediocre results from getting red highlights added at a salon. It looked great the first week. I used a color-protecting shampoo, but it was still really faded after 2 weeks. I tried getting the highlights several times before getting fed up with not ending up with the color I wanted for more than 2-3 weeks.
    I had the same salon give me a dark brown a bit darker than my natural color and it didn’t fade nearly as quickly, so I concluded it was the red color, not the salon or my hair that was the problem.

  • Lindsey

    August 2, 2008 at 11:02 pm

    Oh this has been me, three years ago. I dyed my normally brown hair a reddish-brown. Loved it. Dyed it again, ignoring the “re-dye” instructions of coloring the roots and then combing through, and ended up with straight out auburn hair. It was a pretty, but NOT what I was expecting and totally due to the result that I swear box dyes with red in them linger in your hair. They even say so on the side, that if you have any red in your hair, the results will be even redder. I once was a salon color snob, but now I’m poor and I love box hair dye–particularly L’Oreal Feria, they have the best conditioner.

  • Colleen

    August 3, 2008 at 1:19 pm

    I’ve been having red put in my darkening blonde hair for years. When I have my whole head red, I use the John Frieda “Radiant Red” shampoo/conditioner and some of the associated products. When I only put in red highlights, I just use the John Frieda Color Envy hair protector. It’s nice a lightweight and seems to keep the red from fading as much, and I shampoo and blow-dry nearly every day. My stylist usually remarks that she’s surprised how well the red has held up in my hair. Although right now I’m having trouble finding it on their website, so I’m wondering if was discontinued. I’m sure there are other dailer serums out there that will do the same sort of thing…in fact, John Frieda has a more basic one associated with his Frizz-Ezze line.

  • rachel

    August 3, 2008 at 8:49 pm

    i have red hair, and every time i get my hair cut, the salonist tells me that i have the kind of color that people pay to get. thanks, mom and dad.

  • chellebelle

    August 4, 2008 at 5:28 pm

    I totally agree with the “have it done at a salon” advice. I used home kits for a few years and my hair got SO damaged. According to my stylist (though it could possibly be salon propaganda) the drugstore boxed product has much harsher chemicals in it than the salon product. And I tend to agree because my hair isn’t falling out anymore now that I have the roots done with permanent color and the ends refreshed with semi-permanent (at a salon).
    Also. Red is the worst color as far as fading, no matter who applies it. Try to go a few days without washing after the coloring, wash as infrequently as possible (if you can get away with less than daily shampooing), and definitely use a color support shampoo (Bumble and Bumble’s are awesome and you only have to use it once a week, more often will deposit too much color).

  • Kimberly

    August 13, 2008 at 5:46 pm

    Naturally my hair is dark blonde (or it was last time I saw it). I had been coloring it red for the past 5 years both at home and in salon. Regardless of who did it or what brand of color was used, reds fade….horribly. I found that my roots were always hot (redder than the rest) after coloring but they always toned down within the first week. As for the length of your hair, follow the “roots” instructions, the already colored hair will absorb the color faster than the virgin roots and rather than getting redder, it will get darker.
    I finally got tired of the red-fight and went with a rich chocolate brown.

  • Athena

    April 13, 2014 at 12:09 am

    Red usually does fade a *lot* faster than any colour. Honestly, I swear I nearly gave a woman at a salon a heart-attack when enquiring about the possibility of a red-black for my hair. Pretty sure she was already picturing me storming in a week later screaming about why was my hair only black now… assuming the red would show in the first place (black usually fades slowest). For most people, rule of thumb is to never expect the red to hold well, or you’re expecting too much.

    At-home dye is my experience, as salon is just far too expensive, but yeah, definitely follow the instructions. Even faded, the rest of your hair just does not need as much colour as your roots. Bear in mind though that, as far as these instructions go, roots just means “regrowth”… anything grown back in your natural colour. If you’re recolouring too soon for regrowth, just do a shorter develop time even over the whole head. If you haven’t coloured in ages and have four inches of regrowth, those four inches are your roots. Also, at least for at-home dyes, in most cases (I speak not for blonde dyes, which work differently) it pays to go a bit brighter than what you actually want. Even on the most perfectly dye-able hair, it will NEVER come out like it does on the box, and in my experience and the experience of those I know, it will always err towards darker/duller. This holds as true for my mother with boring mouse-brown hair as it does for me, with the perfect-for-dye-to-show-on darkish blonde hair.

    That said on the reds, I’m really quite unusual. The exception that proves the rule, I guess – for me, red really just holds. Like oh mah god holds. For my mum too, so there’s something genetic going on there. A very dark auburn dye saw the dark brown fading faster than the red such that it became a sort of very reddish medium brown. And, when I was very young, a bright red 28-wash dye left my hair, a year later, still faintly orange. With my nana desperately trying to eradicate it shortly after it was done and before my aunt’s wedding. Baffling as it is and I wish I knew why, but dyeing my hair red actually seems to cause some of my hair to grow back red, at least faintly, causing highlights that increase every time I dye. So weird.

  • Harris

    January 27, 2015 at 2:28 pm

    I have yet to have a set of hilights that last 6 months! That’s not because they haven’t been done correctly but due to how much a head of hair naturally grows within that time span! 
    Hair absorbs colour best on clean hair not dirty!!   Slightly soiled is best to protect the scalp and allow colour pigment to fully penetrate the hair.  Red is the biggest fader, due to the fact it is the largest colour molecule out of all the colour pigments and cannot fully penetrate and lock in the hair shaft.  

  • marie

    May 16, 2015 at 8:21 am

    Follow the instructions to a T. As a cosmetologist I would say to stay away from boxed dye for obvious reasons, but if that’s all u got to work with then….keep in mind the color molecules in red haircolor are bigger & therefore fade the fastest. Good luck!

  • April

    September 3, 2015 at 6:46 pm

    Red or auburn or light golden brown (the latter my hair converts to red) ~ my first thoughts- huge molecules– fade fast, and go lighter. Still great to see everyone’s thoughts on box touchup…and Feria. I’ve always used L’Oreal, period. Thanks Gals!!!

  • Keasha Forbes

    March 10, 2016 at 12:47 am

    If your hair is dyed red use Aveda Madder Root Conditioner for brunettes and red heads. Cost about $20, but it leaves my hair red, and shiny. Love the stuff.