Hair Color: How Levels, Tone And Saturation Affect Your Outcome

A lesson on melanin, color theory, and really cute cats.
Publish date:
November 6, 2013
science, hair color, cats, hair dye, melanin

Whether you religiously box dye (which I will look the other way if you do, frowning) or occasionally pop into your neighborhood chop shop, there are some things you should know about hair color.

Hair color is a manifestation of light reflecting off of melanin, or pigment molecules, in the cortex of the hair.

There are two types of melanin in the hair: eumelanin, which has two sub groups, black and brown, and pheomelanin, which is red or orange. The presence of these pigments and the amount is what causes us to see different shades or “levels” of hair. Hair color is measured by professionals by level to articulate the amount of melanin present.

Varying percentages of melanin of both types can also affect the “tone” of the hair. Tone is used to describe a color as either warm or cool.

Axel is dark brown and black like eumelanin, while Cheyenne is calico with red and orange, like pheomelanin. (I’m going to secretly call them Eu and Phee.)

Being able to identify colors as warm and cool is as simple as trusting your eyes. If you see fire, lightness, orange, red or yellow tones, this is a warm color, regardless of level. Pheomelanin’s presence causes hair to appear warm, red, orange, or golden. Blonde hair is defined as hair with a small percentage of pheomelanin.

On the contrary, a small amount of eumelanin in the hair will appear gray (not white, and I will explain why later).

Hair level ranges from 1, true black, to 10, lightest blonde/pale yellow.

Most hairstylists consider level 5 to be lightest brown, and 6 to be darkest blonde, while some color lines use 6 as the lightest brown. Being that all hair colors are a ratio of both pheomelanin and eumelanin, level and tone are completely individual from person to person, as warm dark brown can exist, so can cool light blonde. Red hair is still judged by level, though most true natural redheads are never darker than a 6.

Now that you are imagining a fiery red Jessica Rabbit, try to imagine what would happen if you put a green-tinted level 5 hair color on her head. It would turn mud brown. This is where the good old color wheel comes in.

Blue is the darkest of the primary colors, while yellow is the lightest. Hair tones can look like any of the colors on the wheel, but cast over the level of hair that you are starting with.

Tone is specifically describing the shade of that level. If you are a 7 (natural blonde) you can be a warm 7 (think sandy dark blonde) or a cool 7 (think deep "dirty" blonde). Tone can make the hair appear a few levels darker or lighter. Consider that a very warm 8 (light blonde) would appear to be a 9 (lightest natural blonde) while a very cool 3 (dark brown) will look like a 1 (black).

Complementary colors neutralize each other, just like in painting and drawing. If you scribble purple over yellow, it will look brown, and the same goes for any other colors that are directly across from each other on the color wheel.

Natural hair tends to lean towards cool for dark colors and warm for light colors, though variations do exist. Secondary and tertiary colors can be applied to the hair, but often times this is done artificially.

Colors like red-violet and yellow-orange can be insanely flattering and the possibilities are endless, IF you have the correct formulation. For vibrant effects, the hair must be pre-lightened, and different underlying pigments are exposed as the hair lightens.

True gray hair has lost its pheomelanin, while white hair is completely different, but commonly referred to as gray. White hair, also known as canities, is completely white. This can occur at different times in the growth cycle, resulting in ringed hair that goes from white to pigmented and back again.

A stylist will know what you are working with, and how to get you to a certain level and tone. If you are making hair color moonshine in your bathtub, you will need to identify the following: natural level; if applicable, starting level (if you color your hair and have roots); percentage of gray hair; desired level; starting tone; desired tone.

The basic idea is to either correct unwanted tone with an opposite color, or enhance a desired tone with the same or similar color family tone.

For covering gray hair, cool colors are not often recommended, as pheomelanin needs to be replenished to reflect light. Cool colors absorb the light and can appear more flat on unpigmented hair. This is also why one cannot jump from a level 9 to a level 4. The light hair would be overpowered by the cool tones needed to create such a dark color, and appear very dull.

Another important variable is your hair texture. Almost all hair color is formulated for medium thickness hair. If you have thicker strands, you will need more color pigment to fill the strand to the correct concentration. If you have thin strands, you will need far less pigment. A box (*shudders*) of level 4 dye will make a fine-haired lady end up with a 2 and a thick haired lady a 6.

Fashion colors are a whole other story, but operate similarly. If your hair is darker than a 6, it is not likely that you will be able to see enough of the color that you are looking for; too much eumelanin is in the way. If you pre-lighten to at least a 7, even Kool-aid will be able to deposit temporarily on your strands.

"Overtoning" is a term used to describe fashion colors like the cotton candy pinks of Alyssa and other pastel babies. When you make it to a level 9 or 10, fashion colors will take to an extreme degree, since you have removed almost all natural pigment.

In an upcoming post, I'll be discussing what actually occurs chemically to hair during a color or reshaping service, so stay tuned to learn more about the "why" of hair and get ahead! Your stylist will be impressed, or scared. And if you do it yourself, maybe you will have fewer mishaps or situations you can’t handle.