Permanent Hair Dye, Semi-Permanent Hair Dye, And Bleach Hair Dye: What's The Difference?

Latest Color Techniques Used By Your Stylist

The Difference Between Permanent, Semi-Permanent And Bleach Hair Dye

04 May 2018
photo of stylist applying color to woman's hair

Emily Arata

Senior Editor,

As an employee of L’Oréal, Emily works with celebrity stylists to make finding the right cut, color, or style easier than ever before. She's previously written for Allure, Elite Daily, and First We Feast.

From the outside, the world of hair color can seem like something of a cult. It has its own lingo (lightener, balayage, ombre) and it’s constantly making the news. When one person posts a photo with pink hair to social media, everyone stampedes to go get it. We’re here to tell you that isn’t really as intimidating as it all seems.

When it comes to hair color services, there are really only three concepts you need to understand: permanent hair dye, semi-permanent hair dye, and bleach hair dye (often called lightener). Every time you sit down in your colorist’s chair and share photos of your goal color, he or she will use one of the three (or some combination) to achieve your rainbow pastel unicorn shade.

How’s a girl to tell which means what and how to choose? Well, you won’t have to. But in case you’re worried about exactly what’s going on your strands, we’ve broken down the categories for you with the help of Leeanne Shade, Matrix brand ambassador and pro stylist.

Permanent Color

Permanent hair color is just the way it sounds: pretty darn final.

Permanent hair color can lighten and tone your natural pigmented hair provided you are not looking to go more than four levels lighter...We use it in the salon to cover gray hair, to lighten hair, or brighten the color of your hair up a little.

Leeanne Shade

When used for lightening more than one level (hair stylist speak for a visible shade lighter), these formulas permanently alter the melanin in your hair. That means you’ll see a marked difference between your colored hair and new growth, making salon touch up appointments mandatory. According to Shade, you’ll want to plan for sessions about every six weeks.

Semi-Permanent Color

Unlike its permanent equivalent, semi-permanent hair color contains no ammonia, which means it can’t actually lighten your hair. These deposit-only formulas are combined with hydrogen peroxide to create a lightening effect on your strands. Because the effect of semi-permanent color is somewhat more subtle, stylists use it for less drastic changes.

“We use it in the salon almost as often as our permanent hair colors—to tone highlights, to add lowlights, to blend gray and to darken someone's color. It can even create a highlighted look depending on the hair and the shade selected,” Shade says.

If you’re no stranger to semi-permanent color, it’s likely because you’ve dealt with visible gray hairs. Shade sites this type of color as the ultimate resource for stylists covering gray, because it blends beautifully as it grows out. Plan to return to the salon every eight to 10 weeks to get those silvery pieces touched up.


The word “bleach” is a tricky one, particularly when it comes to the ins and outs of chemicals. In a salon, you’re more likely to hear any chemical used to lift color (natural or applied) from your strands called lightener. In order to strip away a previous shade or create a blank base for a bright color, lightener is used.

“Depending on the lightener, you can use it on the whole head to create a look that needs more lift than what a permanent hair color can do, referred to in the salon as a double process,” Shade notes.

While lighteners get a bad reputation for causing damage to hair, leaving it dry and crunchy. According to shade, a stylist with years of experience who’s properly examined your hair should have no difficulty leaving it looking beautiful and feeling healthy.

Armed with the tools to understand salon terms, you’ll go into your next appointment feeling more confident than ever.

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