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Understanding hair color levels is key to setting realistic hair color goals. We break down exactly what they are so you can book your salon visit with ease.

What Are Hair Levels and What Do They Mean for Hair Color?

Understanding hair color levels is key to setting realistic hair color goals. We break down exactly what they are so you can book your salon visit with ease.
What Are Hair Levels and What Do They Mean for Hair Color?

As much as you’d like to imagine that switching up your hair color is as simple as applying dye and waiting for it to process, there’s a science to getting the hue just right. Achieving your dream color may require a few visits to the salon, depending on your current hair color level and the new shade you’re looking to embrace.

To help explain hair levels and how they can affect the coloring process, we tapped three hair color experts. Read on to learn how to find your hair level, what to consider when dyeing your locks, and what you can do to keep your new hue looking its best.

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What Are Hair Levels?

Simply put, your hair level is a measurement of how light or dark your hair is. The hair level chart ranges from Levels 1 to 10, with one being the darkest (black) and 10 being the lightest (platinum/white). Pros utilize the following hair level system to identify the depth of your hair color:

  • Level 1: Black
  • Level 2: Brown/Black
  • Level 3: Dark Brown
  • Level 4: Medium Brown
  • Level 5: Light Brown
  • Level 6: Dark Blonde
  • Level 7: Medium Blonde
  • Level 8: Light Blonde
  • Level 9: Very Light Blonde
  • Level 10: Lightest Blonde/Platinum/White

According to L’Oréal Professionnel artist Rebecca Murphy, the hair level chart helps your stylist establish what hair colors are within reach, how many lightening sessions the coloring process will require, and the best way to color-match your extensions. The universal hair level system also keeps communication consistent among beauty pros worldwide.

Good hair day by @naturallyalybabe.

What Is My Hair Level?

Consulting a professional colorist is the best way to find your hair level, especially when considering a dramatic color transformation. But if you can’t make it to the salon, here are three strategies that can help you nail down your hair level at home.

Method 1: The natural light test

Step into a room with an abundance of natural light or go outside in a sunny area. Take a section of hair and hold it away from your scalp. You should be able to clearly see how light or dark your hair is. If you use a mirror to get a better view, don’t be alarmed if your hair looks different indoors than it does outdoors. The lighting, as well as the magnification on your mirror (if applicable) may impact what you see.

Method 2: The hair level chart comparison

This is probably the easiest way to find your hair level. All you need to do is compare a section of your hair to a hair level chart (which you can find online). Keep in mind that it is possible to have a few different hair color levels throughout your mane, particularly if you have highlights, bleached, or gray hair. You may want to compare multiple hair sections for a more accurate look at where your strands fall on the spectrum.

Method 3: The black-and-white photo trick

If you still haven't figured out your hair level, Matrix Ambassador Kara Williams suggests a hack that may do the trick. Snap a picture of your hair and convert it to black and white. Then, download a photo of the hair level chart and transform that to black and white, too. Place the two images side by side, and you should be able to determine which level your hair closely matches. This is especially useful for those with red or fantasy hair hues since the hair level chart measures your hair’s darkness, not the intensity of your color.

Good hair day by @hairbykatielouisee.

What Is Hair Tone?

Hair color consists of both level and tone. While level is all about how dark or light your hair is, tone refers to the underlying pigment of your hair. You may hear your colorist describe your tone as “warm” or “cool.” Cool hair typically has silver or blueish undertones, while warm hair has a more red or golden tint.

Good hair day by @witch.shades.

How Do I Know What My Hair Tone Is?

An easy way to tell if you have a warm or cool hair tone is to stand in the sun and see if your hair reflects a warmer pigment or a cooler, ashier tone, explains Murphy. Shades like golden brown, copper, and strawberry blonde, for example, are considered warm. Mushroom brown, platinum blonde, and black, meanwhile, typically lean cool. If you’re having trouble pinpointing your tone, a stylist should be able to help you determine whether your hair is cooler or warmer.

Good hair day by @georgiahaverty_.

How To Choose the Best Hair Color

When choosing a hair color, you’ll need to consider your current hair level and tone—both will affect the end result.

“Hair color is not one size fits all. And box color makes a lot of people think that if you pick up Ravishing Red, you’ll get Ravishing Red,” says Williams. But really, “it’s based on the type of hair you have on your head and the process it’ll take to get you there.”

When formulating hair color, Williams starts by identifying the client’s current hair level and evaluating their target shade. Then, she’ll develop a plan to transform her client’s hair to the desired shade, using lighteners, dyes, toners, or a mixture of all three.

Depending on where you are starting, there may be limits on what you can achieve. Typically, you don’t want to lighten your hair more than four levels in a single session—doing so can damage your strands. If you’re looking to undergo a major transformation—think dark brown to platinum blonde—it’s likely you’ll need to bleach your hair more than once in a few different sessions. Because it’s so drastic, this type of transformation is best left in a professional’s hands.

Should I go cooler or warmer?

While you should feel free to try any hair color that speaks to you, pros typically recommend coordinating your hair color with your skin’s undertones. If you have warm-toned skin, Murphy suggests opting for golden-toned colors to help bring out your skin’s natural warmth. Those with cool-toned skin, meanwhile, tend to fare well with cooler, ashier hair colors. Again, this is just a general rule of thumb—at the end of the day, you should embrace whatever hue makes you feel the most confident.

Good hair day by @mikedecanter.

How To Care For Color-Treated Hair

Once you’ve achieved your desired hue, you’ll want to revamp your at-home haircare routine to keep your color vibrant between touch-ups.

Look for products formulated for color-treated hair, like the Matrix Keep Me Vivid Sulfate-Free Shampoo and Conditioner. We recommend this system because it works to increase shine and help your hair color last for up to 21 washes. If you’re embracing a cooler blonde shade, consider snagging Redken Blondage Shampoo, too. It helps neutralize brassy tones to help keep blonde hair bright between salon visits.

L’Oréal Professionnel Metal Detox line is also a favorite among pros—it’s particularly beneficial for those who live in an area where hard water is common. Discover the benefits of this detoxifying line and learn how to use it in our L’Oréal Professionnel Serie Metal Detox Review.

Finally, keep in mind that coloring your hair can make your strands feel dry and straw-like, especially if you’re lightening your hair level. To help keep your hair feeling healthy and hydrated, we suggest incorporating a nourishing mask into your weekly routine. Try L’Oréal Professionnel Absolut Repair Protein Treatment Mask—the protein-infused formula strengthens, softens, and adds shine to dry, damaged hair.

Hair Levels: The Bottom Line

Understanding your hair levels will better prepare you for your salon appointment and help you set realistic goals on what to expect. During a consultation, your colorist can guide you through simple methods to find your hair level before mixing up a true-to-you hair color formula. And remember: Stocking up on salon-quality formulas can help you extend the results of your beautifully customized color, day in and day out.

Next Up: What Is My Hair Type? Here’s How To Find Out Once And For All

Use our salon locator to book an appointment with a hair color pro near you.

Header photo credits (left to right): @naturallyalybabe and

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