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Permanent Vs. Semi-Permanent Hair Color: Which Is Right for You?

two women with permanent hair color and bleached hair

So, you’re thinking about going from brunette to blonde…or blonde to red. Maybe a more original color, like mulled wine or ash brown, is more your style. No matter the look you’re going for, have you ever wondered how your stylist gets your hair from your current shade to where you want it to be—not to mention, just how long that color will last and what effect it has on your strands?

Before balayage or ombre, there are just two very basic techniques every stylist applies to all hair color: permanent hair color or semi-permanent hair color. Each time you share photos of your goal shade, your colorist chooses one (or sometimes both) of these processes to achieve your new look, no matter how drastically different it might be.

Leeanne Shade, Matrix brand ambassador and pro stylist, explains exactly what you need to know before your next round of permanent and semi-permanent hair color.

Good hair day by @colorwithgrace.

Permanent Hair Color

Ready to go all-in on your new hue? Permanent color is a serious way to achieve a rich, lasting shade.

What is permanent hair color?

Permanent hair color uses ammonia to permanently change the melanin—aka pigment—in your natural hair color. It’s mixed with a developer to open the hair cuticles on the surface of the hair; when the cuticles reseal, the color’s there to stay.

What’s it used for?

Stylists use permanent color as a long-term solution to cover gray hair, lighten or darken hair multiple levels, or completely change the color of your hair.

How long does permanent hair color last?

Because permanent hair color alters the structure of your hair, it lasts until you re-dye or cut your hair. It won’t wash out with a few shampoos, and it won’t fade with time. That’s why it’s really only used for serious color changes. If you go more than one visible shade lighter, you’ll need to head to the salon about every six weeks for a root touch-up.

Pro Tip: While permanent color doesn’t fade over time, it will lose its vibrancy and luster. To keep your new hair color rich and bright, reach for only color-safe shampoos and conditioners.

Good hair day by @avhair_.

Semi-Permanent Hair Color

If you’re more commitment-shy about a new shade or are looking for an option that’s a bit more natural or gentler on sensitive strands, semi-permanent color might be for you.

What is semi-permanent hair color?

Semi-permanent color is a sheer coating that subtly and temporarily changes the appearance of your current hair color. This low-maintenance hair treatment doesn’t contain the ammonia found in permanent hair color, so it doesn’t enter the hair shaft and won’t physically alter your hair. Because it’s deposited on top of the hair, semi-permanent color fades after a few washes. It’s often used in hair glosses and color rinses.

What’s it used for?

If you’ve ever blended visible gray hairs or applied a color mask, you’ve likely already used semi-permanent color. Semi-permanent color is used by salons to add depth to your color, grow out permanent color, or add gloss and shine to your strands. “It can even create a highlighted look, depending on the hair and the shade selected,” Shade says.

Is semi-permanent hair dye damaging?

Unlike permanent color, semi-permanent hair color doesn’t penetrate the hair shaft—so it isn’t as damaging to strands. However, because it fades more quickly, you may need to apply it more frequently to maintain your color, which can be damaging to hair over time. Be sure to talk to your stylist to determine the best way to maintain your hair’s integrity and health when coloring.

Does semi-permanent hair dye wash out completely?

Semi-permanent color begins to gradually fade after four to 12 shampoos. The more porous your hair, the longer your color will last. Ask your stylist for a conditioner or mask that contains color-depositing pigments to extend the tone of your hair color between appointments. Plan to return to the salon in about four to 10 weeks depending on your personal preferences.

What’s the difference between semi-permanent and demi-permanent hair color?

Unlike semi-permanent color, demi-permanent hair color contains a low level of ammonia and is usually mixed with a low-volume developer. It gently opens the surface of the hair to deposit color, so it generally lasts a bit longer (12 to 24 shampoos) before fading. It’s used in many of the same cases as semi-permanent color, in addition to enhancing your natural color, darkening, or lowlighting hair.

Good hair day by @tonixxbatham.

Do I need to use bleach?

Bleach hair color, aka lightener, is a chemical that lifts color from your strands. It’s used to strip away a previous shade or create a blank base for a bright color. You may also need to use bleach if you need more lift (salon speak for going lighter) than what you’d get from a permanent color for what’s known as a double process, Shade notes.

Although lighteners get a bad rap for damaging hair and leaving it dry and crunchy, Shade says that a stylist with years of experience who’s properly examined your hair should have no problem leaving it looking beautiful and feeling healthy.

When bleaching hair, your stylist will typically reach for a semi-permanent toner post bleach in order to combat the undertones that can pull through when lightening hair.

So which option is right for me?

Should you ask your stylist for permanent or semi-permanent color? Here’s what you need to know to make an informed decision:

Permanent hair color

Permanent hair color is stylists’ pick for serious color changes. Choose it if you’re making a long-term commitment to your shade and want to:

  • Significantly lighten or darken your hair
  • Completely change the color of your hair
  • Cover greys completely

Semi-permanent hair color

Semi-permanent hair dye is usually best if want to change your color just a shade or two, are extra concerned about damaging sensitive hair, and don’t mind an option that eventually washes out. You may opt for it if you want to:

  • Blend highlights with your base color
  • Correct off-tone color (like blonde that’s gone brassy)
  • Refresh faded hair color
  • Temporarily touch up roots
  • Grow out permanent color
  • Blend grays
  • Add shine and tone to dry or dull hair

Still not sure? The quickest way to find out if semi-permanent or permanent hair color is best for you is to ask an expert! Ask your stylist to take a peek at your hair and discuss your goals together to figure out which option will give you a color that’s just right for you.

Interested in a permanent or semi permanent color change? Use our salon locator to book an appointment at a salon near you.

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