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

Pro stylist Leeanne Shade explains exactly what you need to know before your next round of permanent and semi-permanent hair color.

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. Regardless of 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? Are you also curious about how long that color will last and its effect on your strands?

Before balayage or ombre, every stylist applies two basic techniques to all hair color: permanent hair color or semi-permanent hair color. When you share inspirational photos of your new look, your colorist will choose one or both processes to achieve it, no matter how drastically different they may be.

We tapped Leeanne Shade, pro stylist, to explain what you need to know before your next round of permanent or semi-permanent hair color.

Good hair day by @live_love_dohair.

What is the difference between permanent and semi-permanent hair dye?

The main difference between permanent and semi-permanent hair dye is that permanent color enters the cortex of strands, altering their structure and color indefinitely. On the other hand, semi-permanent hair color simply sits on the hair’s surface to enhance shine, tone hair, and refresh color, gradually fading over time.

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—a.k.a. 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 close, the color remains.

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 modifies 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 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 color-safe shampoos and conditioners like Biolage Professional’s Color Last Shampoo and Moisturizing Conditioner. They take inspiration from the anti-fade properties of the vibrant orchid to help protect hair, balance moisture, and even out the hair’s surface for saturated, vibrant color.

Even if using the right products, washing your hair too frequently can cause color to dull more quickly. To extend the time in between your washes, we recommend using a dry shampoo like Redken Deep Clean Dry Shampoo Jumbo to help your looks look and feel fresh in the meantime.

Semi-Permanent Hair Color

Suppose 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. In that case, semi-permanent hair color might be for you. Semi-permanent color is also great to try out a fantasy hair trend.

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 ammonia like 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.

Do salons use semi-permanent hair color?

All the time! If you’ve ever blended visible gray hairs or applied a color mask, you’ve likely already used semi-permanent color. Salons use semi-permanent color 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.

Which is better for your hair, permanent or semi-permanent?

It’s natural to wonder whether semi-permanent hair dye is better than permanent, but the truth is that each has its own advantages.

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 the 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 less 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. Our go-to is Biolage Professional’s Color Depositing Conditioner, available in seven shades.

Looking to keep brassiness undertones at bay? Look no further than a buildable toning spray, like Matrix’s All-In-One Toning Leave In Spray. Opt for So Silver to banish yellow tones in blonde, silver, and gray hair, and pick up Brass Off to neutralize orange tinges that creep into lightened brunette or dark blonde hair.

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 requires a developer or a low volume of hydrogen peroxide to gently open the hair's surface and deposit color. This means it generally lasts a bit longer (12 to 24 shampoos) before fading. It's used in many cases as semi-permanent color, in addition to enhancing your natural color, darkening, or lowlighting hair.

If you’re interested in trying out demi-permanent hair color, ask your colorist about Redken Shades EQ Hair Gloss. These ammonia-free formulas are a mix of direct and oxidative dyes that provide results in just 20 minutes. Whether you want a tone change, a color correction, or a brand new hue without less commitment, the Shades EQ line does it all. Plus, they contain amino acids that help to condition the hair and leave it looking super shiny.


Acidic Bonding Concentrate Intensive Treatment

An intensive acidic rinse-off treatment that helps reinforce weak hair bonds and repair damaged hair.

Do I need to use bleach?

Bleach hair color, a.k.a. lightener, is a chemical that lifts color from your strands. It strips away a previous shade or creates a blank base for a bright color. You may 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. We also suggest using a treatment to reinforce bleach-weakened hair bonds at home, like Redken Acidic Bonding Concentrate Intensive Treatment. This highly reparative rinse-off formula works within your hair to strengthen hair bonds weakened by stressors like hair color and lightening. Your hair will be smoother, conditioned, and healthier-looking in as little as 10 minutes.

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

Good hair day by @beth_hairsociety.

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 you want to subtly change your color, are concerned about damaging sensitive hair, and don’t mind it eventually washing 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! Schedule a consultation and 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? Shop for professional products to keep your shade healthy at home.

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