How to Dye Your Own Hair From a Box (but Look Like You Paid a Pro)

A woman's red hair blows in the wind.
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My first experience dyeing my hair at home was when I was about 14. It was messy and difficult, but afterward my hair was a beautiful shade of red and I felt super awesome, albeit I had random splodges of red on my face and neck.

That was the beginning of a beautiful relationship that’s spanned more than 20 years.

I’ve tried all the shades of red, a variety of blacks during my goth phase (blue black, purple black, black black, you name it), and a few purples. I’ve use cream dyes and mousse dyes. I’ve had some disasters where my roots were a vivid shade of orange while the rest of my hair was a muted red. But I keep coming back to the dye.

The main reason for my box dye obsession is that I really hate the thought of paying someone a lot of money to do something I can do myself. I’ve had my hair colored in a salon before, and I did love the results. But I love my own dye jobs equally, and they cost a fraction of the price. And even though I’ve dyed my hair for two decades, my hairdressers over the years have always commented on the healthiness of my hair.

7 Tips for Using Box Dye Without Looking Cheap

If you’re wondering how to ditch the pricy salon and get professional-looking color at home, check out my tips.

1. Choose Your Color Carefully

If you’re going for a color close to your current shade, home dye should work well. But if you’re planning to go drastically different, the salon is still your best bet, despite the cost. While I use box dye when coloring my hair any dark color, I have gone to my hairdresser and paid for a professional job when I wanted a lighter shade.

When you choose your box dye color, don’t assume your color will look exactly the same as the model’s on the box. You’re better off looking at the color charts, which show what the color will look like depending on your current color.

If your current color isn’t listed on the box, that’s not the color for you. Put the box dye down and keep looking.

2. Use a Bowl and Brush When You Apply

Most home dyes have you apply the mixture to your hair using the bottle’s nozzle. But using a bowl for the dye and a brush for application is much easier and results in a more professional-looking color. A brush allows you to spread the dye on your hair evenly, whereas using the bottle may result in patchiness (ask me how I know this).

You can find these tools at your nearest beauty supply store. Alternatively, you can use an old plastic food storage container to mix the dye. Just make sure you only use it for this purpose moving forward.

3. Make Sure You Have Enough Product

My hair is fairly thick and comes down to about my bra strap. I use two boxes when I color my hair. In the past I have only bought one box and run out of dye, which meant the final product was patchy and just plain gross-looking.

When my hair was cut in a bob, I could get away with one box.

If you have thick or long (or thick AND long) hair, I’d recommend buying two boxes, or even three, to be safe.

4. Use Protection

No matter how many times you color your own hair, you can almost guarantee you’ll get some on your clothes every time. I wear a ratty old Backstreet Boys T-shirt and a pair of old shorts when I’m dying my hair. I also wrap a towel around my neck and make sure the vanity is clear of junk that could get splattered with dye.

Most importantly, I make sure I have the gloves handy that come with the box of dye. Since I use two boxes, I wear one pair of gloves when applying the dye and the other pair when rinsing.

During the dyeing process, I keep a spare towel close by to wipe up any spills or splatters on my skin, the floor or the wall (yep, that’s happened before) as soon as they happen. If I don’t get to them quickly, they will leave permanent marks and then I have to listen to my husband complaining.

5. Section Your Hair

Don’t just apply hair dye all willy-nilly. The best way to get a thorough application and avoid patchiness is to part your hair into four sections: two in the front and two in the back. Use clips to keep the sections in place while you work on your hair.

Start from the back two sections of hair, clipping them back up as you go. Doing it this way means that the dye will be on the back sections longer, which helps your dye job look more natural since the back of your hair tends to be naturally darker than the front.

6. Rinse Well

The first thing I do when I get in the shower after the timer rings is wet my hair a tiny bit and massage the dye in as I would with shampoo. This ensures the dye is spread evenly and helps your color look more professional. If you have any dye left in the bottle, you can apply the remainder in the shower and massage it through. Do this for a few minutes, and then rinse thoroughly.

After rinsing, I shampoo my hair to get rid of any residue on my scalp and neck. This also helps get rid of excess dye so your hair won’t stain your towel and clothes as much while drying. You’ll undoubtedly still leave marks on your towel but they will come out in a regular wash.

Make sure you use the conditioner provided in the box, as well. Leave it on for a few minutes while you shower, and rinse thoroughly. The conditioner will make your hair super soft, and it will also seal your hair’s cuticles, which prevents the color from developing even further.

7. Leave It Alone

The more often you wash your colored hair, the less time it will last. This is especially true with red dye, which fades fast. I never wash my hair more than every other day, and usually I try to make it a few days between washes. Some days can be gross, but I am not too good to blow dry the sweat from my hair after a workout or do two days in a row with dry shampoo.

Hair dye can completely change your look, even if you’re only going a couple of shades different from your natural color. Coloring your hair at home is a cheap alternative to the salon, but if you use these tips, it doesn’t have to look cheap.

Catherine Hiles is a writer, mother, runner and avid reader. She enjoys cooking (and eating), good beer and spending time with her husband and two young children.