Set Free - The Book About Hair by Richard Stein


Color Me Carefully


Color used to be a sort of flat "mask" used by women who wanted to have more Set Free - The Book about Hair by Richard Steinfun as a blonde or thought they were cheating age by covering gray. In short, it was seen as a kind of cure for self-image problems.

This is--thank heavens!--changing. Now coloring is much more likely to be used strategically for its visual textural appeal--to enhance a cut by lending volume and body and perhaps emphasizing some aspect of it, to highlight the face and eyes (and "lift" skin tone), and to give interest and movement to the hair itself. It is also used because it's fun--makeup for the hair--that brings a welcome lightheartedness to the business of getting your hair looking terrific and keeping it that way.

We have the new technologies to thank for this flexibility. All kinds of temporary color--cellophanes, rinses, hennas, hair mascara, spray-on color--have made hair coloring a more inviting adventure. Even one-step permanent coloring has supplanted the two-step process of stripping the hair and then coloring it.


What people don't understand is that with today's technology a colorist is able to give you almost anything you want--pink, green, stripes...anything. As a client, therefore, you must be more thoughtful about the effect you want--and work closely with your colorist--so that within the nearly limitless range of possibilities you get exactly the effect you are looking for. Some of the new rinses (semipermanent color--see below for definitions) can be very useful for goof-proof experimentation that will come out after a couple of washings.

It is also important to consider the grow-out period before you take the plunge. Do you want to continue coloring, or are you looking for a "one shot" that will grow out gracefully? People who have colored their hair for years often continue to do so simply because they can't deal with the grow-out...or are afraid to find out how much gray they actually have. This seems a poor reason to go on doing something that can damage your hair.

We also have new techniques for doing the actual coloring; I think it would be fair to say it's much more an art than it ever was, with a great range of choice about what to do and how to do it. We can highlight, henna, warm, or brighten natural color. We can blend shades (sometimes as many as six) and layer--or grade--color for a much more natural look...or a special effect. We can cover just the gray or change the natural color completely. All this said, I still must reiterate that there is nothing more magnetic or enhancing than a beautifully cut and styled head of natural--yes, especially that gray/white/salt-and-pepper--hair that is clean, fresh-smelling, and lively.


I encourage people to show the gray. First of all, even if you do want to color it away, it is important to know just where it is, and most people color the whole head rather than just the hair that needs it. Not only does this spot approach make maintenance easier, but you avoid color buildup (which damages the hair and makes it look dull and gummy) because you are isolating the areas to be treated and lengthening the time between coloring. Also think in terms of lightening and brightening your own hair color instead of covering the gray; you can use semipermanent hair color without peroxide that makes the nongray hair very shiny and makes the gray "read" as highlights.

Never pull out your gray hair. You're not going to stop the natural signs of aging, but you are potentially damaging the hair follicles, and the older you get, the more you're going to need every hair you've got...whatever its color.


So many coloring terms are tossed around that sometimes it's hard to know what someone is suggesting. Here are some explanations that should help you decide what to do with your hair.


Cellophanes--or "jazzing," as it is sometimes called--is a new color technique in which the hair shaft is coated with what are sometimes pretty outlandish colors.

Cellophane colors can be "placed" and are therefore a good deal easier to control than all-over color. They stick well but don't lift natural hair color (this means no roots). Cellophanes don't work well on treated or very pale blond or gray hair, but they are a good way to get your feet wet with color.


Gel colors are the lightweights: very temporary, hardly lasting from one shampoo to the next. They work well on white or gray hair and are especially suited to shorter styles that have a natural highlight, where the "laid over" color is more noticeable.

If you're interested in some of the less conventional colors, try aubergine, real red, or maybe even plum. That will turn heads!


Henna is a natural reddish vegetable dye that has been used at least since Egyptian times on the hair and body. The most primitive (and efficient) method of applying henna to hair was to make a thick paste of it and then apply it to the hair every hour during the heat of the day so the color was baked in. Nowadays, with the help of hairdryers, henna can be applied in forty-five minutes. The same paste is painted on the hair and covered with a plastic bag; then you sit under the dryer until you have just the right shade.

Nowadays, too, you can get henna in black and a honey-yellow color as well as the traditional red. Henna coats the hair shaft, so it can be protective, especially in the sun. It is also possible, however, to overhenna, so that the dye builds up, resulting in a Technicolor effect. Too much henna can cause terrible breakage; I have seen whole heads of hair broken off at the roots.

Henna lasts about eight weeks, depending on how often you wash your hair.

P.S. If you henna at home, never mix the henna preparation with any other synthetic dyes. You may end up with an unrecognizable mat of used-to-be-hair.


This has also been called streaking and frosting. The intention is to give a natural, sun-streaked effect by lightening and then using a series of different colors that will blend with the natural color.

Streaking used to be done in a rather barbaric fashion, using a plastic cap through which pieces of hair were pulled with a crochet hook. Not only did it hurt, but it often produced a striped effect. The foil method is more likely to be used now: very fine strands of hair are treated and wrapped in foil, which gives the colorist a good deal more control than the older method.

Hair painting is similar to highlighting. It's a technique in which smaller areas (usually just the front) are handpainted with color. Bleach isn't used.


This is probably one of the safest ways to dress up the hair with fun colors. However, it works best on hair that is not heavily dyed or peroxided. It can stain somewhat, but generally it's effective for some hot streaks at night. Hair mascara works with all hair color types.

I endorse this kind of color most strongly, as it is probably the safest and most natural to use. Just make sure to treat the hair with conditioner after use.


The fundamental difference between a permanent and semipermanent color (or rinse) is that permanent color contains peroxide and ammonia, so it changes the structure of the hair (by removing its outer coating) to prepare it to take the final color. Permanent color will give 100 percent coverage to graying hair and can be used to lighten hair, too (which cannot be done with any but permanent color).

Semipermanent color (rinse) coats rather than penetrates the hair shaft, but because it does not lighten hair, it doesn't fade like peroxide color. It is, however, a bit more permanent than is usually represented, lasting about two months; so be careful.

Rinses are easy on the hair and great to use for all kinds of relatively temporary needs: trying out a new color (I almost always recommend them over permanent color for a first-timer); covering gray (they will cover about 20 percent of gray hair); or doing an interim coloring job while a problem grows out.


So you want a change. What are your options? Blonds almost always want to go lighter and brighter. Brunettes may think they want lighter hair or streaks; what they usually need is warmer highlights--ambers, russets, or even a tortoiseshell blend of lighter and darker. Women with gray hair most often simply want it gone...and may do much more than is necessary to get rid of it. (You presumably want to get rid of the problem, not necessarily change your hair color entirely.)

In each case the issue is not only what color to use and how much of it, but the placement of that color for maximum effect and least overall processing. The trend now is to keep color somewhat away from the scalp (I feel that this "double-tone" effect gives a depth to the hair) and to vary it, either in shade or intensity or placement.

Do be aware that coloring will change the feel of your hair. The nice way of describing this alteration is that it gives more volume and body; the less appealing way is to say that the hair feels "heavy." Permanent hair coloring actually swells the hair shaft as it penetrates (except with the lightest and darkest colors, which tend to make the hair limp), literally making the hair thicker. You may find, therefore, that coloring your hair will make it more manageable. The trick here is to avoid color buildup: less is more.


It's virtually impossible to comment on complete color changes, except to note that they are hard on your hair, hard to achieve (with any semblance of naturalness), and hard to keep up. Much more practical and versatile are the subtler kinds of coloring that enhance your hair's (and your skin's) natural color.

Following are suggestions and recipes for color enhancements (and recommendations for dealing with gray) for every shade of hair--both at home and in the salon. If you are color treating, by the way, keeping your hair shiny is difficult. That's why I'm beginning with an all-purpose hair gentler for color-treated hair that you can use in conjunction with the rest of the remedies (where directed). It will leave your hair wonderfully clean and shiny even after a couple of shampoos.

Molasses Treatment for Color Enhancement

Shampoo and towel-dry hair. Mix 2 tablespoons of blackstrap molasses with 1 tablespoon conditioner. (For longer hair, double the recipe.) Apply to hair and blend through from roots to ends.

Leave on 20 minutes (try relaxing in the bathtub) and rinse thoroughly.


  • AT HOME: To brighten hair, mix ordinary (2 percent) hydrogen peroxide with lemon juice in a spray bottle. Spray into hair and rinse. This gives body and shine with little actual color change.
  • AT THE SALON: Because your own coloring is likely to be very fair, your colorist should highlight your hair in very pale blond. This must be done carefully because your hair is likely to be fragile. If your hair is also thin or fine, avoid any kind of all-over color, which will only make it seem thinner and finer.
  • FOR GRAY: Highlighting in pale blond is the best way to deal with this shade of graying hair.
  • AT HOME: Same as light blond hair, but add the molasses treatment. Don't worry about the color of the molasses; it rinses out completely.
  • AT THE SALON: The best method for virtually maintenance-free hair color is to highlight, especially by picking up (or picking out) the "line" of your styling.
  • FOR GRAY: Because I am so partial to warm enhancements (especially for aging hair and skin), I like to see honey tones added to blond-gray hair, rather than those silvery-looking frosts.
  • AT HOME: Mix the molasses treatment with three tablespoons of strong chamomile tea. Saturate hair, then leave mixture on for one hour with a plastic bag over it (to retain heat and moisture).

    You'll end up with gentle blond highlights...and lots of shine and body.

  • AT THE SALON: Light brown hair is the chameleon of the hair family: you can do almost anything with it colorwise. You may want ashy highlights or a warmer, Titian color--either all over or just highlighting the face. Think creatively about "sprays" of color--especially at the ends of the hair. Or, if your hair is healthy, you may want to go all out with one of the newer tortoiseshell or layered colors.
  • FOR GRAY: Consider a semipermanent rinse... not to cover the gray, but to blend it in and make it look like highlighting. For gray, always use warm tones that are a few shades lighter than your own.
  • AT HOME: Consider applying henna to your hair; you can buy home henna kits wherever you get personal care and beauty items.

    Henna can be tricky on lighter hair because as a vegetable dye it has an unpredictable uptake and can color unevenly. With darker hair, however, this isn't a problem. Henna will give your hair body, sheen, and wonderful russet highlights...and it's good for it.

    Henna treatments should last about eight weeks, depending on how often you wash your hair.

  • AT THE SALON: With your darker hair, you have lots more room to play around with color. You may even want to try one of the more daring color rinses or cellophane colors, like raspberry, aubergine, or sunflower yellow. These colors lie over your own, look perfectly smashing when, the light hits a certain way, and are nearly invisible at other times. If you want to have some fun, yours is the ideal hair color for it.
  • FOR GRAY: If you have 10-20 percent gray, use a non-hydrogen peroxide rinse that is a couple of shades lighter than your own (nongray) hair. This formula will not change the color of the brown (although it will brighten it), but it will turn the gray hair into soft highlights.

    If you have 25-50 percent gray, and are determined to be rid of it, you need a detailed consultation with your colorist. Permanent color will be required, and this means more color maintenance at the salon and considerably more care and vigilance on your part: you should use a nonstripping shampoo and always condition, and you need to remember that both sun and chlorine will have a damaging effect on hair color as well as the hair itself.

  • AT HOME: Henna is the best thing for you to use. Try the red shades for auburn highlights, blond shades for body and shine.
  • AT THE SALON: Experiment as above or go for red highlights (not blond--they turn coppery in a very unappealing way). Highlighting is still a good way to give the illusion that all your hair is lighter without having to strip it down and recolor it.
  • FOR GRAY: Resist the temptation to resort to permanent all-over color; nature knows best when she fades our hair with the rest of us as we age, and there is nothing older or harder--or more artificial looking--than dark-dyed hair.

    Stick with a couple of shades lighter than your natural color for a rinse to make the gray look like lighter streaks. And if you have so much gray that you are considering a complete color change, speak to your colorist. S/he needs to know not only about your hair, but about your life-style: How often do you shampoo? Are you active in sports so that your hair is exposed to water and sunlight? How do you intend to wear it? The safest choice in these cases is a warm color, which tends to last longer and look better when it is "insulted."


Once again, even if you are using something other than permanent color, these are chemicals, and chemicals can cause trouble. There is always at least a little damage when you color your hair, and you need to think about this when you take care of that hair as well as when you get the color redone.

Color--even permanent color--will fade just from washing; if you get out into the sun, you will see changes from oxidation much more quickly (your hair may lighten up to two whole shades--which is never a good idea unless you have one of the few reds that actually improve in the sun). Ordinarily, you want to avoid coloring more than once every six months... and it can take a year for real damage to grow out.

It is, of course, much easier to keep tabs on the condition of your hair--and to control the recoloring schedule--if you don't succumb to coloring your whole head. Rely instead on spot coloring to keep your hair looking good, and you will be rewarded with more natural-looking hair as well as painless grow-out. (People seem much less worried about roots showing these days, perhaps because we have grown used to the multicolored effects.)

Here is a special conditioner you may want for your hair if you use color:

Rum Conditioner
2 egg yolks1 tablespoon rum
Beat egg yolks until lemon-colored, then add rum and beat again. Massage through hair and wrap in towel. Leave on for half an hour while relaxing in the tub, then shampoo and rinse thoroughly with cool water.

Set Free - The Book about Hair by Richard Stein

Richard Stein Hair Salon, New York City

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