- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 4, 2002

Hair to dye for but at what cost? How many people who routinely color their hair a shade different from what nature intended really understand the processes involved?
Let's look at the world of the hair colorist. It is painterly as well as scientific. Like painters, commercial manufacturers and professional hairdressers (who usually prefer to be called stylists or colorists, depending on their specialty) refer to "tones" or "shades" and "levels" of color. Like scientists, they learn the contents and proper use of chemicals and other agents that cause the hair to change color, all part of the field of cosmetology, which includes cosmetic treatments of all kinds.
So the first thing consumers should know are the terms used by professional colorists and manufacturers to denote the steps in the coloring process. Consumers should know, too, what kind of chemical and material alterations take place when hair color is changed artificially.
"You start by learning basic color theory in addition to knowing what chemicals you are putting on the hair," says Jefferson Wilson about a colorist's education. Mr. Wilson, a senior stylist at the Axis salon in Dupont Circle, attended the Graham Webb Academy in Rosslyn, a professional trade school.
"We talk about levels of lift or lightening," Mr. Wilson says. He explains that "level one," the darkest, is black, and "level 11," the lightest, is platinum. A "level 4G," with "G" denoting a golden tone, means a medium- to light-brown with a golden base to it.
"Lifting is the process of stripping color out of the hair and lightening it up a level," he says. "Color deposits a tone."
Some commercial manufacturers of hair color, such as Clairol, use the word "level" on the front of the box to denote the various intensities and length of treatment.
Much depends on a customer's natural or "presenting" hair color and the color or shade he or she hopes to achieve. In every case, the final result has to do with the amount of natural pigment or melanin in the hair and the chemical makeup of the dye. Different dye pigments have different molecular formations that cause them to penetrate the hair shaft with different results.
Confusion also surrounds the use of the words "semi" permanent and "demi" permanent. "Demi" is the longer-lasting. Although in everyday speech the words are interchangeable, among colorists they refer to two different processes.
How permanent is any coloring process, and which is desirable? It depends on what the customer wants.
A temporary color merely coats the outside of the hair shaft and will wash out in the next shampoo. It has definite limitations.
"If your hair is dark, and you want to be blond, it won't happen with temporary color. Chemicals can only do a certain amount, although you can push it on certain occasions," says colorist Andrea Earls of Subairi Hair Salon on R Street NW. "Temporary is good if there is gray and you want to touch it up for the night without the time to get to a hairstylist."

A semipermanent color, which lasts for only a few shampoos, contains a developer that opens the cuticle of the hair (the hair's outer layer, which protects the inside of the hair shaft from damage) only slightly. it may be a good choice for people wanting to try out a color, to get a different tone, Ms. Earls says. The developer in this case is a low-strength hydrogen peroxide buffered with conditioners. When a coloring agent is mixed with a developer, which contains varying amounts of hydrogen peroxide, the resulting oxidation effects a chemical change.
The essential color-forming ingredients in the dye are known, in technical terms, as primary intermediates. They consist mainly of the synthetic chemical para-phenylenediamine, according to retired research chemist John Corbett, formerly of Clairol and now a consultant for the Cosmetic, Toiletry & Fragrance Association in Washington. Para-phenylenediamine combines with hydrogen peroxide the oxidizer to bring about the greatest color change. In salon treatment, the oxidizer is kept in a separate package until just before application.
Both demipermanent and permanent colors contain ammonia in varying degrees the cause of the pungent smell associated with a permanent coloring process. Ammonia, which is in the color base, assists in the reaction that occurs when hydrogen peroxide mixes with the coloring agents and also swells the hair.
Demipermanent color has less hydrogen peroxide than the so-called permanent color, but in both processes, the cuticle is opened so color molecules can penetrate into the hair shaft, Ms. Earls explains.
"You are dealing with smaller molecules that will penetrate under the cuticle layer," she says. "Most color molecules are long and narrow, whereas red dyes have a diamond shape, so they don't always color as easily, and the color doesn't last as long, and red is extremely light-sensitive and will fade quickly. That has been the manufacturers' biggest challenge in creating attractive, longer-lasting dyes.
"Europe still has a red dye that was banned by the United States in the 1970s because of the cancer scare associated with all red dyes and forced red M&Ms; off the market, for instance. That's when manufacturers here were forced to manipulate the shape of molecules in the dye as a substitute for what is no longer in use under federal food and drug laws."
Annie Humphreys, the London-based director of color and technical research for the Vidal Sassoon salons, says permanent color is much more advanced than it used to be, and much milder.
"It has got lots of buffers in it. It is permanent in that it doesn't come out when you shampoo, although obviously it will fade because of the weather and other things."
She defines a demi- or quasipermanent color as "basically a non-lift color, a deposit-only color. It does not wash out, but it does not lighten your own hair. It has been very cleverly marketed so that many people think it is semipermanent, but it still has an oxidation in it which means it stays in the hair. True semipermanent color is basically a stain because it doesn't actually go into the cuticle or the hair. It lies between outer cuticle layers and gradually comes out."

A third issue is understanding the difference in contents between the commercial product sold over the counter in retail stores and the products that wholesale manufacturers sell to hair salons. Not surprisingly, given their need to attract customers, most professional stylists say the two have little in common.
However, according to Mr. Corbett, there is "not an enormous difference" in the makeup of home vs. salon products, except that the former will contain a pre-mixed chemical reactive agent a combination of ammoniated pigment and peroxide in a permanent process that in the salon are mixed together only at the last minute for better control of results.
"The color-forming materials are the same," Mr. Corbett says, "only the formulations are done so the hairdresser has more flexibility in achieving different shades. Retail brands point out that results are dependent on what color your hair is to begin with, but you can't go too wrong, as a rule, because after 30 minutes, nothing much will happen." He qualifies this by saying it is extremely difficult to change black hair color at home, what he calls "turning around with a box."
Mr. Wilson maintains that "it is the luck of the draw" whether home treatment can measure up to the colorist's more practiced eye.
"The number one rule in hair color," he says, is that "color alone does not [change] hair color unless you are darkening your hair. If you have had a permanent overall process to become a brunette and want to change to blond, you first have to strip the brown color and start over to get a new shade."
Happily, the second rule is that "color can always be corrected in some fashion."

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