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How To: Hair Color Palette

If you’ve ever bought boxed hair color or even overheard your hair stylist talking to another salon worker about hair color, there’s a good chance you’ve been perplexed by the seemingly arbitrary letter and number codes associated hair colors in a hair color palette. Believe it or not, however, there is a rather universal system in place to categorize and label different shades of semi-permanent hair color. By understanding the numbers and letters associated with the hair color palette you’ll be able to “speak the lingo” with your stylist and better communicate what you want the next time you get your hair colored.

How To: Hair Color Palette

Understanding Hair Color Levels

Hair color level refers to the darkness or lightness of the hair itself. This is indicated by a number scale that runs from 1-10, with 1 being the darkest and 10 being the lightest. Specifically, a hair color level of 1 would indicate black hair, where a hair color level of 10 would be in reference to very light blonde hair. For platinum blondes and unnaturally light colors, numbers 11 through 13 may even be used to describe such levels.

Brunettes generally fall toward the middle of this scale, with dark browns classified as level 4 and light browns as level 6. Natural redheads typically fall somewhere between level 3 and level 7.


How To: Hair Color Palette

Understanding Hair Tone

Another important coding associated with hair color is that of hair tone. Darkness and lightness aside, hair tone refers to the color of the hair itself. Generally, natural hair colors will fall into one of three tone categories:

  • warm
  • cool
  • neutral

Some examples of cool hair tones would include beige or ash colors, whereas warmer tones may be described as copper, gold, red, or orange.


How To: Hair Color Palette

How They Work Together

With this in mind, you can now see how the letters and numbers associated with tone and level, respectively, are used to indicate hair color shades. Generally, a hair color letter/number combination will begin with the level number and end with the tone letter. For example, a neutral brown color may have the code 5N, whereas a warm blonde color may be indicated by 10W.

It’s important to note that some hair color manufacturers may have different coding systems in place, but all use the same basic premise. For example, makers of bolder, less-natural colors (such as purple or blue hair coloring) may have different letter codes to describe their hair tones.

However, by being aware of the basic ways in which hair coloring is coded, you should be able to better locate the select the specific shade you have in mind for your own hair.


How To: Hair Color Palette

Choosing the Right Color

Keep in mind that not every hair stylist will have the exact some opinion on hair color. For example, if you’re a brunette, one person may look at your hair and consider it a level 5, whereas another person might see it as a level 6. The same goes for tone; some stylists may see a specific tone as red, whereas another will see it as copper. However, most will be able to agree on a color code that’s relatively similar.

This is also where having access to sample hair swatches can come in handy. For example, the next time you’re at your favorite hair salon and looking to have your hair professionally colored, you might be thinking of going with a deep brownish-red shade (a 4RV, perhaps), but to ensure that you and your stylist are on the same page, you might choose your ideal color from a swatch book instead. This is a great way to confirm that you and your stylist are thinking of the same color, which will improve your chances of ending up with the color you want.


Of course, if you find yourself in a situation where you’re shopping for hair color online, knowing this coding system can also come in handy—providing you with greater confidence when you buy than simply looking at photos on your computer screen.

The hair color coding system may have seemed a bit intimidating at first, but now that you can see that it’s just a simple way to describe level and tone, it’s really quite simple. Now, you’ll be able to choose your next hair color with greater confidence!


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