Jessica Cormier
Updated on March 10, 2023

From uneven color to breaking hair, we all have heard many horror stories about how an at-home color with box dye had gone wrong. If you don’t understand what your hair color level is or what undertones it has, applying a chemical can escalate to a bad situation very quickly.

Read on to get a better understanding of hair color levels and underlying pigments, select the right color goals and avoid having a box dye horror story yourself.

Introduction to Hair Color Levels

The very first thing you must understand before coloring your hair is the levels of hair color. Natural hair colors are organized into levels from 1 – the darkest (black) to 10 – the lightest (blonde). You can discover your starting level by determining how close your hair is to black or blonde. For example, if your hair is a medium brown color, you may be a level 5, because it’s right in the middle between black and blonde. If your hair is a dark shade of blonde, you may be a level 7.

Hair Levels Chart

Instagram / @baileycarlsonhair

Mind that we speak about the levels of color (depth/lightness), not hair color itself! If the colors distract you from determining your hair level, take a photo of your hair and convert it to black and white image. This simple hack will let you know how dark or light your current hair color is.

Hack to Determine Hair Color Level

Instagram / @mrsegeland

The healthiest, fail-proof choice is to stay within 2 levels of your current hair color. But there are some important intricacies here too. For example, if you’re not looking for a major change in color, you can consider temporary hair dyes. However, know that these cannot achieve any type of lift in the hair. This means it’s going to show up best on hair levels 7 and higher. It doesn’t mean you can’t use it on your hair if your hair is darker than level 7 hair color; it just may not show up as noticeable (or at all) if your hair is darker.

Also, if you have previously colored hair and want to achieve an overall lighter look, please know that hair dye will not lighten previously dyed hair. The only way you’ll be able to achieve an overall lighter look is to use a lightening product such as hair bleach. Hair bleach is extremely strong and should be used only with extreme caution!

To avoid uneven lift when using bleach, avoid applying it to your hair closest to your scalp and where you have hair that has not been previously colored until the last 10-20 minutes depending on your starting level. Natural, or virgin hair, will process faster because it doesn’t have any artificial color to work through. Heat will accelerate the processing time which is why it’s important to apply to your scalp last. To safely lighten dark hair, only have it one or two levels lighter in one session.

Hair Color You Can Achieve with Your Current Hair Level

Instagram / @flokasalon

Before dyeing your hair at home, consider things like overall hair health too. If your hair is dry and damaged, it can be more porous, which will affect how the dye takes on your hair. Typically, porous hair sucks up the color more and can result in an uneven or darker color. If you plan on dyeing your hair when it’s in a porous state, make sure to go for a level or two higher (or lighter) than your desired end result.

What Hair Tones Are

With all of those factors in mind, you also need to consider both your current tone and the desired hair tone. But first, what is the hair tone?! The tone is the color that is underlying in the pigment. Hair is naturally made up of 4 major tones: red, orange, yellow, and pale yellow. Level 4 hair and darker contains more of a red underlying pigment, levels 5 through 7 contain more of an orange underlying pigment, levels 8 and 9 contain yellow pigments, and level 10 and above contain pale yellow pigments.

That is why warmth comes through when you lighten your hair color. Unless you are going for a warm desired result, it’s important to know how you can neutralize the underlying pigments as you lift through them. If you’re wishing to go darker or cover grays, it’s important to add the pigment the hair may be lacking at the current level, or else you may result in ashy or green undertones in the hair.

Hair Colors Underlying Pigments

Instagram / @_miarivashair

How to Pick the Right Tone

Picking the right tone and level is all about knowing what works best with your skin tone. If you have not already determined the tone of your skin, you should before you consider coloring your hair.

If your skin tone is not easy for you to determine by looking at it, don’t worry, we have a trick for you. Look at the top of your hand and determine whether or not your veins look more green or blue/purple. If you see more green, then you probably have a warmer undertone. If you see more blue or purple, you probably have more of a cool undertone. If your skin looks like it contains both blue and green, then you probably a neutral skin tone.

Cool toned skin is complimented well by any golden or warmer tones such as golden blondes or mahogany red. For example, you can tell her hair is naturally cool-toned. Her warm and rich color help to balance out her complexion.

Warm-toned skin is complemented by anything that is going to help neutralize the pink in the skin, so basically anything ashy. For example, the ashy highlight can do the trick!

Have you noticed the number and letter sequence on the box of color? Take these into consideration to set up for success when picking out your shade. As you might have guessed now, the numbers on the box dyes indicate hair levels. Hair level number often goes before a dot or a slash, while other numbers, given after it, indicate color shade and reflection.

Often, you will also see the letters that represent hair tone. The most common letter you’ll probably see is N. It stands for natural and is a must if you are looking to cover gray or take your hair from light to dark.

Hair Color Charts

Most lines have their own color chart for you to view before picking your color; look at the color chart from the line you are using before you pick a color. Normally the colors are organized into sections of different underlying pigments or tones. If you have naturally dark hair but want a medium warm brown, select a color that has both a little bit of red and natural.

If you cannot find a color that fits exactly what you’re going for and decide to make your own color by mixing tones, be cautious! Mixing a variety of tones that are opposite of each other can result in browning out. Browning out means that the hair color goes muddy and can make the hair appear dull.

Luckily, box dye is created for people to use at home, so most lines carry a variety of tones in different levels and you shouldn’t need to mix the colors yourself. For example, Clairol has their colors organized into different groups based on what color your ends appear to be. Following a chart like this would be most helpful to someone looking to use color just on their roots to match their ends.

Whatever brand you use will have a chart similar to this one for you to go off of, just keep in mind that colors can vary from line to line and you should look at the color chart before purchasing. And it is highly recommended to seek the help of a professional when you are trying to achieve something specific or multi-dimensional and not to attempt to box dye your hair if you have a long chemical history or if you are trying to stray far from your existing color.

Hair Levels Chart Hack to Determine Hair Color Level Hair Color You Can Achieve with Your Current Hair Level Hair Colors Underlying Pigments Hair Color for Naturally Cool Toned Hair Ashy Highlight to Balance Warm Toned Skin Hair Color Chart