Primer on Box Color

Thinking outside the box: Important differences between DIY box color and a salon color service

“When it comes to your hair, you do not want to mess around.”
– Good Housekeeping magazine.

Occasionally we’re asked to explain the difference between box color from the drug store and professional color used at the salon.  There are several important differences.  This overview will provide you with the information needed to make an informed decision when it comes to choosing how you color your hair.


Many factors contribute to the end result of your hair’s condition and color, including application, color formula, texture, and previous chemical services – including swimming in a chlorinated pool.  While it is important to take into account all of these factors when coloring your hair, the sheer variety of box color choices on the market can mislead a consumer into thinking a single box can be found specifically formulated to address her particular combination of needs and goals.

Box color comes in many choices: Light, dark, medium, gray coverage, root coverup, mature hair…. and depending on the brand it comes with many ingredients:  PPD (this allows color to bond with the hair shaft), resorcinol, MEA, ammonia, persulfates, parabens, propylene glycol and metals such as nickel.  PPD, sometimes known as coal tar (p-phenylenediamine), may cause allergic reactions in some individuals. The only approved use of PPD in cosmetics is as a hair dye because it is not safe for direct application to the skin.

It is important to understand all box color is formulated based on what its manufacturer predicts about the consumer who selects a particular product.  For example, a box formulated for mature hair will likely contain a developer with high volume (a measure of active ingredients) without any consideration for the starting hair color, its condition or previous color history.  Using a developer with a higher volume than necessary, or applying a high volume developer on hair that’s been recently colored, can easily lead to permanent damage and breakage.

It doesn’t matter to the box what your hair condition is or what has been done to it in the past, the box includes a specific dye and specific developer. The box provides the same solution for a customer with virgin (Barbie) blonde hair as it does for a customer with resistant gray hair.  The developer found in box color ranges between 20 and 40 volume because that is what is needed to cover gray or to change a very dark shade.  Frequently coating the hair shaft with a high volume developer will cause damage, particularly if the starting condition is weakened or fragile.

If a consumer has dark brown hair and she wants to be a bright Reese Witherspoon blonde, she will not get that result by grabbing a box blonde from the store.  Most likely she will end up with light brown hair and brassy undertones.  There are two main reasons for this:

♠  Color cannot lift color.  One must first remove the darker color using bleach before a lighter color can be applied.  The same is true when painting a room: You must first prime a dark color so it may then be painted a light color.

♠  Box color can lighten only three and sometimes four levels.  Hair color is described in levels, 1 being darkest and 10 being lightest.  Taking hair from a level 2 to level 9 cannot be done with a box.

For these reasons, we approach all clients coming to us after a box color application as having overly processed hair.  It is necessary to be cautious to avoid further damage.  (It is equally important to come clean and disclose your box color experiments to your stylist!)  Your stylist will carefully evaluate your hair’s condition and devise a plan of action that may involve separate treatments over multiple days to achieve desired results without further damaging your hair, particularly if your goal is a lighter color.  In the unfortunate scenario of permanently damaged hair, your stylist may tell you any color lightening will lead to widespread breakage and suggest other options until it grows out.

If you run into unexpected results or damaged hair, it’s time to see a professional.  The time and money spent on corrective color can be costly.  It does not surprise us when a correction takes three to four hours, or if hair is damaged the correction can span multiple days with multiple treatments.  A licensed cosmetologist is trained in color theory, chemistry and hair color processing.  We strongly recommend a professional solution to accurately change the tone and color level of your hair.  All things hair related come into play including texture, density, porosity, color, length, and chemical exposure.