What no one tells you when you decide to get vivid hair

A year and a half ago, I somewhat unexpectedly fell into the world of vivid hair (also known as bright hair, unicorn hair, fashion colors, and probably a hundred other terms I've never even heard of or am forgetting). To put it plainly, I started getting my hair dyed bright, funky colors. It all started with a Boston Marathon fundraiser (for which I dyed the tips of my hair blue) and in the process I met my amazing stylist, Liz Bachand

Liz specializes in vivid colors, which are all the rage right now, and I kept coming back for more. From my blue tips, very briefly back to my boring natural color, to a subtle red, then all the way to bright fuchsia, and currently a berry blend of purple, blue, and pink, I'm hooked on having vivid hair. But because I fell into it somewhat unexpectedly, there was a lot I didn't know ahead of time that I've picked up along the way. So I asked Liz, along with some other hair stylists, what clients typically don't know when they come in wanting vivid hair. So if you've been thinking about taking the purple plunge, buckle up and let's get started.

What makes vivid hair color different?

Let's start with what makes vivid color different than the typical colors you'd get at any salon (or perhaps even in a box — shhh). According to Liz, vivid hair color is "a whole different beast" from traditional hair color and takes a completely different approach. 

"For many of these colors to have the best result they need to be on pre-lightened hair to a very light blonde," she told me. "This is where many people who attempt to become a unicorn at home make mistakes or ruin their hair." (Oh, if you're curious, those of us with bright hair are the unicorns in this situation.) While there are some products that can make the lightening process safer, Liz told me they're only available through a licensed professional. "The lightening process can be done safely with a professional who has had the right training and continues to attend classes where they are always learning new techniques and the best products to use." 

It isn't just the lightening that makes vivid colors different. Liz explained, "Vivid colors are semi-permanent, which means they sit on top of the hair. This is why using the proper at home care products and getting it done correctly in the first place is so important. Because you will be washing your hair color down the drain if you don't!"

It costs more

I won't mince words here, I spend much more on my hair since I started doing vivid colors than I spent on it before, but it's for good reason. The time it takes to apply vivid colors is longer and takes expertise. "Lightening properly takes time and care," Liz said. "Not overlapping where bleach has already been applied in the past is super important to hair health and preventing breakage." 

The colors themselves take a bit longer too, especially if you're going for a layered look or more than one color. "Typically, a few shades are used to add depth and dimension so that the end result doesn't look flat or amateurish," Liz explained (another good reason to see a professional). "Placement takes thought and precision." 

While vivid colors will cost more than your typical hair color, they don't have to be outrageous and it all depends on your hair when you walk in the door. If your hair is already light, the lightening process could be skipped. If your hair is already dyed, on the other hand, Liz said "you are looking at multiple visits to lighten your hair and then achieve the rainbow you desire. In some cases if the guest's hair is box dyed at home we take even more time to lighten the hair since box color is harder to remove and the results from a lightening session cannot be guaranteed." Seriously, leave it to the pros.

Get used to cold showers

One way to keep from spending as much is to do what you can to help your colors last longer. And one way to do that is using cold water in the shower (you get used to it after a while — sort of). 

Liz told me that "warm water opens the hair's cuticle, or top layer, and since vivid colors sits on top of the hair the more you blast that cuticle open with hot water the more color is also removed." She also recommends what she calls a conditioning regimen to her clients to help their colors last. "Use conditioner and cool water as much as you like and try to only use a shampoo once a week (or less!) you can still scrub your scalp with the conditioner to loosen grime and grease but it strips the color less and the cold water helps to keep the cuticle closed." 

She added that when you do shampoo, make sure to use one that is sulfate free. Salon Color Educator and the founder of RevuCell Organics Erick Calderon added that it's important to "nourish the hair before and after the service. Try to rebuild the hair before you destroy it and once it has been damaged by the service make sure you try to bring it back to good health with a good shampoo and conditioning regime."

Some colors fade quickly

When I had my blue tips, it seemed like they faded way faster than my pink fades now. While I thought it might have been attributed to dry ends losing color faster, now that I have some blue in my hair again, I've noticed yet again that the blue seems to fade faster than pink. I asked Liz and it turns out I'm not crazy! 

"It all depends on the base of the color," she said. "Colors like deeper pink or magenta usually have a red base which means they stain the hair more and hold longer. I would say deeper colors always last longer." She told me that for Pulp Riot (the brand of vivid color she uses on my hair) they say that their darker jewel tones last up to 40 shampoos, whereas pastels last up to 20. "This all depends on the health of the hair," Liz cautioned. "And includes every time you rinse and do a conditioning cleanse."

Calderon also noted that the way you've treated your hair in the past can impact fading. "If you are someone who has bleached your hair a lot, your color will also bleed out fast, so it will go from vivid to dull very quickly," he said.

Colors may last longer in winter

When winter rolls around, especially if you live somewhere like New England, you may notice that your vivid colors are lasting longer. No, I don't mean because you can go longer without washing your hair since you'll be wearing beanies everywhere (but there is that). 

One of the things I never anticipated was how much impact the sun would have on my hair! Sure, I knew that it lightened up over the summer to give way to natural highlights, but after a day trip this summer where I came home with blonde streaks in place of some of my pink, I realized just how powerful it is. That's one reason (maybe the only reason) I'm looking forward to winter with shorter days and a weaker sun. This is, luckily, another one that's not totally in my head. 

Liz said, "I have definitely noticed the sun fading the color faster, but using a leave in conditioner before exposure helps maintain the color better. But definitely be aware of more frequent color touch ups if you plan on being out in the sun a lot!"

It's time to give up white sheets and towels

This one's pretty straightforward, but it's worth mentioning because you really only think about it once it's happened to you. Just like your hair will fade in the sun and water, it will rub off over time. With this in mind, you probably don't want to spend your evenings on white sheets or dry off with white towels when your hair is pink or blue. 

Liz told me, "I always warn my clients but sometimes they tell me they have permanently pink pillow cases." And this, my friends, is why when I went to Maine for a girls' weekend this summer, I slipped an extra t-shirt over my pillowcase at night so I didn't stain our gracious host's pillowcases pink. Trust me, it happens.

It's possible to keep your hair healthy

While lightening your hair is certainly hard on it over time, there are ways to maintain the health of your hair (and your wallet, too). "If you treat your hair nicely at home, use the right products, etc. most of my mermaid clients come in for a lightening session at 8-12 weeks (which is typical of natural colors)," Liz told me. "In between, many of them stop in for a vivid refresh where we just apply the fun colors over their hair as is and do not lighten." I can personally attest to this method as it's what I've been doing as well (someone remind me after this that I'm due for a refresh). 

Another option, if you don't need your hair totally lightened and just want to remove some of your current color, is to use a color remover to remove old vivids. Liz and I did this once on my hair when I wasn't quite due for lightening, but when my color had faded more than usual and we wanted to "prep the canvas" a bit before adding the next round of vivid color. After using the color remover and adding another round of vivids, my color was more vibrant than if we had just layered fresh vivids on top, but I avoided the damage of bleaching again too soon. Not to belabor the point, but this is why seeing a professional is so useful.

Not all brands of color are created equal

"But wait," I can hear you saying, "Why can't I just go to my nearest beauty supply store and buy the same fun colors?" Aside from the issue of lightening the hair first (already covered in past slides), the kinds of colors available to the average consumer aren't the same as what you'll get in a salon. "Higher quality salon brands use the best dyes," Liz told me. "They don't stain the hair as much and are more naturally derived. They also are removed more easily and last longer. Cheaper brands often use metallic dyes which are more harsh on the hair and can be difficult to remove." 

Why does removal matter? "With vivids it's what you see is what you get. [If] someone's hair is green and they want to change to red the stylist needs to think back to the color wheel and work with the pigment they see," Liz explained. Do you feel confident enough with your color wheel skills to alter the pigment in your hair appropriately when you want a change? Me neither.

Not all stylists are created equal

You want any specialist you see to be on the cutting edge of their craft, and vivid colors require just that. That's why it's important to choose a stylist who is continuing to learn. "It's super important because in any fashion and beauty industry there are constantly new trends and styles," Liz said. "I attend formal education through my salon and the color brand we use. I also attend classes and seminars on my own, thrown through independent stylists." She also told me how the Internet (and social media sites like Instagram in particular) are changing the game. 

"Before you could get education from attending a class from a product company where usually they just push their brand and their methods. Or by going to a huge show where there was little to no interaction with the artists. Now most of the classes I attend have 20 or fewer attendees, which makes for an intimate environment. They just share their personal experience. It's really amazing."

Jamie DiGrazia, a Redken certified colorist and salon owner in Chicago agreed that this expertise is invaluable. She told me, "I would go to an artist that is experienced and certified with the color line that they use in the salon so you know you are having someone work on you that knows the product line very well to avoid unnecessary damage and processes and will have your hair's health in mind.

It's addictive at every age

There's just something about the way vivid colors make me feel the most like myself. It's why I keep going back for more (and trying new colors). And I'm not the only person who has become addicted to fun, bright colored hair. Liz said, "It's super addictive. Once you get a taste and you realize how fun and low commitment it can be, you just keep wanting more. I have had many clients who start off wanting just some peek-a-boos underneath their hair, or even a single piece. And many of these guests are now full heads of vivids and have been for years." 

And if you think that vivid haircolor is just for young women (or those going through a midlife crisis), think again! "I have had clients as young as 10 and my oldest was 83," she told me. "Some switch it up every time, others have a signature shade, and most frequently me and my guest come up with a plan for transitioning their color every few months so they get the best possible results when making a change."

DiGrazia agreed, "This trend isn't going anywhere and it is becoming more acceptable to have these tones in your hair! It can be so beautiful on people, the way the tones look against there eyes and skin. Trying on all different shades can be empowering and beautiful! Go for it!"

Join the unicorn club

If you're looking for a change, either because you're nearing one of those scary milestone birthdays or you're just ready to try something new, vivid hair is a really fantastic option. It's a collaborative process between you and whatever stylist you choose, so make sure you choose a good one (I count myself very lucky to have found Liz as fortuitously as I did). 

Each session really is like creating a work of art together. We talk about the long-term direction of my hair, where I'm hoping we can go in that day's session, and then she takes my ideas and turns them into a vision, then turns that vision into reality, all while I read my Kindle or flip through magazines. It's such an easy way to put a new spin on your look, make a dramatic bold statement, and express your personality. Plus, it's a lot less permanent than getting a tattoo. So go ahead, join the unicorn club. It's a lot of fun over here.