Hair Color Fade Is Unavoidable, but There Are Ways to Make It Last Longer—Here’s How
Hair color fade is a real problem, but there are solutions.By Melanie RudAugust 05, 2021
Whether you’re a DIY veteran or a salon regular, you know that hair color doesn’t last forever. (Sigh.) Our hair is exposed to a number of factors daily that can speed up the color fading and changing process.
“To understand color fading you need to understand the anatomy of the human hair shaft,” says Aaron Brandford, a colorist at Cedric Salon in New York City. “The outermost layer is the cuticle, which resembles a scaly snake skin under the microscope. The inner layer, protected by the cuticle, is the cortex, where pigment resides. The concern for hair color relates to both the cuticle and the cortex, and how these two layers interact with three variables: heat, water, and sun.”
Ahead, pro colorists explain more about how these elements can contribute to hair color changes, and more importantly, what you can do to preserve your hue.
The Culprit: Water
Water is hair color’s arch-nemesis. “It opens the hair cuticle, allowing the dye molecules to be more susceptible to being pulled out,” says Kristen Fleming, color director at Chicago’s 3rd Coast Salon. And, given that many people wash their hair daily, it’s something the hair is constantly exposed to.
Brandford notes that it’s not only the frequency of hair washing that plays a role, but the temperature of the water you’re using as well (more on that in a minute). He adds that in some areas, trace minerals found in tap water, such as copper, can cause color to fade and change, as can exposure to salt and/or chlorinated water.
The solution: As a general rule of thumb, the less often you can wash your hair, the better. Branford suggests every third or even fourth day, if possible. Stretch out the time in between shampoos by using a good dry shampoo. We’re big fans of Living Proof PhD Advanced Clean Shampoo ($30; sephora.com), a newly-launched, upgraded version of the OG formula, which contains special technology to not only absorb dirt and oil, but actually remove it.
When you do wash, make sure to keep the water as cool as possible. “Washing with cool water, or at the very least rinsing with a cool rinse after the fact, helps to close the cuticle,” Fleming says. And make sure you’re using a dedicated, color-protecting shampoo. We like Pantene Illuminating Color Care Shampoo ($7; target.com), a gentle, sulfate-formula that contains strengthening biotin.
Brandford adds that if you have hard, mineral-rich water, you can also consider installing a shower filter to help remove these impurities. Try: T3 Source Showerhead Filter ($150; nordstrom.com). And if you are going to be taking a dip in the pool or ocean, he suggests applying a hair oil, like Leonor Greyl Paris L’Huile de Leonor Greyl ($59; amazon.com) all over your hair first. It creates a hydrophobic effect, essentially minimizing how much water can get into the strands and keeping your color protected, he explains.
The Culprit: Heat
“In the presence of heat, those ‘scales’ of the cuticle expand like a pinecone. When this happens, color molecules are able to fall out,” explains Brandford. Any form of heat can cause this expansion, he adds. As mentioned, hot water is a problem, but hot tools are especially stripping. Adding insult to injury, heat is also a primary source of hair damage, and the more damaged and fragile your hair is, the less likely it is to retain color well, notes Fleming.
The solution: Using a heat protectant—which creates a protective shield on the hair—before each and every styling session is an absolute must, says Fleming, who likes Unite Hair 7Seconds Detangler ($31; dermstore.com). Also important: “Use hot tools on the absolute lowest heat setting possible, and avoid going over the same section of hair more than once,” she adds.
The Culprit: Sun
“The sun’s UVA and UVB rays break down the chemical bonds in hair color dyes, causing color to fade and even bleaching out natural hair tones,” Fleming explains. Picture those natural, sun-kissed highlights little kids get after spending a summer outdoors—that’s all a result of sun exposure.
The solution: Just like you use sunscreen to shield your skin from the sun, you need to protect your tresses. The easiest way to do so? Get a leave-in conditioner that contains a built-in UV protectant, recommends Brandford. Try Bumble and bumble Bb. Hairdresser’s Invisible Oil Protective Primer ($13; ulta.com), which comes in this convenient travel-size. (FYI, many products that offer heat protection also guard against UV rays, including the two we mentioned.) Something as simple as wearing a hat and/or hair wrap anytime you’re in the sun is also a good idea, adds Fleming.