How to Recover Your Hair from Years of Box Dying

Sorry — no short cuts here. 

Raise your hand if you’ve attempted to make a color appointment at the salon after years of at-home box dying only to hear, “Sorry, I can’t help you,” from the stylist. The truth is that boxed dyes are formulated differently from salon dyes, making it difficult — or sometimes straight up impossible — to have your hair professionally dyed if you’ve been grabbing boxes off store shelves for as long as you can remember.

How Boxed Dye Makes Professional Dye Impossible

“Boxed colors typically have a high ammonia content and may contain harsh metals or metallic salts, which can be extremely damaging to the hair in the long run and hard to remove,” explained Michael Boychuck, celebrity colorist and COLOR Salon owner. He’s worked with everyone from Lady Gaga to the Kardashians. “Boxed dyes are not formulated for your specific hair type and are designed to be more permanent — and more damaging — than custom professional hair dyes. Repeated use of box dyes means layers upon layers of permanent dyes which requires a salon professional to strip through when receiving treatment in a salon.”

Christine Thompson, a renowned colorist and the co-founder of Spoke & Weal salons, added, “The box color that is layered on the hair creates a build-up of molecules often times made of synthetic color. The molecules are lodged into the cuticle and expand inside making it difficult to extract later.”

Contrarily, professional hair color lines contain conditioning agents and specialized molecules in the color that are a different formula from what is found in boxed dyes. Additionally, a professional colorist can adjust the ratio of developer depending on your hair texture and length.

The bottom line is that boxed dyes are a "one size fits all" solution and hair color is just not a "one size fits all" service. That said, if you’re attempting to make that shift from Adventures in Bathroom Dyeing to salon treatments, not all hope is lost.

Enlisting a Pro for Help

We’re not going to sugarcoat it: whether you decide to enlist a pro or wait it out, the process of preparing your hair for professional salon dye is lengthy.

“Professional colorists will first advise the client that removing box dye and creating their desired effect is a process and may take multiple salon visits to achieve,” said Boychuck. “From there, the colorist will select product depending on the hair’s integrity to begin removing the existing color, followed by an in-salon treatment to recondition the hair and prep it for coloring.”

The colorist will essentially “strip” your hair at every visit, but to ensure your hair isn’t damaged, it will be done over a period of weeks or months. Thompson explains the process in detail: “Generally, a professional would need to do an extractor that would reverse the oxidation of a synthetic hair color. This is done with no damage to the hair. Once the extractor has processed a series of shampoos with physical pressure to shampoo the hair color out begins. This may need to be done two or three times until you begin what’s called a color cleanse.”

The color cleanse involves bleaching the hair to remove remaining color molecules while simultaneously lightening the hair. Once this is complete, you can move on to the actual dyeing (paired with lots of conditioning, of course). In addition to time, it will likely require hundreds of dollars invested. For some, that’s a small price to pay for great hair and for the ability to adjust your color more often to keep up with current trends.

Doing it On Your Own

If spending a lot of money and time at the salon doesn’t sound appealing, you can go the DIY route. This basically consists of waiting until your hair grows out, and depending on how much boxed dye you’ve got in your hair, can be expedited with consistent clarifying shampoo treatments.

Boychuck noted that using a clarifying shampoo at home will help gradually release the permanent dyes from your hair. Additionally, deep conditioning two to three times a week can bolster follicle strength to keep it healthy during the removal process. Through the months, while you’re waiting it out, have your stylist test dye a sample of hair to see if it will react to salon dye. This will give you good barometer for how much longer you have to wait before having all your hair professionally dyed.

Some professional colorists will even tell you that if you like the color from the box dye, and it’s not noticeably damaging your hair, continue box dyeing. There are at-home formulas that aren’t as harsh — Madison Reed and E&M Co.’s Enjoy Color are two great examples. Just be advised that over time, box dye has the potential to make hair look flat, dull, and overly pigmented. And if you’re using non-gentle formulations, they really can be quite damaging.

Ultimately, for hair that stays au currant — and remains healthy and multi-dimensional in the process — hitting the salon is your best bet. 

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