Hair Coloring Success – The color wheel

There are some very specific rules that come into play with hair coloring. This page outlines the basic chemistry involved and highlights some of the most critical rules to keep in mind.

Knowing where you’re starting, where you’re going and what to expect from the process is the only way to ensure good results from your color.

Here’s the formula… nice ‘n simple…



(no artificial color present)
Underlying Pigment
+ Artificial Pigments
Final Result


Underlying Pigment of Regrowth
+ Existing Artificial Pigments
+ Artificial Pigments in New Color
Final Result

Step One – Identify Natural Haircolor Level

An international system is used to identify the level of darkness of your hair, 1 being the darkest (black) and 10 being the lightest (blonde). Match your hair (just the regrowth if it’s previously colored) to the hair color swatch below that most closely resembles the darkness of your haircolor (not necessarily the tone, which could be warm(red), cool(ash), or neutral) but the degree of lightness or darkness.

See examples of different shades in our hairstyle galleries.

Hair color chart.

Step Two – Identify Your Underlying Pigment

A hair coloring process that involves any amount of hydrogen peroxide (which can include some semi-permanent formulas) will bring out the natural underlying pigment of your hair.

The ‘natural looking’ tone that’s visible as your hair color is not the true tone when it comes to the chemistry of hair coloring. Think of it as a surface layer that gets stripped away, and laying in wait underneath are the bold and brassy tones of your underlying pigment.

The chart above clearly illustrates which color of underlying pigment corresponds with the natural level you identified in step one. So now you know what you’re dealing with.

Step Three – Understand the Color Wheel

The color wheel is a universal chart which shows how all colors are created from just three basic (primary) colors. Here’s how it goes…

Hair color wheel and the chemistry of hair coloring.


Hair coloring in Plain English The Art of Hair Colouring

PRIMARY COLORS (inner circle)
Red, Yellow, and Blue

SECONDARY COLORS (middle ring)
Orange, Green, and Purple

Secondary colors are made by mixing 2 primary colors together:

  • Red + Yellow = Orange
  • Red + Blue = Purple
  • Blue + Yellow = Green

TERTIARY COLORS (outer ring)

Created by mixing primary and secondary colors together:

  • Yellow + Orange = Orange/Yellow
  • Yellow + Green = Yellow/Green (lime green)
  • Blue + Green = Blue/Green
  • Blue + Purple = Blue/Violet
  • Red + Purple = Red/Violet
  • Red + Orange = Red/Orange






Why is the hair color wheel so important?

1) All hair color is comprised of different ratios of the primary colors (red, yellow, blue).

2) It clearly illustrates which colors neutralize which. Find the primary color you want to tone away and look directly across the chart to the opposite secondary color.

**Mixing all three primary colors equally creates BROWN**
So creating a neutral tone is achieved by mudding out the underlying pigment using an opposing color.

Because underlying pigments are all reds, oranges, and yellows, you must consider that you are not beginning with a blank canvas…you’re adding color to color, so the results will be a combination of all elements.

If you’re a blonde (level 7), trying to go lighter, without the brassy tones…your underlying pigment is yellow. You must use a purple based (ash) color to neutralize the underlying pigment. Any darker than level 7 and the orange underlying pigment comes into play, for which you need blue based color, except blondes don’t contain enough blue to tone out orange, so you’ll need to pre-lighten to bring up the underlying pigment to a yellow (preferably pale yellow) tone, then apply a purple based (ash) hair toner (semi-permanent color).

Alternatively, if you’re a dark brown (level 3) and you want to lighten up to a slightly golden brown (level 6). You’d need to consider that you’re dealing with a very strong red-orange underlying pigment, so adding a gold (orange based) color will amplify the orange and bring out the brass. Go for a neutral shade, or even slightly cool to mud out some, but not all of the orange.

So you see, each hair coloring process has it’s own set of variables. If your hair is previously colored, the formula becomes slightly more complicated as you must take into account the artificial pigment already on the hair. In this case it’s imperative you know that color does not remove artificial pigment. So if you want to lighten already colored hair, you’re gonna need bleach… and it will lighten slower than the natural regrowth. Tricky?… ummm, yeah.

Another option would be to use a hair color removal product, which only removes the artificial pigment. Also tricky, and more expensive, but in the long run, it can save you both dollars and further damage to your hair.


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