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Blessed are the few born with perfectly colored hair. The rest of us mortals are doomed to sit patiently—or, more accurately, anxiously—in a chair for hours while a colorist dyes, bleaches, and shades our most distinguishing feature. It is a formidable burden, and perhaps the most challenging part is finding a stylist you trust wholeheartedly. But once you’ve found that person, what steps should you take to maximize how much you love your hair and minimize those moments when you’re reaching for your boyfriend’s razor, tempted to cut it all off? (If Natalie Portman pulled it off, so can I, right?) Here, Lucky consults Dana Ionato, expert colorist at Sally Hershberger Downtown, to discuss these existential questions.
1. Go au naturel.
Yep, you read that right. Before your appointment, don’t do anything that’s too outside your normal daily routine–and maybe even cut back on some of them. “If you normally shampoo a lot, that morning don’t shampoo,” Ionato says. Depending on your hair type, you want to think of your hair as being a base for the colorist’s work: not too oily, not too clean—just right. Come in with your hair as close to the norm as possible. If you’re nervous about damage, use a mask to build up protein in your hair, but make sure you do it the night before.
2. Do your homework.
Everyone knows to bring in photos of what you want, but our own digital beauty director Annie Tomlin swears by also bringing in photos of what you don’t like. That way, your colorist gets a clear, uh, picture.
3. Be willing to put your life in the colorist’s hands.
Don’t try to determine which color would be best for your skin tone—that’s the colorist’s job. “Here’s my best advice: you don’t have to know anything going in,” Ionato says. “A lot of people come in and ask for things that they don’t know won’t work. Leave it up to the colorist.” That is what you’re paying for, right? Instead, figure out the level of lightness you want, or if you’re going in for the first time or for a major change, make a consultation appointment prior to your coloring session. Highlights are a commitment, so it’s always better to talk it out before you dive in.
4. Get real.
One of the first questions Ionato asks her clients are how often, realistically, they plan to be in the salon. “Be honest with how frequently you’re going to come in,” she says. “There is no wrong answer. Trust that honest answers are going to help you like your hair for a longer amount of time.”
Some types of highlights, like “bumping the base” (a.k.a. when a colorist takes your natural color, lifts it up two levels, then highlights on top of that) means you have to go in to the salon every six weeks on the dot, otherwise your hair will get yellow. If that’s too frequent, say something. That way, your colorist can tailor your highlights based on your schedule.
5. Being low maintenance is okay too.
Believe it or not, there is such a thing as low-maintenance highlights. “For brunettes, ask for something that’s not ashy and not too blond—just something to add dimension,” she suggests. “Dimension is the main reason people get highlights, they just don’t know that.” Another option is Ionato’s specialty, balayage. This technique of painting highlights (without foils) means the highlights grow out more naturally, instead of having a hard line of color at your roots. If going to the salon every four to six weeks sounds impossible or if you’re brunette, balayage is probably your best choice.
6. Again, do nothing.
Highlights open the cuticles of your hair, so avoid washing immediately following an appointment so you give color time to set. Plus, most colorists apply a post-highlights gloss to seal in color. “After an appointment, wait 24 hours to shampoo,” Ionato advises. “You don’t want to disrupt the gloss with washing, because it could take it off and that would make your hair look brassy.”
7. Watch your products.
Don’t necessarily believe everything you read about the “magic” of color-depositing shampoos to extend your color. “Don’t use a shampoo that has any tint in it,” Ionato says. “When you bleach hair it makes it more porous, so if you use a color depositing shampoo and leave it on too long it will make your hair look muddy.” Instead, Ionato recommends using hair products targeted specifically for color-treated hair.
Another wonder product that you may be using incorrectly is purple shampoo. Unless you’re platinum blond, purple shampoos won’t prevent hair from turning yellow or orange; it will only neutralize the discoloration that’s already there. Ionato’s rule of thumb is to begin using purple shampoo once a week only right before your next appointment.
8. Hot tools are not your friend.
No matter how often she cautions against the freakishly high temperatures of hot tools, Ionato still sees clients with damaged hair, especially around the hairline. “Once you highlight the hair, it’s damaged,” she says. “Be really careful around your hairline after highlighting. If you have colored hair, it’s more likely to burn.” To avoid damaged frizzies, lower the temperature on your tools and use wider sectioning.
9. Stay loyal.
Each colorist uses a different technique, so stick with the same one after the initial visit. “Go to at least three appointments [with the same person] in a row,” Ionato says. “If you keep hopping around, it can mess up [the color].” Commit to a few appointments and share detailed thoughts on your next visit. ” After your first appointment, watch how the hair grows so you can see how you like it, so that you can provide feedback,” she says. “Honesty is the best policy.” If after multiple appointments you still don’t like your look, it may be time to find a new colorist.