the back of a woman's head, showing her purple hair with rainbow streaks

Hair Dye Basics: Permanent Vs Semi-Permanent Colours

If you have been considering colouring your hair, you may find yourself overwhelmed with the many different terms being thrown around – permanent dye, semi-permanent dye, demi-permanent dye, direct dye, temporary dye – What does it all mean? Let’s go over some hair dye basics…

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Those who have been around Alternatively Speaking (the blog or social media accounts) for any length of time already know that I am a huge fan of hair dye and coloured hair. In fact, I have worked my way through the rainbow more than once over the years. During that time I have had a number of different (well-meaning) people warn me that constantly changing my hair colour the way I do is going to kill my hair – However, what they don’t realize is that changing my hair colour constantly doesn’t actually mean I’m exposing my hair to a never-ending stream of chemicals!

The truth is, colouring your hair CAN be dangerous, especially if you are doing it at home and don’t have the right information. By educating yourself on the various hair products, how they work and the impact they have on your hair, you empower yourself not only to colour your hair safely but also to maintain that gorgeous new colour as long as possible!

Dying your hair at home is a great way to save a little bit of money as well as to express yourself creatively. However, if you don’t take the time to learn what you are working with and how it may potentially impact your hair, you could cause irreversible damage! I don’t say that to scare you off but as a word of caution. Don’t jump in until you’ve taken the time to educate yourself on what you’re about to do. Unless, of course, you’re okay with the risk of having to cut all your hair off before you’re done…

Don’t roll your eyes, I’ve seen it happen! Bleach and other hair-related chemicals can be disastrous in the wrong hands!

Permanent Hair Colour is more accurately known as ‘oxidative hair colour’ as it works by mixing an oxidizing agent and ammonia with the colouring agent before they are applied to your hair. These products penetrate the hair cuticle and deposit a colour deep into the hair, allowing them to make a chemical change to the hair.

There are many positives to using this type of product, including the fact that it is permanent and won’t just wash out of your hair, meaning you can go longer between colouring your hair. It will, however, still fade slightly and lose that bold, freshly-coloured look over time. As these products do use a developer, such as a hydrogen peroxide, they also have the ability to lighten your natural hair colour when necessary.

It is important to carefully read the package and adhere to the instructions included relating to how long to leave the product in your hair, as over processing your hair can lead to extensive damage.

This is often preferred by those who are looking to maintain a natural-looking colour for an extended period of time, however, the selection of bright or ‘fashion’ colours are limited. It is also a favourite for gray coverage, as the stronger formula is able to maintain colour on the more stubborn gray hairs.

Semi-Permanent Colour otherwise known as ‘direct dyes’ only partially penetrate the hair shaft as they contain little or no developer, peroxide or ammonia. For this reason, they are known to slowly fade out of the hair with each wash.

The absence of potentially damaging developers results in a safer formulation for fragile or damaged hair, which is one reason why some people will lean towards this option. However, it does come with its limitations. First, you will have to be prepared to colour your hair more frequently, as it will wash out in a few weeks time. Secondly, the product does not work to lighten the hair.

the back of a woman's head, showing her purple hair with rainbow streaks including the title hair dye basics: permanent vs semi-permanent colours

If your hair is naturally darker, you have two options when using direct dyes – You can use the dye on its own leading to a ‘tint’ to your dark hair, however, it may not be overly noticeable, or you can treat your hair first with a bleach product to lighten your hair. It’s important to note, however, if you are using a bleach product in conjunction with the direct dye, it is no longer the ‘safer option for fragile hair’ that we previously stated it would be.

Finally, don’t assume that using a semi-permanent colour will ensure it will easily wash out! If your hair is overly porous, or if it has been bleached prior to use, this may cause the product to reach further not the hair shaft. The result? Direct dyes can actually stain your hair, making them very difficult to remove. For example, while my blue hair has currently lightened to a pale blue shade, it has been holding at this level for some time and likely will not wash out entirely.

There are a wide variety of different semi-permanent colour products, so it is important to do your research on individual brands. For example, companies like Arctic Fox and Manic Panic are vegan and cruelty-free, with added conditioners in their formulas, however, this isn’t true for every brand out there.

As for the creative element, direct dyes allow for some additional self-expression and experimentation. Not only do you have a wide array of bright, rainbow colours to choose from, but direct dyes can also be mixed and combined to create additional colours much like working with paints. There is an entire culture of ‘rainbow hair’ lovers like myself that truly enjoy discovering new colours and combinations.

RELATED: ‘Battle Of The Dyes: Manic Panic Vs Arctic Fox’

Bleaching Products are oxidative products used to remove colour from your hair, resulting in a lighter shade. This can be done on its own in the hope of obtaining a blonde colouring, or as the first step in a hair colouring process.

While bleach can do wonders to lighten your hair, it is also highly damaging. For this reason, it is important not to leave it on the hair for too long. If, after rinsing your hair, you find that the result isn’t as light as you were hoping you can bleach again, but not right away! Your hair will need time to recover from the processing, along with the care of deep conditioning treatments.

If you are planning a dramatic change, such as black to blonde, you need to be prepared to spend some time with your hair at the various stages that will come in between. It’s a process and will take time to do it safely and without seriously damaging your hair. In these more dramatic situations, it is often better to speak with a professional rather than attempting to carry out this transition at home.

Demi-Permanent Colour refers to products that fall between permanent and semi-permanent on the spectrum. These products do contain a chemical developer like permanent colours but in a lower-volume. This means that they don’t permanently alter the hair, but the developer does pen the hair cuticle up enough for a deeper reach than the semi-permanent colours are able to achieve. For this reason, they last longer but will eventually fade out.

Some semi-permanent colours will use the term ‘demi-permanent’ simply due to the length of time their dye has been formulated to last, however, they don’t use a developer. This is technically inaccurate.

Temporary Colour is most often seen in and around specific holidays and events, such as Halloween. These are dyes that are formulated to wash out in a single wash, allowing you to change your hair for a shorter period of time, however, as we discussed with the semi-permanent products, the lack of an oxidizing agent means that they are not capable of lightening your hair. This category includes coloured gels, spray in hair colours and hair chalk products.

After Colour Care

Regardless of which option you have chosen, your hair colouring journey doesn’t end when you rinse the dye from your hair! In order to maintain the bold, beautiful colour that you have worked so hard to obtain, you are going to have to take steps to properly care for your hair.

Check out this post, ‘Tips To Keep Your Hair Colour Looking Bright and Bold This Summer’, for more information!  

What is your go-to hair colour product? For those that have never coloured their hair, if money was no option and you were guaranteed it wouldn’t damage your hair, what colour would you go?

14 thoughts on “Hair Dye Basics: Permanent Vs Semi-Permanent Colours”

  1. I wish I had the courage to do all these colors you lol even when I dyed my hair red I just felt like the world was looking into my soul lol but I do use semi permanents often especially now because I have a lot of grays ? but you know , I always wanted to try Demi because I read it would last a little longer. Thank you for sharing this info!

    1. A demi really should last longer, as the developer will get it further into your hair. That being said, don’t be afraid to experiment with a few different brands as every brand has their own formula. For example, there are some semi brands that rinse pretty quickly out of my hair while Arctic Fox seems to give me serious staying power. However, other people have a hard time with the Arctic Fox dyes. Trial and error, the only solution lol

  2. I dye my hair constantly . In my older age I’ve taken to more natural colours, but when I was younger I had no problem pulling off a blue, pink or purple. I’m currently a striking red for the first time in years and I love it! My only issue is my after care wouldn’t be the best, and it often leaves my hair dry and damaged.

    Thank you for this very informative post! Definitly helpful to the first time hair dyer (or even just for someone like me who didn’t really know what she was doing!).

    – Nyxie

    1. Aftercare is SO important to keep your hair healthy for sure! I have had so many people ask if they can just touch my hair and then seem surprised that it’s soft and healthy… It’s incredible what the right care can do (and using the right dyes – I stick to my vegan direct dyes lol)

  3. I stopped dying my hair when I got engaged because my (now husbands) family didn’t approve of colors, I meant to go back after the wedding but then I got pregnant and life happened. I MISS COLORING MY HAIR. This was super inspiring, thank you! This weekend I’m getting some color back!

    1. I totally understand the ‘life happened’ statement – my hair is SUPER faded right now and needs to be recoloured badly, I just haven’t had a chance to get to it. Hoping to tackle that this weekend… What colour are you looking at going?

  4. I’ve been dying my hair off and on since I was 15… so nearly 30 years. You do a great job of detailing the specific considerations for hair dying. I always use permanent dyes. For the past decade I’ve primarily been a henna girl, only using chemical dyes on rare occasions when it just presents as an easier option or when I’m looking to express my sense of style and personality differently. I love the bold color options you choose personally and through the imagery above, though that’s really something better suited for my daughters for various reasons. One thing I have been interested in doing though is putting in one classy gray streak near the bang area, something like a Rogue streak. Would you have any advice on what products to use in brown or auburn toned hair to achieve that end result?

    1. Gray is a picky one, I actually did an all over gray at one point. In order to really get the colour, you first need to lighten your hair to a bleach blonde, nearly a white. Even the slightest hint of colour in your hair will throw a gray off. At that point, Sterling from Arctic Fox is my favourite gray. It’s so pretty!

    1. You should check out some of the semi-permanent colours if you’re concerned about the condition of your hair from dying. I know using Arctic Fox, for example, does a great job conditioning my hair and keeping it healthy.

  5. I’ve never heard of Arctic Fox! I always like to add a dash of purple in my hair in the fall.. I’ll have to check this out soon! Ever use Overtone? I’ve been seeing that all over instagram lately.

    1. I have tried SO many different brands, but I always come back to Arctic Fox as the best experience I’ve had dye-wise!
      I haven’t tried Overtone personally but I have heard great things. The catch with Overtone is that it’s much more expensive and, because it’s a colour depositing conditioner as opposed to a hair dye, you need to keep reapplying it in order to maintain the colour for any length of time. The Arctic Fox held out for me quite well off a single application, and if you wanted to prolong it even further so you an get 2-3 months off a single dye job you just have to mix a little of the dye with conditioner to apply in the shower!

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