This is an explanation as to how color remover works, because I’ve seen a lot of color remover reviews recently that lead me to believe people have unrealistic expectations of their color remover. I am going to get a bit technical in places, read around these bits if you just want color remover tips. I’ve also done a Hair Color Remover FAQ (which is science-free) for my most frequently answered questions. Last updated October 2020.
What is color remover?
Color remover is a product such as Color Oops that removes the dyed color from your hair.
How to make color remover more effective:
1. Don’t use dry shampoo or products between the last time you washed your hair and using color remover.
2. Don’t use “the coconut oil method” – that’s for bleaching, not color remover, and can interfere with the chemicals involved (but do look it up for bleaching, it sounds really good).
3. Do overestimate the rinse time, particularly if your water pressure is low or you have long/thick hair. It’s better to rinse for longer, it’ll make sure more of the unwanted color gets out of your hair.
4. Wait at least 2 weeks after using color remover before using any box dye, bleach, chemical perm or straightening – check the instructions to see if you need to wait even longer.
Here’s a list of things color remover doesn’t do:
1. Color remover doesn’t turn your hair back to your natural color.
2. Color remover doesn’t make your hair blond (read on, and see).
3. Color remover doesn’t remove cuticle staining.
4. Color remover doesn’t remove semi-permanent hair color.
5. Color remover doesn’t get rid of bleaching to restore your hair to a pre-bleached color or condition.
And here’s what it does do:
Color remover removes molecules of artificial pigment from your hair’s core.
That’s it. That’s all it does.
Let’s look at this in more depth
How color works
First you need to understand how color works. The diagram below shows the different ways hair is affected by different types of color. To dye hair semi-permanent, your natural color is not affected, because the color sits between the cuticle (on the very outside of the hair) and the shaft.
With permanent dye, a lot of people think that the dye just changes the color of their natural color molecules (the brown circles in picture 1). That’s not how it works – it’s a Find and Replace job.
What really happens with permanent dye is that you have to get rid of some of the molecules of natural color before any artificial color will fit inside the hair shaft. After the natural colors are removed, the artificial ones are forced inside to take their place. This is why permanent colors (even black) always contain the peroxide/ammonia combo (or something similar that works in the same way). If they can’t get rid of the pre-existing natural color molecules, the artificial ones can’t get inside to change the hair’s color because there would be nowhere for them to fit in the hair shaft.
In the diagrams 1, 2, and 3, color remover won’t work. It doesn’t work on natural hair – there’s no artificial color to remove – it won’t work on semi-permanent (more below) and it won’t work on bleach – again, there’s no artificial color to remove, because bleach is an absence of color.
Color remover will only work on the hair in pictures 4 and 5. It penetrates the hair shaft and “shrinks” the hair molecules – they don’t mean the atoms or bonds of the molecules get smaller (which is impossible due to forces), what they mean is that it gets the oxygen off the color molecules, making them small enough to fit back through the spaces that the developer has already made in the hair shaft when it was colored in the first place. This is why, when you use color remover, you have to rinse your hair for inordinate amounts of time. If the color molecules get left in the hair, they will recombine with the oxygen and make your hair look colored again (oxidisation) and the results can be embarrassingly bad.
If the color you’re trying to get rid of is “semi-permanent” such as in image 2 in the above diagram, the color remover won’t work because the way it sticks to your hair is different.
Semi-permanent color doesn’t go inside the hair shaft so it can’t be removed by the specific action of color remover. It’s in a different place, attaches differently, and doesn’t use the same chemical color compounds. With semi-permanent color, you should theoretically be able to wash your hair enough until it comes out. By this, I mean you have to wash it then dry it fully then wash it again then dry it again etc until the color comes out – rinsing on its own doesn’t seem to have such a good effect, I’m not sure why.
If your hair is cuticle stained, color remover will get rid of the stuff inside the hair shaft but it cannot affect the staining, which is on the outside of the hair shaft. To get rid of cuticle staining, you can either bleach it out (if it’s mild staining) or wait for it to grow then cut it off. There is a fine line between the bleach getting rid of the staining and the bleach turning the insides of your hair to jelly mush, so bear this in mind – you might just have to live with a reddish tinge for a while (I say reddish because strong red is the most common offender in the cuticle staining stakes, although any color can stain your cuticle).
To take my hair from the color in the picture above to the color in the photo below, I used Color Oops which I bought from Amazon (that link will take you there), but I’ve heard that the Scott Cornwall one works just as well, depending on what’s cheap where you live. One of the great things about Color Oops is that you can use it more than once.
When you use color remover, the molecules I’ve drawn as red circles on my diagrams will leave the hair, but sometimes they don’t all leave; it depends how colored your hair is – there might not be enough molecules of color remover to attach to all the bazillions of molecules of color in your hair in cases such as picture 5 where there’s not a lot of original molecules left. In this case, you would need to do a second color remove after the recommended wait time (see the instructions).
You’ve probably also noticed that the more towards the right we go in the diagram, the more the natural color becomes yellow rather than brown. Each time you color your hair, it affects the hair again in the same way, so your natural color may have been affected by the peroxide to make it a blonder base – this is often the case in hair dyes to get a truer color result; think how many of them state they won’t work on hair that is naturally quite dark!
Why is this important? Because if the natural color was affected by the peroxide during the coloring process, and the color has masked the effect, then when you use color remover your hair might go to an orangey color or a mousey caramel color, or even a blond, depending how many times your hair has been colored since it grew out of your scalp, because it has no healing powers and permanent coloring causes a permanent change to your hair (surprising, given the name). If this happens, you can either:
a) Use a semi permanent color to mask that this has happened, and reapply whenever it starts to fade.
b) Wait at least two weeks (see the color remover’s instructions in case they vary) then put a new permanent color on your hair – this can be one that is the same color as your hair or a new color. Be aware if you are doing this that the color on the box is unlikely to be the color you end up with if your hair’s not a natural color to start with. Permanent box dyes are designed to affect natural, complete hair shafts, and there isn’t always enough artificial color to get a good first-time result on peroxide-changed hair, even though it was a box dye that caused that change to your hair in the first place.
c) Do nothing and see what happens. If you just want to get rid of yellow or orange tones in your hair, consider a “silver shampoo” or toner, which is not permanent and might leave your hair looking more natural. Use a blue-colored “silver” shampoo for hair that’s more orange than you’d like, and a purple-colored “silver” shampoo for hair that’s more yellow.
And that’s how color remover works and how to get the best from your color remover.
If you still have questions, check out my Hair Color Remover FAQ where I answer your questions about color remover.
Other hair colouring articles you might like:
Wrecked your hair with bleach? Fix it!
Hair bleaching 101: How to bleach your hair
What do I use between the silver shampoos?
What colour will that box dye really go on your hair?