Skip to Content

Does adding conditioner to dye lighten it?

Hair dyeing can be a tricky process to get just right. Many factors go into achieving your perfect shade, from the original color of your hair, to the type of dye you use, to the development time. One technique some hair colorists recommend is adding conditioner to hair dye to dilute it slightly. But does this conditioning step actually lighten the final color result? Let’s take a closer look.

How Hair Dye Works

First, it helps to understand the basics of how hair dye chemically alters the color of your hair. Permanent hair dye contains developer and alkaline agents that open up the outer cuticle layer of your hair so pigment molecules can penetrate the inner cortex where your natural hair color resides. The developer acts as an oxidizing agent to remove your original hair color while the ammonia allows the new color to deposit inside the strands.

Semi-permanent and demi-permanent hair dyes work a little differently. They lack harsh developers and ammonia so they can’t fully remove your natural shade. Instead, they coat the outside of hair strands with temporary dye particles that eventually wash out over time.

Developer Level Matters

When you purchase permanent hair dye, you’ll notice the box specifies a certain volume or level of developer. Common levels are 10, 20, 30, and 40 volume. The higher the developer volume, the more powerful the formula is at lifting your natural hair pigment and allowing brighter colors to take hold.

Developer Volume Lifting Power
10 Volume Lowest lifting of natural pigment
20 Volume Moderate lifting
30 Volume High lifting
40 Volume Highest lifting of natural pigment

As you can see, the developer volume has a direct impact on how light you can go with the final color. For darker hair, you’ll need a higher volume to achieve lighter shades.

Diluting Dye with Conditioner

This is where adding conditioner to dye comes into play. Some colorists recommend mixing in a few tablespoons of conditioner to slightly dilute the concentration of developer in permanent formulations. This essentially “lowers” the volume which can make the color deposit less intensely overall. So adding conditioner can result in a slightly lighter end result than applying the dye directly.

It’s important to be careful with this technique and not over-dilute the dye too much. Using more than a few tablespoons of conditioner per application can compromise the oxidation and color deposition process. The dye may not take at all, resulting in uneven color results.

Benefits of Conditioner Mixing

There are a few reasons some hair colorists like adding conditioner to dye:

  • Slightly lightens the final color for a softer look
  • Makes the dye mixture more spreadable and easier to apply
  • Hydrates and protects hair from damage during processing
  • Reduces irritation for those with sensitive scalps

The added conditioner can buffer the harsh effects of the ammonia and developer on your hair. So you get a gentler dye job that enhances shine and moisture levels.

When to Avoid Conditioner

While adding a small amount of conditioner to dye can be beneficial in some cases, there are times when you’ll want to avoid it:

  • When covering resistant gray hairs – the conditioner dilution could prevent full coverage
  • If doing a root touch-up – can lead to uneven results between lengths and roots
  • When using high-lift blonde dye – needs full processing power for lightening
  • If experiencing irritation or allergies – additives create unknowns

It’s also not recommended to use conditioner with permanent fashion shades like blues, purples, and bright reds. These vibrant dyes require full processing to properly bond with hair.

Alternatives to Conditioner

What about if you want to soften the results of dye without actually adding conditioner? Here are some alternative options:

  • Choose a lighter shade – Pick a color one level lighter than your desired result
  • Reduce processing time – Cut down development time by 5-10 minutes
  • Use lower volume developer – Opt for 10 or 20 volume instead of 30 or 40
  • Try demi-permanent dye – Less commitment than permanent color
  • Go for highlights – Provides a subtle, blended look

These strategies can prevent dye from looking too overpowering or artificial on your hair.

The Effect of Hair Type

It’s also key to consider your hair type and texture when dyeing. Hair that is more porous and damaged absorbs color differently than healthy, smooth strands. Conditioner mixing has the most noticeable lightening effect on hair that readily takes up pigment.

On the other end of the spectrum, conditioner likely won’t make a huge difference in color results for resistant hair types like gray or tightly coiled curls. The dye has a harder time penetrating in the first place.

Hair Type Dye Absorption Ability Conditioner Lightening Effect
Fine and thin High absorption Significant lightening
Medium density and texture Moderate absorption Mild lightening
Thick and coarse Low absorption Very subtle lightening
Treated or damaged High absorption Noticeable lightening
Color resistant gray Low absorption Minimal lightening

Performing a Strand Test

To see if diluting your permanent dye with conditioner will actually lighten it on your hair, it’s smart to perform a strand test first. Here’s how:

  1. Choose a small section of hair near your neck or behind your ear.
  2. Mix a bit of dye with a teaspoon or two of conditioner.
  3. Apply the mixture to the strand and allow to process for full development time.
  4. Rinse thoroughly and dry.
  5. Evaluate the color result on the strand. Is it lighter than expected?
  6. Tweak the dye to conditioner ratio as needed.
  7. Repeat test until satisfied with the shade.

Strand testing gives you a preview of how your actual dye job will turn out. It takes the guesswork out before committing your whole head to the process.

How Much Conditioner to Add

A good rule of thumb is to add no more than 2-3 tablespoons of conditioner per application bowl of dye. Measure it precisely using measuring spoons or cups for accuracy.

For shorter hair or root touch-ups, you’ll need less conditioner – just a teaspoon or two will do. Use more for longer, thicker hair that requires more dye. But again, don’t overdo it!

Stick to only adding conditioner to the dye you’ll use immediately for that session. Don’t premix dye with conditioner in advance. Over time, the conditioner will break down the oxidative dye molecules.

Should You Apply Conditioner Before Dyeing?

What about applying conditioner to your hair before dyeing rather than adding it to the formula? This is not recommended by most colorists. Putting conditioner on your hair first can block the cuticle and prevent the dye from penetrating effectively. Always thoroughly shampoo and towel dry your hair before coloring for best results.

Conditioner Types to Use

The best conditioners to use for mixing into dye are protein-free varieties. Protein fillers can interfere with the dye development. Opt for a moisturizing, protein-free conditioner like:

  • Argan oil conditioner
  • Shea butter conditioner
  • Coconut milk conditioner

Stay away from 2-in-1 conditioning shampoos since these contain cleansing agents that can further dilute and disrupt dye. And avoid leave-in or deep conditioning treatments – these are too rich for mixing.

Using professional-grade conditioner like from Schwarzkopf or Matrix provides balanced hydration without overly diluting the dye. Drugstore brands work in a pinch too.

Other Additives

Some colorists recommend adding ingredients beyond just conditioner to hair dye like:

  • Vegetable oil – Adds moisture and slip
  • Cholesterol cream – For extra conditioning
  • Caffeine shampoo – Can normalize porosity
  • Ascorbic acid vitamin C – Adjusts pH balance

But proceed with caution when putting additives in color that aren’t expressly recommended by the manufacturer. It’s best to stick to just a small amount of conditioner.

Permanent Dye Alternatives

What if you want to change up your hair color without using permanent dye or adding conditioner? Consider these semi-permanent options for low commitment color:

  • Semi-permanent rinses – Last 4-8 shampoos
  • Demi-permanent gloss – Subtly enhances natural shade
  • Temporary color spray – Washes out in 1 shampoo
  • Colored mousse – Fun way to experiment with color

These types of non-permanent dyes won’t require developer or cause much damage. You can have fun with color without bleaching or mixing conditioner!

Consult a Colorist

If you’re still unsure whether diluting your formula with conditioner is right for your hair, consult a professional hair colorist. Describe the look you’re trying to achieve and ask for their expert input.

A skilled colorist can customize the developer volume, dye brand, application technique and more to get your color just right. They may advise adding conditioner, or another approach entirely. Getting a professional consultation ensures you’ll get the shades and results you want from dyeing.

The Bottom Line

So does adding conditioner actually lighten permanent hair dye? It can, but only marginally. A tablespoon or two of conditioner slightly dilutes the oxidative dyes to create a softened color outcome. But it won’t take your hair from dark brown to blonde. It works best on damaged, porous hair that readily absorbs pigment. Always do a strand test to preview the effect of conditioner on your hair before committing to a full dye job.

When used sparingly, conditioner can be a helpful tool for taking some of the harshness out of permanent color. But consult a professional before attempting any major shade changes. With the right formula and technique, you can achieve beautiful, healthy hair color results.