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How do you describe hair color?

How do you describe hair color?

Hair color is one of the most noticeable physical characteristics of a person. The variety of natural hair colors found around the world is immense, ranging from common shades like blonde, brown, and black to the more unusual red, gray, and white. However, with the advent of hair dye and other coloring methods, the ways to describe hair color have expanded exponentially.

When examining hair color, there are a few key factors to consider: pigmentation, highlights, tone, shine, and artificial coloring. Understanding these elements will allow you to accurately describe both natural and dyed hair hues. Developing a rich vocabulary for hair color helps capture its many nuances and can make your writing more vivid and descriptive.

Natural Hair Pigmentation

The natural color of hair depends on the amount and type of melanin pigment it contains. Melanin occurs in two primary forms that influence hair shade: eumelanin and pheomelanin. The ratio of these two melanins determines someone’s natural “base” hair color.

Eumelanin produces darker pigmentation. Higher concentrations of eumelanin result in black or brown hair. Pheomelanin produces lighter red and yellow hues. When pheomelanin is dominant, hair tends to be blonde or red. Most human hair contains a combination of both eumelanin and pheomelanin, which creates hair colors between very dark and very light.

Here are some of the most common natural human hair pigmentations:

Hair Color Melanin Composition
Black Mostly eumelanin
Dark brown High concentration of eumelanin
Light brown Medium concentration of eumelanin
Blonde Low concentration of eumelanin, more pheomelanin
Red Mostly pheomelanin

As you can see, black hair has the highest levels of eumelanin, while red hair is primarily made up of pheomelanin pigmentation. Describing these natural base colors accurately requires identifying the dominant melanin.

Hair Color Dimensions: Tone, Highlights, and Shine

However, the melanin composition does not tell the full story of someone’s hair color. There are other dimensions that make up a hair color’s full descriptive profile. These include:

– Tone – The hue of the color, from cool to warm. Cool tones include ash and platinum. Warm tones include gold, copper, and chestnut.

– Highlights – Naturally lighter pieces of hair interspersed throughout. Sun exposure lightens hair over time, creating natural highlights.

– Shine – How glossy or matte the hair is. The cuticle layer impacts shine. Smoother cuticles reflect more light.

Some examples:

– Ash brown hair has a cool, grayish tone.

– Strawberry blonde hair has warm, reddish highlights mixed in with blonde.

– healthy hair often appears shiny, while damaged hair looks more matte and dull.

Using color tones, highlights, and shine helps differentiate subtypes of the same base shade. A “rich chestnut brown” will have warm red/golden tones while “ash brown” hair has cooler gray undertones. These elements provide much more detail than just saying “brown hair.”

Describing Artificially Colored Hair

In addition to natural pigmentation, hair can be artificially colored through dyes, rinses, bleaches, and other chemical processes. This expands the possible color variations immensely. When describing dyed hair, useful details include:

– Base color – What is the underlying natural shade before dyeing? This impacts how colors turn out.

– Main hue – What is the dominant color, such as orange, blue, purple?

– Tone – Does it have warm or cool tones? Deep burgundy has cooler tones than copper.

– Highlights/Lowlights – Has another shade been layered with highlights or lowlights? This adds dimension.

– Roots – As dye grows out, how much of the natural root is visible?

– Fading – How faded is the color? Overtime dyed hair slowly reverts back towards the original base shade.

Some examples:

– jet black dyed hair with dark brown roots showing

– warm caramel balayage highlights on light brown hair

– faded blue ombre, transitioning from royal blue at the top to seafoam green at the tips

The dyeing process multiplies the color possibilities. Paying attention to the details provides the full picture.

Hair Color Descriptors

Having an extensive vocabulary for colors, tones, and textures aids in precisely describing hair. Here are some common descriptors:


– Reds – ginger, auburn, cherry, rosewood, burgundy, strawberry blonde

– Browns – chocolate, chestnut, mahogany, caramel, ash brown, dark brown, sandy brown

– Blondes – platinum, dirty blonde, honey blonde, ash blonde, strawberry blonde

– Greys – salt and pepper, silver, steel grey, gunmetal


– Warm – gold, copper, red

– Cool – ash, platinum


– Straight – sleek, smooth, fine, frizzy

– Wavy – loose waves, tight curls

– Coiled – spiral curls, kinky, coiled

Having a large bank of color terms and descriptors allows you to communicate hair colors and textures accurately. For example, saying someone has “dirty blonde waves” creates a much more vivid picture than just “blonde hair.” Expanding your hair color vocabulary improves descriptive writing.

How Lighting Impacts Perceived Hair Color

Hair color can also appear different depending on lighting conditions. Light, specifically sunlight, contains a spectrum of different wavelengths. Certain wavelengths are more likely to be absorbed or reflected by hair pigments. This affects what our eyes perceive.

For example, natural red hair often appears brighter and more vibrant in sunlight. The red and golden wavelengths are reflected more compared to in dim indoor lighting. Black hair can take on blue or brown tints under certain lights.

When describing hair, consider the lighting context:

– Indoor light – incandescent, fluorescent, or natural coming through windows

– Outdoor light – direct sunlight, bright but cloudy, dusk or nighttime

– Camera flash – cool LED white light

If possible, describing the lighting helps explain hair color variations. A character’s “fiery auburn hair” may appear more muted and ginger indoors compared to how vivid it looks outside. Overcast lighting tends to dampen saturation.

Cultural and Ethnic Hair Types

Culture and ethnic background also correlate to typical hair color and texture profiles. For example:

Ethnicity Typical Hair Color & Texture
African Dark brown to black, tightly coiled
Asian Dark brown to black, straight
Caucasian Blonde to black, straight to wavy
Hispanic Black to dark brown, straight to wavy
Middle Eastern Black to brown, straight to loosely curly

Being mindful of differences between ethnic groups in terms of typical hair characteristics helps describe hair in an accurate, respectful way. At the same time, there is always diversity within groups that should be acknowledged.

Hair Texture Descriptors

Along with color, describing the texture of hair also creates a vivid impression. Useful texture terms include:

– Straight – pin-straight, sleek, smooth, fine, limp

– Wavy – loose waves, beachy waves, mermaid waves

– Curly – bouncy curls, tight spirals, kinky, coiled, corkscrew curls, afro-textured

– Volume – full, body, limp, flat

– Condition – shiny, glossy, silky, soft, frizzy, dull, brittle, damaged

Details like “full bodied chestnut ringlets” or “sleek jet black strands” help the reader visualize the hair.

Use Comparisons to Describe Unusual Hair Colors

Vivid, saturated hair dyes in shades like neon orange, electric purple, bright blue, and mermaid green are rising in popularity. Since many of these colors do not exist naturally, it can be challenging to describe them. Using comparisons is a helpful descriptive technique. For example:

– “Her hair was dyed a fiery tangerine reminiscent of a sunset.”

– “Streaks of electric lime as vibrant as a highlighter wove through her hair.”

– “Pops of cotton candy pink throughout her platinum bob gave it a playful pastel look.”

These types of descriptive comparisons help create mental images of very vivid and unnatural colors.

Change Over Time

Hair color and texture also change over a person’s lifespan. Describing someone’s hair should account for their age.

Age Range Typical Hair Color
Baby Most babies are born with lighter hair that darkens over 1-2 years
Child Hair is usually lightest in childhood before puberty
Teens Puberty causes increase in pigmentation, so hair darkens
Young Adult Hair is at its darkest and thickest
Middle Age Greying and thinning begins
Senior Hair becomes white, grey, or silver. Texture thins.

Other age-related shifts include hairline receding in men and textural changes as hair becomes more brittle and dry post-menopause in women.


Describing someone’s hair thoroughly requires identifying the color, tone, texture, highlights, and condition. Factors like lighting, artificial coloring, cultural background, and age impact hair as well. With practice observing and articulating these nuances, your hair descriptions in writing will become more vivid, precise, and informative. Keeping an extensive vocabulary of color terms along with textural descriptors makes it easier to capture even subtle variations in hair appearance. Hair is a central part of physical identity and human connection. Developing your skills at describing it accurately and thoughtfully will make you a stronger writer.