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How many categories of hair color are there?

Hair color is one of the most noticeable features of a person’s appearance. The shade of someone’s hair is determined by two pigments: eumelanin (which creates brown and black hues) and pheomelanin (which produces red and blonde shades). By varying the amounts and ratios of these two pigments, a wide spectrum of natural hair colors develops.

Major Categories of Natural Hair Color

There are 5 major categories used to classify natural hair color:

  • Blonde
  • Brown
  • Black
  • Red
  • Gray/White

Within each of those groups there can be variation in shade (light, medium, dark) as well as in undertones (warm, cool, neutral). Let’s take a closer look at each major hair color family.

Blonde Hair

Blonde hair has low levels of eumelanin and higher levels of pheomelanin. There are varying shades of blonde:

  • Platinum – palest blonde, almost silver
  • Light blonde – pale golden blonde
  • Medium blonde – noticeably golden blonde
  • Dark blonde – darkest blonde shades before becoming light brown

Blonde hair is relatively rare, occuring naturally in about 2% of the global population. Northern and Eastern European countries have higher percentages of natural blondes – up to 30% in some areas.

Brown Hair

Brown hair contains high levels of eumelanin, with shades ranging from dark brown to light brown. Brown hair is the most common hair color globally, with over 70% of people worldwide having some shade of brown hair. The spectrum of brown hair colors includes:

  • Dark brown – very dark brown, almost black
  • Medium to light brown – light to medium shades of brown
  • Ash brown – cool-toned medium brown
  • Chestnut brown – reddish-brown hue

Brown hair ranges from a very dark brown (almost black) to light brown. Most Caucasians, Hispanics, and Asians have different shades of brown hair. The pigment eumelanin is responsible for brown hair color.

Black Hair

Black hair has the highest levels of eumelanin and lowest levels of pheomelanin. True black hair is the darkest shade possible in human hair pigmentation. People with thick, black hair typically have ancestry from East Asia, Southeast Asia, South Asia, or subsaharan Africa. Variants of black hair include:

  • Jet black – deepest, most saturated black
  • Raven black – black with a bluish tint
  • Ebony – black that has a brownish undertone

The highest concentration of black hair worldwide is found in tropical regions, particularly South Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa. This pigmentation helps protect the skin and eyes from intense UV radiation.

Red Hair

Red hair has mostly pheomelanin pigmentation. Natural red hair shades range from strawberry blonde to a deep auburn. Common shades of red hair include:

  • Strawberry blonde – mix of blonde and red
  • Light red – ginger, copper color
  • Dark red – deeper red-brown auburn shade

Red hair is rare, occurring naturally in 1-2% of the human population. However, it has the highest occurrence among people of Northern or Western European ancestry. Up to 10% of Scottish and Irish populations have natural red hair.

Gray and White Hair

Gray and white hair is hair that has lost its pigmentation and turned fully white or gray. This occurs naturally with age as pigment production decreases. The age at which hair goes gray varies widely, but can be caused by:

  • Genetics – premature graying runs in families
  • Vitamin deficiencies
  • Poor diet
  • Stress
  • Medical conditions

Graying typically begins in the late 30s or 40s, although some see their first grays as teenagers while others don’t get them until their 50s or later. Let’s summarize the major natural hair color categories:

Hair Color Key Characteristics
Blonde Low eumelanin, higher pheomelanin. Ranges from platinum to dark golden blonde.
Brown High eumelanin content. Light, medium to dark brown shades.
Black Highest eumelanin content. Jet black to raven black shades.
Red High pheomelanin. Strawberry blonde to auburn red tones.
Gray/White Loss of melanin pigments.Ranges from salt & pepper to fully white.


In summary, there are 5 major natural hair color categories determined by the pigments eumelanin and pheomelanin: blonde, brown, black, red, and gray/white. Within each category there are lighter and darker shades. Hair color frequency varies globally based on ethnic backgrounds. Additional minor hair color varieties result from blending of these major pigments. Artificial hair coloring techniques developed by humans over the past century have vastly expanded the range of shades people can achieve beyond their natural palette.