If you are a frequent DIY hair dyer you will have likely noticed that the boxes of hair dye all have a code. It is usually a number, a dot and then two more numbers, though sometimes letter are being used. This is the system used by hair color experts to identify hair dye colors, and most importantly, their hair color levels, in order to achieve the perfect result. If you follow hair color specialists on Instagram you will see they often refer to the shades used this way, so other hairdressers can replicate the results. It’s like a chemical formulation but for hair dye!

What Are Hair Color Levels?

The first digit on a hair dye color code is the level. Hair color levels tell you how dark a particular shade of hair color is. It usually runs from 1 to 10, from black to white hair that has been stripped of all pigment. The different hair color levels are:

Hair Color Levels

1. Black
2. Natural black
3. Darkest brown
4. Medium brown
5. Light Brown
6. Dark Blonde
7. Medium Blonde
8. Light blonde
9. Very light blonde
10. Platinum blonde

Knowing your own natural hair color level allows you to estimate things such as how much can you lighten it safely in one go, or whether a hair dye is suitable for your hair or will even show up on your hair. As a golden rule, hair dye won’t lift more than 2 levels on natural hair, and less than half a level on hair that has already been dyed. Some high-lift hair dyes can go up to 3 or 4 levels, but they have higher strength lighteners and so they are harsher on the hair.

For example, if you were to look at a hair dye code ‘9NG’ from Madison Reed and your natural hair was a medium blonde, or 7, you could use it straight and it would lighten your hair enough on its own. However, if your hair is darker than that and you want to reach very light blonde you would need to use bleach instead, and use a toner to deposit the required golden or ashy tones.

Hair color levels are also important when looking at toners and other ways to remove unwanted yellow or orange from blonde hair. Toners only work on very light 8, 9 or 10 shades. So if you know that your shade is a level 6 Dark Blonde that is getting brassy you would need to use a Medium Ash Blonde to remove brassiness and neutralise the orange. You want to use a shade that is lighter than your desired color so it doesn’t make it darker, but still strong enough to actually tone the hair.

What Are Hair Dye Codes?

Every hair dye has a code that uniquely identifies the shade, it’s intensity, primary tone and undertones or secondary tones. This is known as the ICC, or International Color Code, and it’s a commonly accepted standard for hair color manufacturers to label their products, and for hairdressers to refer to particular shades.

For example, if you see a beautiful dye job on instagram and it says “Used Majirel 6.34 on a level 7 base color”, that means “Dark Golden Blonde with Copper Undertones” on a medium blonde base. If you look for the same color but want to use a different product, you will need to look at the hair dye code and not the name because the name will be different across manufacturers. Majirel Dark Golden Copper Blonde is Wella’s Koleston Dark Gold Red Blonde, and supermarket dye boxes are even more creative on their names to try and grab the attention of busy shoppers. For example, this same color code results in a shade called Chocolate by Garnier Naturals. Not even a mention of Dark blonde anywhere.

However not all is so simple. While the hair level colors are usually the same across manufacturers, tones and undertones vary. The ICC tone standards are:

.1 – Blue Ash (Blue pigment, Cool)
.2 – Mauve Ash (Purple pigment, Cool)
.3 – Gold (Yellow pigment, Warm)
.4 – Copper (Orange pigment, Warm)
.5 – Mahogany (Violet Red pigment, Neutral)
.6 – Red (Red pigment, Warm)
.7 – Khaki (Green pigment, Cool)
.8 – Pearl Ash (Cool)
.9 – Soft Ash (Cool)
.0x – Natural (Cool)
.x0 – Natural (Depends on primary tone)

However, L’Oreal numbering system looks like this:
Natural – 0
Blue Ash – 1
Violet – 2
Gold – 3
Copper – 4
Mahogany – 5
Red – 6
Green Ash – 7

Whereas Goldwell uses letters instead of numbers:
N – Natural
A – Ash
BV – Blue Violet
V – Violet
R – Red
B – Brown
G – Gold
K – Copper
RB – Red Brown

And will sometimes double the letter to indicate intensity (For example RR means really red tones whereas R is more neutral).

And Madison-Reed, a popular provider of at home hair color dyes, uses different letters.
NGV – Golden-Beige
NCG – Copper-Bronze
NR – Red
NGM – Mahogany-Chocolate
NNN – Neutral
NA – Ash-Gray (Greenish base)
NVA – Ash-Violet (Blueish base)

So, if you are trying to find out a suitable shade to dye your hair, you will need to go to the manufacturer color chart and check how they refer to their overtones and undertones.

How To Use Hair Color Levels And Codes

Base tones or undertones form the depth and darkness behind your hair color. These base tones lie directly underneath the color that you can actually see. The combination of visible cool tones and base tone creates your actual hair color. If you use bleach to strip the visible colors on hair, you will get the base tone (which usually doesn’t look pretty, natural or healthy).

What makes hair color levels useful is that you can visualise the different stages your hair is going through when you lighten it. This is because your hair color level represents which base tones are present in your hair. As the base pigments are being removed, your hair becomes lighter. From a level 1 Black hair until you reach the lightest blonde at level 10, the pigments are removed in this order:

1. Black – Dark red brown
2. Natural black – Red brown
3. Darkest brown – Red
4. Medium brown – Red Orange
5. Light Brown – Orange
6. Dark Blonde – Orange Gold
7. Medium Blonde – Gold
8. Light blonde – Yellow Gold
9. Very light blonde – Yellow
10. Platinum blonde – Pale Yellow

Hair Color Levels And Base Colors

Hair Color Levels And Base Colors – Madison Reed

If you are looking to achieve blonde hair, you will need to remove all red, brown and orange pigments or you will end up with brassy, orange hair. If you want to cancel the unwanted yellow tones on level 8 or 9 hair, you would need to use a pearl or ash blonde that will provide enough violet to cancel the visible yellow tones and create a natural looking shade.

Base color also explains why sometimes you get unexpected results from hair dye, such as green or blue hair when you try to dye blonde hair a cool dark shade. Since the warm pigments in your hair were removed as you stripped it to blonde (or were never there if you are a natural light blonde), the cool greens, violets and blues on the dye contribute too much cool tones and the hair ends up having visible green and blue overtones.

Now that you know how hair color levels and hair dye codes affect the results when you dye your hair, you will be able to identify particular hair dye shades across different brands and manufacturers. This will also give you a better understanding of the color pigments behind the names of the shade, which can be used as part of basic color theory to neutralise unwanted colors or create your ideal hair color.

Featured image by Tyler Burrus at Flicker.