Hair Color Levels and Hair Dye Codes Guide

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 Level is My Hair Color

Hair color levels apply to all hair colors, brunettes, blondes and redheads. It’s just a way to estimate the darkness of the hair. However, for many people it can be challenging to figure our what level is their hair color if they don’t have anything to compare with. Is your hair a level 10 blonde, or a level 9? While it is important to have a good idea of what level is your hair color, it is not an exact science. For casual use, you can guesstimate by looking at online hair color level tables like you can see in this article.

Hairdressing salons have hair level samplers which have an example of every hair level, which they need to use to accurately estimate a client’s level to craft a colour formula. If you dry your hair often different colors, you probably should acquire one of those. This will allow you to accurately estimate the end result of your hair processing.

If you just want to know whether your hair is light enough to apply light blonde and fantasy or rainbow dyes, you can compare with the internet. In case of doubt, it is often easier to go a bit lighter and darken the hair afterwards using a toner than to go darker. This is because some hair colors will not give you the expected results if the wrong pigments are still present in the hair.

Hair color levels don’t necessarily reflect the way hair will react to bleach or dye. Even if two people have the same hair color level, it doesn’t mean that it will lighten at the same speed or take the same amount of dye. Hair quality, texture and porosity affect this much more than the hair color level itself. So if you are trying something new on your hair or somebody else’s it’s worth doing a strand test first. And never take your eyes off bleach while it’s on the hair, because a few minutes can make a huge difference.

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

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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).

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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.

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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.

14 Comments

    • I get confused by brands that add decimal points and extra numbers. like the article mentions above, there’s a color “6.43”. I get the level 6 part, but what is the .43 for?

      • It refers to the undertones. .43 means Copper (primary) and Gold (secondary) undertones, so quite a warm dark blonde.

        • thank you for responding. One more question – are these undertone numbers global or specific to each brand? I guess Im trying to understand how .43 falls into copper – does every color have a number attached to it?

          • Technically most companies would use the ICC tone standards, which is the one I assumed you were using. They are in the article if you want to see the rest of them. Under the What Are Hair Codes header.

  • Thank you for this very informative article. My natural 4 I think? with 25% grey coloured now dark brown hair is flaring crazy red orange in sunlight (pretty bad) Max Eli said any fool can make copper hair on one of his vids well I’m flaring copper alright ! It’s never done this in the past but I recently changed hairdressers, I now understand that I am missing blue/green from my remaining pigment. Previous hairdresser must have formulated the colour to kill the warmth I don’t like, lets face it most complaints online on you tube etc seem to be regarding brassy or orange UNWANTED undertones it’s a universal hatred ! Mine currently is REALLLLLY flaring orangey red on fire… I mean fire.. hide in a coffin like a Vampire til dark 🙂 although in artificial light it’s cool dark brown. I need to change hairdressers because she has told me I need to go even darker still to stop it and I know that just is not the case, I am the darkest I have EVER been right now I do not intend to be made to go even darker to fix this undertone.I asked if I could get some lighter brown very subtle fine/baby lights put in to it to break it up and add dimension and light just a bit of this solid dark brown but she just said no can do, you will be too warm if I do 🙁 I have a ton of layers in my hair and its sort of bra strap length, I think I need some variation in shade added to it. Thank you for this article, I have been researching colour theory and the colour wheel to try and gain some understanding, I’m a futures & commodities trader not a hairdresser so this is all a bit weird science to me right now but very interesting ! I just do not accept that I must go darker and darker still to fix this red/orange flare issue in the sunlight. This new hairdresser is supposedly a colour expert but I am not convinced of that at all.

    • Have you tried a blue toner/shampoo? If your hair is actually orange (not doubting you, but orange means different things to different people) a dark blue shampoo for brunette hair may get rid of the orange without darkening it too much.
      Also, you can always go lighter to remove the orange, going darker will not remove the orange undertones necessarily. You need blue to cancel that.

  • Hi! My hair are previously dyed in July I guess. And at the moment they are on level 6 with a bit brassy tone. I want to dye it Light ash violet blonde 8.17 keune. I did a patch test with 20 volume developer. But the Color wasn’t really appealing or any different than the one I already have. In short it just cut out the brassiness but didnt really give any grey or ashy Color. So can u please help me out

    • Hello!

      Hair dye won’t lift hair dye, so if you want to go lighter (from a 6 to an 8) you will need to first lighten your hair and then use the ash violet blonde dye or even better a toner. If you want a more intense ashy color you may need to use a darker violet dye to not only cancel the brassy tones but also add ashy tones.

      Hope this helps!

  • Hi! I had balayage done with a maid of 9&10 and a hint of ash..I’m naturally around a 7. If I use the L’Oréal 700 (dark blonde) to go back to my natural colour is this likely to leave my hair green?! I can’t face another £100+ salon trip!

  • Have light brown/ dirty blonde hair with some grey coming in , used L’Oréal excellence crime in 8g medium golden blonde, but now looks like a reddish light brown☹️ What can I use to get rid of red & how soon can i recolor

    • Hello,

      In order to get rid of the red and go blonde you will most likely need to bleach your hair lighter, and then tone the color down. What color were you trying to achieve? The reason why you need to use bleach is that hair dye won’t lift hair dye, so if you use a high lift dye you’ll end up with very patchy strange colors. If you just want to go darker then choose a brunette with a dark ashy base instead of golden/red tones and it should cover the red.

      You can recolor twice in a row, but it really depends on how damaged your hair is to start with. Lots of deep conditioning helps a lot, and will help fading the unwanted brown colors as well if you intend to dye on top.

      Hope this helps!

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