According to a Wella survey, 92 percent of women have dyed their hair at some point in their lives. So when that gorgeous, gleaming color suddenly turns a weird shade of who-knows-what or gets crazy dull a few weeks (or days) later, know you’re not alone. Others have suffered the same fate. But could the right shampoo have saved you from washing that amazing color down the drain or are those color-treated formulas just marketing hype? Here’s what you need to know about caring for colored strands.
The argument FOR sulfate-free shampoos
Most classic shampoos contain detergents that make up around 15 percent of each bottle. Their job: to sweep away dirt and oils that leave strands squeaky clean (most commonly sodium- or ammonium lauryl sulfate and sodium- or ammonium lauryl ether sulfate). However these same detergents can strip the color molecules from the hair cuticle, as well. Conversely, the kinds of cleansing agents dropped into color-treated and sulfate-free formulas typically contain gentler dirt busters that won’t strip hair of color.
Here’s where it gets tricky: There’s not really any scientific proof that going lighter on the suds' strength makes any difference to hair color preservation. “Shampoos for color-treated hair tend to be sulfate-free but there are no published studies that validate the theory that sulfates fade hair color faster than other surfactants or detergents,” says Ni’Kita Wilson, YouBeauty's Cosmetic Chemistry Expert.
But there’s no lack of anecdotal evidence. Kyle White, lead colorist at Oscar Blandi in New York City says he can instantly tell the difference between clients who follow his strict healthy hair checklist and those who don’t (plus, abiding acolytes come in way less frequently, which is a dead giveaway they work, he says). “Color-safe products don't contain alcohol, have low sulfate levels and often contain extra moisturizing elements, emollients and proteins to smooth the cuticle, giving hair luster and shine,” he says.
So does that mean you have to use a shampoo for color-treated locks? Not necessarily. If you think you’d get more benefit from a volumizing, moisturizing, curl-defining or dandruff formula, then go ahead and grab one—just look for one without sulfates to be on the safe side.
Some of the best sulfate-free surfactants to look for on the label: sodium lauryl methyl isethionate, ammonium cocyl isethionate, cocamidopropyl hydroxysultaine, decyl glucoside, cocamidopropylamine oxide, sodium lauryl sarcosinate, and sodium lauryl sulfoacetate. “These are mild, yet effective cleansers which provide a luxurious foam that quickly and cleanly rinses out,” says Jim Markham, color veteran and CEO and Founder of ColorProof, and the brains behind cult-favorite Pureology.
Go easy on the heat—indoors and out
Put. Down. The. Hair. Dryer. “Heat is the biggest factor in color fading,” says Nancy Braun, celebrity colorist at Rossano Ferretti Hair Spa in Beverly Hills and a L’Oréal Professionnel Ambassador. “Flat irons, curling irons and blow dryers all scorch hair and open the cuticle, allowing for dyes to slip out.”
“Studies show that having a UV filter in a hair care product can reduce color fading by up to 40 percent,” says Wilson, who adds that most of these findings are based on controlled studies that only reflected washing — not the normal wear and tear that we put our hair through on a daily basis.
An upside to color-specific shampoos is that most of them are laced with some combo of UV absorbers and antioxidants to prevent free radical damage, (yes, the same pesky electron-hungry molecules that are the main culprit of skin aging and DNA damage). Free radicals rip apart the pigments used to color the hair which results in fading, brassiness and dullness.
Potent color protectants such as benzophenone-3 and 4, butyl methoxydibenzoylmethane, or trademark combos like ChromAveil and Heliogenol (found in the new ColorProof line), all offer UV protection as well as some of the same antioxidants typically cast as skin defenders including ascorbic acid (vitamin C) and tocopheryl acetate (vitamin E).
Dry shampoo may just be your haircolor’s new BFF. “As soon as hair gets wet, strands swell and pigment begins to escape,” says Wilson. “The more you shampoo, the quicker the fading.” Skip a suds-session every other day and spray a powder-based dry shampoo directly on roots to sop up grease (choose a tinted version to conceal grays or roots if you’re in need of a dye job).
Color-depositing shampoos have some merit—if you go easy on them.
Unlike shampoos that are formulated to go easy on dyed locks, color-depositing treatments do just what they say—add color. They give your blonde, red or brown a little somethin’ somethin’ and ward off premature brassiness, but they can’t replace real deal color, nor should they be used every day. “Color depositing shampoos literally dye the surface of hair temporarily—dropping tiny color polymers onto the hair’s outer layer,” explains White.
Wilson adds: “It's strictly a cosmetic effect — like putting a lip stain on lips.”
Despite their fleeting payoff, most salon colorists are fans, saying these formulas keep color vibrant longer — and since they’re clearly targeted for color-treated hair, they’re likely to contain all the aforementioned healthy hair go-tos (milder surfactants, moisturizers and UV protection). “They replace pigments lost from shampooing or sun exposure to maintain a rich tone, ” says White, who suggests diluting them a bit by mixing one with your normal color-safe shampoo so they don’t eclipse your colorists’ hard work. “They're a great way for clients to make minor adjustments to their color without having to run back to the salon.”
Marie Robinson, owner of the Marie Robinson Salon in New York City advocates for these tinted cleansers but warns: “If it isn’t the right tone match, it’ll alter the original, intended shade.” Don’t risk a botched color job by picking up just any bottle brown, red or blonde shade; ask a colorist what the tint is going to do your color.