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The Science Behind
Hair Color

There are 3 types of hair color: temporary, such as Root Touch Up, semi-permanent, like our Color Reviving Gloss, and permanent, which would be our Radiant Cream Color. To understand how hair color works, it's necessary to first understand both the basics of natural hair color and artificial color.

How Permanent Hair
Color Works

Permanent color works from the inside of the hair shaft to permanently change the color from within. In order to do this, the permanent color opens the cuticle—hair's outer layer—and lifts the hair's natural pigment, depositing the new, artificial pigment to the cortex—hair's middle layer, before closing the cuticle back up.

Lift is one of the most important terms in permanent hair color, and refers to the removal of depth or darkness in the hair. Permanent color only lifts natural pigment from hair, and can't be used to lift artificial pigment. Radiant Cream Color shades use either a 20 volume or 30 volume activator, lifting 1-3 levels of natural color. This means that the effects will vary depending on if you are starting with natural or color-treated hair

Click here to learn more about common problems when coloring hair.

Natural Pigment

Natural pigment refers to naturally occurring color, called melanin. Although there is a wide variety of natural hair color, all hair is comprised of the same four pigments—black and brown pigments called eumelanin, and red and yellow pigments called pheomelanin.

Every hair color contains all four pigments, but at different levels. That is, blonde hair still has black and brown eumelanin, but at smaller levels that it contains red and yellow pheomelanin, and vice versa.

The amount of total pigment dictates how light or dark hair is. Factoring in natural hair pigment helps determine how permanent hair color will respond.

Level & Tone

To make color easier to describe accurately, we say it has two characteristics: level and tone.


Level simply refers to how light or dark—the lower the number, the darker the hair. This number ranges from 1-10, with 1 being darkest black, and 10 lightest blonde.


Tone refers to the underlying color of the hair, commonly referred to as either "cool" or "warm." To create natural tone, all four of the hair's natural pigments are present.

A predominance of black and brown pigments creates cool-toned hair, while a predominance of red and yellow pigments creates warm-toned hair. We call cool-toned hair "ash", while warm-toned hair has visible gold, copper or reddish tints and is called chestnut, auburn, or golden.

Describing Natural Color

To describe tone more accurately and to differentiate it from level, we use letters. Natural tones are G for Gold and C for copper, so chestnut brown hair is more accurately described as a Level 5 with gold and copper tones, or a 5GC.

Describing Artificial Color

Describing colors added to hair follows the same principle as describing natural color. The levels are the same numbers, from 1 to 10, and the tones have letters. Being able to crack the code means we can tell exactly what is in the color we are using, how light/dark and what tones.

However, there are more tones in artificial color than in natural color, which is where the fun starts. With artificial hair color, we can use colors that do not occur in nature, like red, violet, mahogany and platinum, as well as cover gray. It helps to understand universal color theory when choosing color to understand which color will work best with your natural hair color and skin tone.

Mixed Permanent Hair Colors

Mixed Permanent Hair Colors At Madison Reed, we often mix tones, just like a master colorist. This makes colors look more naturally multi-dimensional, complements skin tone and enhances eye color. For example, 7NCG is our Sardinia Red, a rich auburn with hints of copper and gold, or 10NVA, our Roma Blonde, which is a cool blonde with smoky undertones.

Click here to learn more about the basics of hair.

As you can see, there's a science to good hair. We've perfected that science with our continuous Color Care System, designed to not only give you a good hair day, but a good hair life.

Color Care System