How To Color Your Roots At Home: Expert Tips For First-Timers

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Written by Georgia Gould

Updated: May 15, 2024

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image via @kaylastag

Home hair color can be scary. Sure, those little boxes that adorn the shelves at your local CVS might look innocent enough, but they’re packed with strong chemicals and, if you’ve taken the plunge with a permanent color, you’re stuck with that color for quite some time. The word ‘permanent’ kind of gives it away.

All this can make it feel like you’re literally taking your life into your own hands when you open that box of color for the first time. But, here’s the thing, once you’ve successfully colored your hair at home and seen the amazing results you can achieve for, what, $10-20, you will never look back.

Don’t believe me? OK, well, would it make a difference if I told you I’m speaking from around 25 years of experience here?

And I know I’m not special because tons of people color their hair at home to save money and time but here’s the thing. I’m a writer in the hair and beauty industry and spent the earlier years of my career as a magazine Beauty Editor. So what?

Well, little known fact: working in magazines might pay terribly but, as a Beauty Editor, you get a ton of awesome perks. One of which is that you get your hair cut and colored for free whenever you like.

I loved having my hair cut by the best in the business (and not paying upwards of $200!), but sitting around in a salon for hours having my roots done? Not my jam – especially because I started going gray at the ripe age of 21 so had to get them touched up on a three-weekly basis.

Of course, I sucked it up because I have very dark hair and hated (still do!) those pesky grays. Also, I wasn’t convinced that home hair colors were all that. 

But I remember my first ‘eureka’ moment. I was at a press launch for a new home hair color and after listening to a presentation about the new technology, we were asked if we would be cool to try it out on each other.

Nobody was particularly keen, but the room was filled with new, young journos like myself so we sucked it up (all in a day’s work!) and went for it. Full disclosure, it was only a semi-permanent dye, but still, it was quite a big ask.

Anyway, it was very easy, the results were great and we were sent back to the office with our own colors to try at home. And I was sold. I have to admit, I still went back to my colorist for the odd root touch-up but, over time, those appointments became fewer and farther between until eventually I was a fully fledged home hair color expert. As I said, sold.

I’m now much older (specifics not needed!) and the grays are very real but I’m still not ready to embrace my silver fox years. I have the utmost respect for those that do but it’s just not for me. Not yet, anyway.

The good news is that over the past few decades I’ve discovered some true tried and tested favorites and developed my own fail-safe way of dealing with my roots while not overcoloring my lengths and ends. So I figure I’m pretty qualified to put my two cents worth in when it comes to helping others do the same.

Of course, I can’t speak for dying your hair blonde, or doing anything other than coloring your roots and refreshing your hair with natural-looking tones, but if that sounds like you, read on…


I’m guilty of skipping through the instruction manual for most things in life (Ikea furniture, board games, you name it), but when it comes to hair color, I never cut corners.

All hair colors have their very own variations in the way they’re mixed and/or applied. Also, their developing times may vary. So please, I beg you, read the instructions all the way through before you even start working on your hair. 

TOP TIP: I also like to lay them out on my vanity while I color my hair so they’re easy to refer back to as I proceed through each step.



Thought it would be helpful to give you a behind the scenes look of my at home color routine using Garnier Nutrisse Ultra Crème in shade 100 available at @CVS Pharmacy ☺️ howIcolormyhairathome haircolorathome garnierpartner

♬ original sound – Emily Claire Bell

Box colors often contain potent chemicals like PPD (paraphenylenediamine) which are known allergens and can cause reactions ranging from a mild, itchy rash to severe face swelling. Now that doesn’t sound fun, right? What’s also worrying is that you could develop an allergy to PPD at any time – even if you’ve previously used home hair dyes. This is why it’s crucial to always perform a patch test.

“This is one step in the coloring process never to skip, ever,” explain experts at hair coloring giants, Garnier.

“Instructions for this simple test will come with your dye kit, but they’re generally the same. First clean a small area of your skin like the bend of your elbow or back of your hand. Then apply a quarter-sized amount of dye to this area and leave it for 48 hours.

“Examine the area periodically over the next few days and if you don’t experience a skin reaction or any of the symptoms mentioned in the instructions, you’re probably good to go.”

Now, I know this sounds like a total pain in the butt and, granted, it requires a bit of forward-planning, but this small (if lengthy) test is so worth it for the sake of your skin, and potentially your entire health.


I’ve colored my hair hundreds of times and am fairly adept at getting it on my hair rather than on my clothes. But hey, nobody’s perfect and sometimes a little drop goes astray – I’m only human! 

Having learned the hard way (RIP vintage Rolling Stones tee) I now only ever wear an old, dark gray hoodie that’s well past its prime. It’s also a zip-up which means I don’t have to pull it over my head when I’m ready to jump in the shower and rinse out my color. Also, super important.


I like to color my hair two days after washing it, but I don’t use styling products like hairspray or mousse which can cause build-up and interfere with your color. If you’re in a similar boat you can do the same, but if you use a lot of product you might be better off coloring the day after wash day.

You could also try washing your hair with a clarifying shampoo 24 hours before dyeing to ensure it’s properly prepped and ready to take on your hair dye.


For an even application most home hair color brands recommend splitting your hair into sections and pinning them back to ensure even coverage all-over.

I have to admit, I don’t bother with the clips, but I do use the end of the provided comb to part my hair into small sections. If you’re a first-timer you might want to use clips, but they don’t really add that much IMHO.


All home dye jobs should first be concentrated on the roots – whether you’re super gray like me, or not.  

“The roots are the least porous parts of your hair as they’re the least damaged so they’ll need extra color processing time,” explain experts at John Frieda. 

Figure out where your most obvious roots are – my grays are concentrated along the temples and the side of my head – and start here, then work along the areas of your roots that are visible when your hair has been dried and styled.

I have bangs and a center parting so after doing my hairline and the sides of my head, I work down the parting, pulling my hair fairly tight with my other hand to really get into those roots.

I then work in small sections from one side of my parting down to my ears, repeat on the other side, then finish by coloring the roots at the back of my head, again working in sections after doing the hairline first. 


Use a timer to allow your color to develop for the exact time stated in the instructions. I used to estimate this part and often left on my color a little longer than instructed because I was so paranoid about those grays. But this made my roots look too dark and unnatural-looking. Not cool.

Wrap your hair up – I usually tie it in a loose band if I’m doing my roots only – then pop on a shower cap and set your timer. Some box brands come with a shower cap (thank you Madison Reed) but if yours doesn’t, I highly recommend buying a box from Amazon. They’re super cheap and great for keeping your clothes, towels and furniture from any color slip-ups. 

Every two or three color jobs, I color the lengths and ends of my hair, as well as my roots. This is all down to personal preference, but I find that the Californian sunshine causes a lot of fading, so I love to freshen that up every now and again.

On these occasions, I still do my roots first and allow them to develop for most of the allotted time. Then I apply color through the rest of my hair about five minutes before the time is up. Works every time.


OK, this is where I disagree with the instructions. Most box brands tell you to apply a barrier cream like Vaseline or Aquaphor to your hairline to stop color from transferring onto your skin.

Personally, I find that barrier creams can creep onto the roots of my hair which then leaves me with tiny grays framing my face. And that is so frustrating. 

Instead, I just try to be extra careful when applying color along my hairline, then use rubbing alcohol or some kind of cleansing wipe to clean my skin as I go along. Self tan remover also does the job pretty well.


Hair Dye 1 450 x 560
image via @colorbymarina

Once the time is up, I usually have a quick, cursory glance in the mirror to check that I cleaned my skin properly. Then it’s time to rinse out the color. You got this part. It’s pretty self explanatory.

When the water runs clear I then smooth a good amount of conditioner through my hair. I never knew how important this was in my early hair coloring career, but I learnt from hair colorist friends that if you skip this step the cuticles don’t lie flat and the color carries on working. 

Not keen on that happening? Yeah, me neither. That’s why I never throw away the conditioner including in the kit. It’s important to use it.


My hair fades pretty quickly but I’ve found these tricks to be great ways of keeping it looking fresh, glossy and shiny for as long as possible.

  • Wear a hat in the sun. UV radiation breaks down pigments in the hair.
  • Wash your hair less frequently. I’ve gone from every day in my 20s to three times a week. The combination of less water, less shampoo and less heat styling has worked wonders.
  • Avoid too much swimming pool time. Chlorine is a killer on colored hair, stripping away natural oils and fading color lightning fast.
  • Use a gentle shampoo and conditioner. Anything specifically formulated to lock in and protect your color is worth its weight in gold.

Use temporary root touch-ups to stop you from coloring your hair too often. Big fan of L’Oréal Magic Root Precision Temporary Gray Concealer over here. Big fan.

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