Colorists Explain What Toner Is and Why Your Dye Job Desperately Needs It

With so many different hair coloring products available on the market, it can be impossible to know what you actually need. People with dyed hair know dyeing involves either a double or single process (lightening or bleaching, if needed, followed by the actual pigment), but in between salon visits there are a variety of professional and at-home options to help maintain a healthy-looking color. Exhibit A: Hair toner. It does exactly what it sounds like—tones your color to control brassiness and keep hair looking healthy. Yet, there is still confusion on how it works.

That’s why consulted a panel of expert colorists, including Kristin Ess, Celebrity Hairstylist and Founder of Kristin Ess, IGK Miami colorist Savanna Palladino, and Sharon Dorram, Master Colorist at Sharon Dorram Color at Sally Hershberger Salon, to break down everything you need to know bout toners and how they’re used.

What is a hair toner?

Ess describes toners as a “topcoat for your hair.” It usually comes in a gel or gloss-like formula, and works to emphasize or deemphasize certain tones in your hair, as well as add shine. Palladino adds that toners aren’t one specific product. That is, you usually can’t go out and just buy a “toner.” Demi-permanent colors, glosses, and tinted shampoos and conditioners can all be considered toners, because they all contain pigments that adjust tone in your hair. Typically, the pigment delivered in toners can last about three to four weeks.

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What are the different kinds of toners?

Demi-permanent colors, a.k.a. glosses, deposit color without lightening the hair. “Glosses typically last about six to eight weeks, and there is no grow-out process; they just fade out of the hair,” Palladino says. Glosses work for clients who switch up their hair color more often, or want to try something new without the commitment of permanent color.

Purple and blue toning products—like the commonly-used purple shampoos and conditioners—work to eliminate brassiness. Purple toning products are perfect for blondes, since the violet reduces yellow tones and eliminates brassiness to keep blonde hair looking fresh, while blue toning products are perfect for brunettes since the blue cancels out orange tones and increases luster in the hair.

Why do people need hair toner, and how is it used?

Ess says, “People need toning glosses for many reasons, but the most popular is to either maintain the tones in their hair that they love, or to adjust warm or cool tones.” Toners can also be used to add shine, increase the softness of hair, or reduce the appearance of split ends. Dorram adds that toners can bring life back into hair that looks brassy or dull, and make the existing color more vibrant.

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What are some benefits of using toner?

Toners are a great multi-use products that have a variety of benefits. They, of course, refresh and enhance tone, but they also add dimension to hair color, and eliminate discoloration. Toners also strengthen hair by creating a protective barrier around the strands, and balance the porosity of hair by filling in the shaft. Lastly, toners add volume and shine to hair by plumping the hair cuticle to make it fuller, while also sealing down the cuticle to create reflection and shine.

Can you use toner at home, or should you have it done by a professional?

“If you need any major color work, you should always go to a pro,” says Ess. “You can really mess up your color by going out of your ‘hair color family’ with any color product at home.” However, she does also note that you can definitely take care of toning at home, as long as you’re careful.

Dorram advises to add a little shampoo to the toner to emulsify it throughout the hair, and notes that, if you follow the instructions, toner is safe to use at home. Just conduct a little patch test with a small hidden chunk of hair at the nape of your neck.

What are some products that can be used to tone your hair at home?

If you’re wondering what products can be used to tone your hair at home, Palladino recommends IGK’s Mixed Feelings Leave-In Blonde Toning Drops. The purple pigment drops mix in with any of your favorite hair care products like shampoos, conditioners, oils, creams, or stylers to create a toner.

Ess recommends the Signature Glosses from her eponymous line for at-home toning. Her glosses come in eight different shades, from clear to dark brown-black to help boost color-treated hair. She notes, “The Signature Glosses are safe to use at home because I have intentionally formulated them to be less powerful and less pigmented than what we use in the salon.”

My hair is currently an ashy gray-silver-blonde (my natural color is black), so I use Overtone’s Extreme Silver Complete System to maintain it. I haven’t had my hair colored at a salon in six months, but my gray hair is still going strong thanks to these products. Overtone also has lines for a number of different color families—including blue, rose gold, purple, green, and more—in pastel, vibrant, and extreme ranges.

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