This site contains affiliate links. As an Amazon Associate, I earn a commission from qualifying purchases at no extra cost to you.

Understanding The Hair Color Wheel

While the color wheel may be one of the first things you learn in primary school. Understanding the hair color wheel with its colors of layers jumbled up into each other can sound scary and intimidating, and it’s enough to make any hair lover hurry the other way.

But it’s the foundation and ultimate stepping stone you need to master to become a seasoned colorist in the industry.

The color wheel is actually quite simple – you just have to take the time to sit down and learn it without quitting.

To help with that, here’s a simple and easy-to-understand 411 on using color theory and its infamous wheel for dyeing your hair that perfect shade and tone.

Why Color Theory Is Important When Dyeing Your Hair

Many hair dye first-timers go into a salon under the assumption that they can just point and choose what color they want their hair to be, and a stylist will magically get it done for them.

While this is undoubtedly the dream for anyone who loves changing up their color, it’s never that simple.

Your colorist has to study your hair, from your natural lightness level to what underlying pigment they’ll be exposing once your strands are bleached.

Only then will they decide how to tone and bring you to the hue and shade you want.

The color wheel is the immaculate guide to coloring and toning your hair -the colorists’ Bible, if you will.

Coloring hair isn’t just about vanity and aesthetics. It’s science too.

Color theory is a way to help your hair look natural after the dyeing process.

This means it isn’t drowned out by brassiness and will shine lusciously in the true color you want.

It’s mandatory to learn it to know which toner will go with what hair pigment.

If not, you’ll be stuck with hair that’s unflatteringly warm.


Color Wheel Basics: Primary And Secondary Colors

To refresh ourselves on the basic colors in the wheel, let’s take a walk down memory lane, to those days in pre-school art class.

Red, yellow, and blue are your primary colors.

These are the colors that pre-exist and can’t be made.

They’re the base colors for any dye or toner you use.

Any other color is a product of mixing one or two of them together.

Next up, we have secondary colors – the colors you can create by combining primary colors.

Red and blue make purple, yellow and blue make green, and red and yellow make orange.

More advanced color wheels include tertiary colors and make everything look a lot more complicated than things should be, so to make things simpler, let’s look at a basic color wheel with only six colors.

A basic color wheel features the three primary colors and the three secondary ones.

Secondary colors sit between the two primary shades mixed together to create them, so orange lies between red and yellow on the wheel, and so on.

There’s a reason for holding the wheel up as a guide during hair coloring.

It’s to see which colors are in contrast and can cancel each other out.

Whatever color sits opposite any given shade is the contrasting pair that can neutralize it.

For example, when you draw the color wheel up, you’ll find that purple and yellow face each other.

That means purple cancels out gold and overly warm tones, which is why purple shampoo is a cult favorite for blondes.

understanding the hair color wheel


Understanding Underlying Pigment Colors

Now, stick with me as we talk about something a bit more complicated: underlying pigments.

These pigments, also known as “undertones,” are the color of your hair underneath the cuticle and the melanin that gives you your true color.

Natural pigment can be found in everyone’s hair, and usually pulls warm, from reds to yellows.

Darker hair colors like black and deep brown will have a red undertone, medium shades like brunettes have will pull copper tones, and platinum blondes will have yellows and golds.

The color of this underlying pigment will be visually exposed when your hair is bleached.

It’s the first color you’ll see after color is stripped from your locks.

So if you have rich, chocolate brown hair that you want to lift three or so shades lighter, you’ll end up with an orange-yellow tone instead of a light hazelnut (that’s the job of toning; more on that later!).

Understanding underlying pigment colors is vital for darkening your hair too.

Let’s say you’re a light blondie who wants to go raven-haired.

You can’t just get some black dye and call it a day.

You first need to fill in your underlying pigments, making them redder first before getting to a bold jet black.

If you don’t fill in your hair with the correct underlying pigments for the hair color you want, you could end up with lifeless, ultra-ashy hair that washes out your strands and isn’t so pretty under the light.


Understanding The Hair Color Wheel When Toning

It’s game time; this is when the real work begins.

Your hair is lightened and has exposed either a gold, copper, or red undertone in your natural hair pigment, but you’re not done.

Over your stylist’s dead body are you going to walk out of the salon with super unflattering and overly warm tones!

The real magic of coloring your hair lies in toning.

To do that, we have to go back to our trusty friend and the star of the show – the color wheel.


What do toners do?

Yellows, oranges, and reds are cute on some people, but they’re generally not so flattering and natural-looking.

In fact, they tend to be too striking and can wash out your skin tone.

That’s not a look you’re ever going to flaunt.

That’s where the ever-reliable toners come in.

Toners work to neutralize your hair and cancel out the brassiness of your natural underlying pigment’s color.

They correct the overly warm tones that came about from your bleaching session.

As a result, they transform your locks into the color you envisioned before walking into the salon.

You may have sat for hours getting your hair lightened to the exact shade you needed, but it’s the several minutes of toning that is the hero of your coloring process.

In short, it’s what makes your hair end up looking flattering, light-reflective, and downright fabulous.

Toners sit on the spectrum of warm, neutral, and cool, depending on what you prefer.

It’s no longer about changing the shade or lightness, but the hue and warmth of your locks.

A fiery redhead will probably want a warm tone, while a sleek silver fox might opt for a cool tone for that grungy, ashy hue.

Another reason why toner is the star of your coloring sesh is that it adds shine and polishing to your hair, making it look lively and luminous.

It can even reduce dryness and tame flyaways for that perfect glam hairdo.


Picking the right toner

Now, how do you pick the right toner for your hair?

The answer lies in the color wheel.

The toner you need should be the color sitting directly opposite the shade of your underlying pigment.

This contrasting color will counteract those unflattering, intensely warm tones to give you a more desirable tone.

It’s key to remember which colors cancel each other out.

Yellow is counteracted by purple, orange is neutralized by blue, and red is zapped away by green.

So if you lightened your brown hair and pulled yellow-ish tones, you need a purple toner to neutralize those stark gold streaks to create a natural-looking blonde.

Or if you have orangey streaks peeking through, grab that blue toner to pull the copper back a bit.

The color wheel is the only guide you need to know for sure what color toner you need to neutralize unwanted brassiness in your tresses.

When you finally have the perfect shade, lightness, and tone in your locks, it would be a terrific idea to maintain it for as long as you can.

For that, you can use a color-depositing shampoo to tone your hair now and then.

This retains your color, keeping it from fading quickly.

There’s likely a plethora of purple and blue shampoos in your nearest drugstore to take away any gold and copper undertones in your hair.

If you want to get rid of a reddish tone, scout for a good green shampoo.

This one might be more difficult to find, but it will be so worth it in the end if you manage to track one down.



The color wheel can sometimes cause a lot of head-shaking and confusion among hair dye virgins and even cosmetology newbies.

If you’re nervous about getting your tresses colored for the first time, you might find comfort in the fact that color theory is never wrong.

It’s a science that the crème de la crème of stylists have perfected over the years.

So any experienced colorist who knows what they’re doing should be able to tone your hair properly after your lightening job to give you a flattering color that isn’t all reds and coppers.

Understanding the hair color wheel is a great step towards knowing how to go about the toning process.

I know studying the color wheel can be bewildering at first.

But once you learn and understand it more, you’ll be dashing to book your next consultation at the salon to have a chat with your favorite stylist.

You’ll be confident in choosing what tone and color you want done on your locks at your next coloring session.

Leave a Comment

You cannot copy content of this page