Mastering Hair Color Formulation: A Comprehensive Guide for Stylists

February 6, 2024

The art and science of hair coloring depend heavily on mastering formulation. As a hair stylist, you aim to solve problems and deliver exceptional coloring results that exceed client expectations. It can be particularly challenging to rely on toners or follow trendy social media techniques. However, with a solid grasp of the 4 Steps of Formulation, you gain freedom, control, and consistency. Importantly, these steps are universal, meaning they apply to all brands and allow brand flexibility.

The 4 Steps of Formulation

  1. Know Where You Are Starting

Accurately Determine Level and Tone

Before embarking on the coloring journey, you must clearly understand the client's hair's current level and tone. Using swatch books helps provide an accurate representation, which is critical to the correct formulation.

Match to Darkest Level if Unsure

Matching the existing to the darker level is safer if caught between two classes to avoid over-processing the hair.

Note if Hair is Virgin or Previously Colored

Virgin hair behaves differently than those that have been previously colored. Previous colors may limit the options available for future coloring.

Consider Texture

The texture of the hair (fine, medium, coarse) influences how it will deposit versus lift. Thicker, coarser hair often requires more extended processing or vital developer solutions.

Why It's Crucial

The starting point sets the stage for all the following steps. Incorrect initial assessment can result in a domino effect of errors.

  1. Know Where You Are Going

Consult on Client's Goals

A thorough consultation will give you insights into the client's goals. Their input is crucial for a satisfactory result.

Skin Tone, Eye Color, and Lifestyle

Your client's skin tone, and lifestyle are essential in determining the most flattering shades. For example, certain warm tones may complement a more relaxed skin undertone better.

Decide Finish Type

Determine whether an opaque full coverage or multidimensional look best fits your client's needs.

Individualization Is Key

Remember, there is no one-size-fits-all formula. Customization ensures that you are truly meeting your client's unique requirements.

  1. Determine Developer

Deposit-Only Cases

For deposit-only coloring, a 10-volume developer is sufficient. Believing that 20 volumes are needed for gray hair can cause unnecessary brassiness.

Lifting Natural Base

If you aim to lift the natural base, a 20-volume developer is the right choice.

Sequence Matters

It is crucial to pick the developer before selecting, as it helps balance between deposit and lift.

4. Enhance or Neutralize

Determine Color Goals

Are you looking to enhance the warmth in your client's hair, or are you aiming to neutralize it?

The Four Pillars

You can only take four basic actions when formulating: lighten, darken, add warmth, and reduce heat. Understanding this simplifies complex challenges.


Mastering the art of formulation is akin to having a magic wand that allows you to pick from a range of products, troubleshoot effectively, and meet diverse client needs. Consistent success as a colorist requires ongoing education; attending classes, workshops, and continuously practicing are vital to staying at the forefront of this ever-evolving industry. Formulation isn't just a part of the job—it's the foundation upon which excellent colorists build their careers.

Frequently Asked Questions

How Do I Mix Colors to Create A Unique Hair Color Formulation?

Creating a unique formulation is an art that requires a good understanding of theory and its principles. By skillfully mixing colors, stylists can achieve stunning and personalized results for their clients. Here are the essential techniques and considerations to help you create your unique formulation.

  1. Start with a color wheel

The color wheel is a crucial tool that helps artists and designers understand how these work together. It visually represents the relationships between different hues and how they can be combined to create various effects. The wheel consists of primary (red, blue, and yellow), secondary (green, orange, and violet), and tertiary (a combination of primary and secondary colors). By referring to the wheel, you can identify which  complement each other, allowing you to create beautiful and harmonious blends.

  1. Understand the color level system

The color level system determines the lightness or darkness of strands. It ranges from level 1 (black) to level 10 (pale yellow). Before mixing, it is crucial to assess the current level of the client's hair and the desired level of the final result. It will help you choose the right shades and achieve the desired level of lightness or darkness.

  1. Consider the underlying pigments

Every natural hair color has underlying pigments that contribute to its overall appearance. For example, dark may have red or orange undertones, while blond may have yellow undertones. When formulating a unique one, it is essential to take these principles.

What Types of Tools and Materials are Needed for Hair Color Formulation?

When it comes to formulation, having the right tools and materials is essential for achieving the desired results. Here is a comprehensive list of the items you need to have in your arsenal:

  1. Hair color chart

A color chart is a visual representation of different shades and tones. It helps you choose the right one and level for your client's desired outcome.

  1. Mixing bowl

A mixing bowl is necessary for blending products. Look for a bowl with measurements to ensure accurate mixing ratios.

  1. Measuring spoons

Measuring spoons serve the purpose of gauging exact amounts of color and developer to ensure uniform and anticipated outcomes.

  1. Developer

Developers come in different volumes (10, 20, 30, or 40) and are mixed with the hair color to activate the dye molecules. The choice of developer volume depends on the desired level of lift or deposit.

  1. Hair color brushes

Hair brushes are used to apply the mixture to the hair. Opt for brushes with soft bristles for smooth and even application.

  1. Sectioning clips

Sectioning clips are essential for dividing the hair into manageable sections during the application. It ensures thorough coverage and reduces the risk of missed spots.

  1. Gloves

Gloves are necessary to protect your hands from direct contact with color and developer. Choose latex or nitrile gloves for optimal protection.

  1. Foils

Foils are used for highlighting and lowlights. They help isolate specific sections of hair to create dimension and contrast. Aluminum foil is commonly used for this purpose.

  1. Color remover

Color removers are used to remove or correct the unwanted. They help to strip away excess paint and prepare for a new application.

  1.  Shampoo and conditioner

Shampoo and conditioner are essential for prepping the hair before coloring and maintaining  it afterward. There are products that are specifically designed for treated strands to ensure longevity and vibrancy.

Are Certain Hair Color Formulas Better for Specific Hair Types?

Choosing the right formula is crucial for achieving the desired results and keeping hair healthy and vibrant. In the hairstyling world, understanding how hair types react to various procedures is vital. By tailoring the formula to suit the specific needs of each type, stylists can achieve exceptional results while maintaining the health and integrity of the strands. 

  1. Fine Hair

Fine hair tends to be delicate and more prone to damage. When choosing a hair color formula for fine strands, it is essential to consider its tendency to absorb quickly. Opt for lower ammonia content formulas to prevent over-processing and minimize damage. Additionally, selecting gentle developers and nourishing ingredients can help maintain its condition and avoid breakage.

  1. Thick or Coarse Hair

Thick or coarse strands often requires more potent formulas to penetrate the strands shaft effectively. Look for formulas with higher ammonia content and more vital developers to ensure optimal deposit. Additionally, choose formulas with moisturizing agents to counteract dryness that can occur with thicker types.

  1. Curly or Textured Hair

Curly or textured strands require extra care when it comes to color. It is essential to choose formulas that provide sufficient moisture to prevent excessive drying and maintain the hair's natural shape and texture. Opt for gentle formulas with lower ammonia content and moisturizing ingredients to minimize damage and frizz. It is also crucial to consider the porosity of curly or textured hair, as it can affect how it is absorbed. A professional consultation with a stylist experienced in working with curly or textured strands can help determine the best formula and technique for achieving desired results.

  1. Damaged or Chemically Treated Hair

For the damaged or chemically treated, it is crucial to choose one that is gentle and nourishing. Look for formulas with lower ammonia content and ingredients that promote strands health and repair, such as keratin or argan oil. Avoid harsh chemicals and opt for formulas.

Selecting the right hair color formula for different types is essential for achieving optimal results and maintaining health. 

By considering each type's specific characteristics and needs, stylists can tailor their color formulas to provide exceptional results while minimizing damage. It is essential to stay updated on new developments in color technology and to consult with industry professionals and educators to ensure the best possible outcomes for clients. By continuously learning and adapting, stylists can provide the highest level of service and expertise.

What Safety Precautions Should I Take When Formulating Hair Color?

When it comes to formulating hair color, ensuring the safety of your clients should always be your top priority. Taking the necessary precautions can minimize potential risks and provide a safe environment for you and your clients. 

  1. Conduct a patch test

Before applying the formula to your client's entire head, performing a patch test to check for any allergic reactions is crucial. This involves using a small amount of the color formula behind the ear or on the inner arm and waiting for 24-48 hours to observe any adverse reactions.

  1. Read product labels

Carefully read the labels of the products you are using. Look for any warnings, instructions, or ingredients that may cause allergies or sensitivities. Understanding the product's chemical composition is essential for safe application.

  1. Use protective equipment

Always wear protective gloves, aprons, and goggles when handling and applying. These items will help protect your skin, eyes, and clothing from potential chemical contact and irritation.

  1. Proper ventilation

Ensure your salon or workspace is well-ventilated to minimize exposure to fumes and odors from color products. Open windows or use exhaust fans to promote fresh air circulation, reducing the inhalation of potentially harmful chemicals.

  1. Follow the manufacturer's instructions

Each color brand may have specific instructions for mixing ratios, processing times, and application techniques. Adhere to these guidelines to achieve optimal results and avoid any negative consequences. Deviating from the recommended instructions may compromise the safety and integrity of the formulation.

  1. Educate your clients

Inform your clients about the potential risks and benefits of hair coloring, and discuss any concerns they may have. Encourage open communication to ensure you comprehensively understand their history, allergies, and sensitivities. 

  1. Maintain cleanliness and hygiene

Maintain a tidy and hygienic workspace at all times. Regularly disinfect your tools, brushes, and bowls to hinder the growth of bacteria and other detrimental substances.

  1. Stay updated on regulations and best practices

The hair color industry constantly evolves, with new products and techniques being introduced regularly. Stay informed about the latest regulations, guidelines, and best practices to ensure you employ the most up-to-date safety measures in your salon.

  1. Seek professional guidance

If you need clarification on any aspect of formulation or safety precautions, seek advice from industry professionals, educators, or manufacturers. 

In conclusion, prioritizing safety when formulating is essential for stylists, salon owners, and consultants. By following these safety precautions, you can provide your clients with a secure and comfortable experience while showcasing your professionalism and expertise. 

Continuous learning and staying updated are crucial in the ever-evolving hair industry. By educating yourself, adhering to guidelines, and seeking professional guidance when needed, you can ensure the highest safety and satisfaction for you and your clients.

What Are The Most Common Challenges Associated with Hair Color Formulation?

Hair color formulation can be a complex process that needs an understanding of chemistry and a keen eye for detail. There are several common challenges that stylists, salon owners, and consultants often face when it comes to formulation. Here are some of the most prevalent ones:

  1. Achieving the desired shade

One of the primary challenges in color formulation is achieving the exact shade the client desires. Factors such as the client's natural hair color, underlying tones, and previous treatments can all impact the final result. It requires careful analysis and formulation to create one that matches the client's expectations.

  1. Color correction

Another significant challenge is correcting color mistakes or addressing unwanted tones. Whether fixing a botched home dye job or neutralizing brassy or orange tones, correction requires a thorough understanding of theory and formulating the right mix of colors to achieve the desired result.

  1. Consistency

Maintaining consistency in formulation is crucial, especially for salon owners who want to deliver consistent results to their clients. Replicating the exact color formula across different clients, types, and lengths can be challenging. Keeping detailed records and using proper measurement techniques can ensure consistency.

  1. Product knowledge

With the plethora of color products available, being updated with the latest formulations, ingredients, and techniques can be overwhelming. Understanding the specific properties of different color lines, including their processing times, levels of lift, and desired results, is essential for successful formulation.

  1. Balancing durability and hair health

Finding the right balance between long-lasting color and maintaining the hair's health can be challenging. Some treatments can cause damage or dryness, primarily if not used correctly or if it is already compromised. Stylists need to know the different types of formulations and their effects to better decide on what to use on their clients.

How can these challenges be overcome?

While color formulation can be challenging, there are several ways to overcome these common obstacles:

  1. Education and ongoing training

Continuously educating yourself about the latest trends, techniques, and products in the industry is essential. Attend seminars, workshops, and classes to stay updated and enhance your knowledge and skills. Investing in ongoing training can help you overcome challenges and provide your clients with the best possible results.

  1. Consultation and communication

Before starting any color service, thoroughly consult your client to understand their expectations, history, and desired outcome. Clear communication and managing expectations help avoid disappointment and ensure you can achieve the desired shade.

  1. Understanding color theory and formulation

A solid understanding of color theory and formulation is crucial for successful formulation. Study the color wheel, learn about complementary and contrasting colors, and experiment with different  formulas to better understand how these  interact and create different shades.

  1. Recordkeeping and product knowledge

Keeping detailed records of each client's hair color history, including the products used and the results achieved, can help you track their progress and adjust as needed. Additionally, staying up-to-date with the latest product knowledge is essential for understanding different color lines' specific properties and benefits. This knowledge can help you choose the right products for your client's unique needs.

  1. Prioritizing hair health

When formulating color, it's essential to prioritize the strands' health. This means using gentle, nourishing products formulated with high-quality ingredients. Avoiding harsh chemicals and over-processing the hair can help maintain its integrity and prevent damage. Additionally, incorporating deep conditioning treatments and recommending proper at-home care routines can help keep it healthy and vibrant.

In conclusion, overcoming the challenges of formulation requires continuous education, effective communication, a solid understanding of color theory and formulation, record keeping, and prioritizing health. By implementing these strategies, stylists can provide their clients with exceptional results while maintaining the health of the client's hair.

How Can I Determine the Right Hair Color Formulation for My Client?

Determining your client's right hair color formulation is crucial in providing a satisfactory and personalized service. It requires a careful understanding of various factors, such as the client's natural color, desired outcome, skin tone, and hair condition. Here are some steps to help you determine the perfect formulation for your client:

  1. Consultation is Key

Begin by having a thorough consultation with your client. Discuss their desired color, style, and any specific concerns they may have. Please take this opportunity to assess their natural color, texture, and skin tone. Pay close attention to any allergies, sensitivities, or previous treatments.

  1. Analyze the Natural Hair Color

Understanding your client's natural color is essential for achieving the desired result. Evaluate the depth, tone, and underlying pigments present. This will help you determine the level of lift or deposit required.

  1. Determine the Desired Outcome

Identify the result your client wants to achieve. Are they looking for a subtle change, a dramatic transformation, or simply covering gray hair? Understanding their expectations will guide you in choosing the appropriate formulation.

  1. Consider Skin Tone

The choice of the right formulation is influenced significantly by one's skin tone. Cool-toned skin complements more fabulous shades, while warm-toned skin pairs well with warmer tones. Analyze your client's skin undertones and recommend suitable shades accordingly.

  1. Assess Hair Condition

Evaluate the condition of your client's hair, including its porosity, elasticity, and overall health. This will determine the type of color formulation and techniques you should use. Damaged or compromised strands may require a gentler approach, using less harsh or ammonia-free products.

  1. Factor in Color Theory

Understanding color theory is essential for formulating the right color. This includes the principles of color wheel, color families, and complementary. Use this knowledge to create harmonious and balanced formulations.

  1. Keep Records

It is crucial to keep detailed records of each client's formulation and any adjustments made during the process. This will help you track their preferences, formulas, and potential allergies or sensitivities.

  1. Prioritize Hair Health

While achieving the desired hair color is essential, it should not come at the expense of hair health. Consider using hair care products that promote hydration, nourishment, and protection against damage. Educate your clients on proper at-home care routines to maintain the integrity of their color.

By following these steps and continuously educating yourself, you can provide your clients with exceptional hair results. Communication and understanding your client's needs are crucial to achieving their desired outcome.

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