Hair Toner 101: Colorists Explain What Hair Toning Is and Why It Works

"Anyone with color treated hair should be using toners."

models with glossy colored hair
(Image credit: Chelsea Lauren)

Forget what you've been told—hair toning is way more important, and complicated, than simply dousing your hair in purple shampoo. Here's the deal: When you dye your hair or highlight it, the color oxidizes and changes over time. For platinum blondes, for example, highlighted portions of the hair tend to turn a brassy shade of yellow rather than the cool tone they walked out of the salon with. Meanwhile, brunettes and redheads looking to add warmth and dimension to their color might find that their dyed highlights turn ashy. 

"Anyone with color treated hair should be using toners. All hair color fades with time through washing and heat styling," explains Shvonne Perkins, master stylist at Madison Reed.  "Just imagine every single time you shampoo, you lose a tiny amount of color. So like your bank account, as it gets withdrawn you need to keep depositing." 

For crash course on what to know about in-salon and at-home hair toner options, keep reading. 

What is hair toner?

Hair toner is a semi-permanent dye that returns your hair to your desired tone. “Toner either deposits certain pigments onto the hair that cancel out tones you don’t want to see (think of using purple tinted shampoos to cancel out yellow tones) or to emphasize tones you do want to see (like adding golden champagne tones to blondes for complexity),” explains Perkins.

Toners are often used alongside hair glosses and glazes, which do exactly as their name suggests: grant your hair a healthy, straight-from-the-salon finish. “Gloss, glaze, and toner all essentially do the same thing,” Cassie Cohen, colorist at Sharon Dorram at Sally Hershberger in New York City, explains. "They can enhance and mute tones, while adding shine.” 

What’s the difference between a salon toner and an at-home toner?

If you’ve ever had your hair highlighted or colored, chances are your stylist sealed the deal with a toner. “Toning is the final step in the color process that dials down those unwanted tones to make the hair look neutral and sandy. Many times, this happens in the shampoo bowl and is about a 20-minute process that you don’t actively see,” explains Perkins. A good concoction (your stylist will create a custom formula depending on your hair color) can help bring out certain hues. “They can adjust the quality of the shade; if you want more copper, more violet, or more gold.” 

While a salon appointment is your best bet for a true touch-up, there are over-the-counter toning shampoos or drops that promise a similar color-correcting fix.  “They slow down fading which extends the life of color, plus they add in more pigment so the hair stays vibrant and dimensional,” says Perkins. “If you have color-treated hair, a toning shampoo should definitely be in your rotation. It’s a one-stop shop of cleansing and toning."

That said, at-home toners aren’t right for everyone—and it’s important to pick a solid formula. Cohen explains that many drugstore toning formulas can be overly drying when used the wrong way. If you happen to use too much of the wrong formula, your hair will feel more dry and flaky than shiny. 

Will toner lighten my hair color?

Toners cannot, and should not, replace the lightening process that hair goes through when it's bleached. Glosses and toners won’t actually be able to lighten your hair if you notice it fading—they should only be used to correct the tone of the color. Properly toned colors may appear brighter because they are cooler-toned, not necessarily because they are lighter in shade.

How often should I tone my hair?

Since toners are semi-permanent, it’s best to get your hair toned in between dye jobs and during the dying process. “It's the best quick fix,” Olivia Casanova, a colorist at IGK Salon in New York City, explains. 

How frequently you should get your hair toned in between washes depends on your hair color. “Redheads tend to fade the quickest, and they generally have to touch their color up more often,” Courtney Lee, a colorist at Kinloch Salon in New York, explains.

As for toning shampoos? Use a purple or blue shampoo every three washes. “Follow instructions and don't leave it on for ‘extra time’ to get more pigment. If you need more [color correction], increase the frequency of use, not how long you leave it on,” adds Perkins.  

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