(CNN) -- Whether they're covering up the salt in their salt-and-pepper strands or just adding some glossy oomph, 78 million women in the United States dye their hair, according to research from Garnier. Maybe it's the first time you've colored yours, or perhaps you've been doing it for so long you hardly remember what your natural color looks like, but either way, the game has changed.
New hydrating formulas (made with oils and butters and no ammonia) are replacing the older, harsher ones, and innovations such as foam make it even easier to handle coloring at home.
Because there are so many great options out there, we asked experts to explain how to get your best shade ever (whether you want your actual color, only better, or to try a whole new hue) and how to protect it. We have you covered—from root to tip!
Be prepared The healthier your hair is to start, the better it will take (and retain) a new hue, says Rick Wellman, color director at Patrick Melville Salon in New York City. You'll also get longer-lasting shine. Dry, damaged hair can soak up dye, leaving a blotchy result. A week before coloring, prep strands with a clarifying shampoo. This helps remove oils and product buildup that could interfere with the dye, explains Ben Stewart, color director at Cutler Salon in New York City. Skip styling products the day you color for the same reason.
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Take baby steps If your hair's cocoa-colored, it's going to take a lot to get to Heidi Klum blond—and, chances are, your hair will suffer major damage along the way. It's best to make small adjustments from your starting point (natural or dyed) so you—and your hair—have a chance to adapt. Also, an at-home attempt isn't the time to be daring: "A skillful colorist can make a radical change, but it's probably best left to professionals," Stewart says. Note: If you've dyed your hair dark, it's hard to lighten it back, he says. You'd first have to bleach hair to remove all pigment, then apply new color. Resist!
Find your best shade When you're buying a box of color at the drugstore, you want to select a hue that works with your general coloring, says Brad Johns, color director of the Salon and Spa at Saks Fifth Avenue in New York City. Whatever you pick, first test a small section at the base of your neck.
Eyeball it: To determine whether you need a warm or cool tone (either more golden or more ashy), check your eyes. If there are flecks of brown-orange in your irises, go warm. If the flecks are green or blue, pick a cool shade.
Check your jewelry: If you look better in silver than in gold, choose cool tones. If you gravitate toward gold, warmer is likely best.
Follow an old photo: Check out those family albums. "Hair gets darker as you age," notes Johns. "The color that you had when you were a child is brighter than what you have now but still within the same color family, so it will look the most natural."
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Know your type Next, decode the boxes on store shelves.
Semi or demi. A semipermanent color lasts three to four shampoos, while demi sticks around for about 28. Both are good options if you're new to color, but only demi will hide grays. It fades gradually within four to six weeks, so if you don't like the color, it's not a big commitment, and you can touch it up yourself. Neither lightens hair.
Permanent. This is great choice if you are going several shades darker or lighter and want lasting color (roots will need retouching every six to eight weeks). But it won't come out without another chemical treatment. Some good new picks:
• Garnier Olia has zero ammonia and contains oil (sunflower, passionflower, camellia) to deposit color.
• Revlon Luxurious ColorSilk Buttercream is also ammonia-free and has a patented UV absorber to stop fading.
• John Frieda Precision Foam Colour comes in 20 shades and has an easy-to-use mousselike texture.
• Gloss. Made with little or no pigment, glosses can be applied immediately after dye jobs (or for a boost between treatments) to refresh color and amp up shine.
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Highlights Forget geeky caps with holes to yank hair through: Check out store shelves for a variety of new kits that offer an easy way to significantly change color without committing to a full head of it. Then, keep your highlights vibrant with products that don't deposit dulling residue, such as Pantene Pro-V Highlighting Expressions shampoo.
Try these pro tricks When you're taking color into your own hands, make sure you're working in a well-ventilated room. Then follow these strategies:
• Before starting, apply a petroleum-based cream (like Vaseline) right where the hairline stops to prevent dye from staining skin.
• Unless you're coloring for the first time, don't drag the dye all the way to the ends, which can cause a drab, flat look.
• For subtle highlights, separate ultra-skinny sections, then paint on product, says Kari Hill, master colorist at Meche Salon in Beverly Hills. Tuck a cotton ball at the root, and cover hair with plastic wrap.
Copyright Health Magazine 2011