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How to Identify Natural Hair Color Levels: 6 Tips

Whether you’re about to perform a balayage, foilyage, color melt, root smudge, or really any transformative coloring or lightening service, you’ll need to have certain information in order to do the job effectively. First, you’ll need a sense of the client’s goals: Where do they want to take their hair? Second, you need to know where they are starting from.

That’s where the hair leveling system comes into play. By identifying your client’s natural hair level, you not only have a clear sense of the color you’re starting from, but also the underlying pigments that might impact the final result of your service. All of this information will be used to adjust and tweak your formulation to ensure you’re imparting the right look.

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Below is a look at the leveling system, as well as some tips about identifying the level of your client’s hair.

Understanding Hair Color Levels

You probably already know that the leveling system is a way of identifying how light or dark your client’s hair is. It is essentially a scale from 1 to 10, with Level 1 being the darkest (black) and Level 10 being the lightest (the brightest blonde).

But the leveling system tells us so much more than just how light or dark hair is. It also gives us information about the underlying pigmentation of the hair.

Each level has an underlying pigment that corresponds with the color wheel. For example, the underlying pigment for hair that is Level 1 would be blue, while the underlying pigment for Level 10 hair would be pale yellow. Knowing this is critical to a successful treatment. If you are lifting, for example, this knowledge shows you exactly what you will need to lift through to get someone to their brightest possible outcome. Explaining this system to clients can also help them understand what happens during the lightning process, which in turn will help them maintain realistic expectations.

How to Identify Natural Hair Color Levels

1. Start with a hair consultation.

Identifying your client’s natural hair level is much easier when their hair is untreated, as what you see is what you’ll get. It gets a little trickier when someone comes in with treated hair, as you’ll need to do some digging.

If your client has had any previous coloring or lightening done to their hair, your first step should be to identify where the treated hair ends and the natural hair begins. It will often be the case when hair begins to grow out and you can analyze the roots to determine natural levels. This can be hard if someone had a “ temporary” glaze or something that may have altered their natural hair slightly.

For these reasons, you should always begin with a hair consultation and take a full history of their hair.

2. Make sure the hair is clean.

This one might sound basic, but it’s important! Make sure the hair is clean, as dirty hair can appear up to 1 full shade darker. That might not seem too bad, but it can completely throw off your formulation.

3. Use natural lighting.

It’s also worth noting that it can be difficult in certain lighting to visually recognize what’s natural and what’s not. Fluorescent lights or other bright lights, or even too dark of lighting can really make it difficult to get an accurate result. Whenever possible, you should evaluate hair in natural lighting.

4. Use the color wheel.

It helps to have a color chart with the natural levels on it to place next to your clients head. Fanning these swatches out will give a more accurate picture. Once you see the level match, you know your clients natural color and can formulate or lift accordingly.

Also use a swatch book that you trust. Some can be too warm and some too cool. Make sure the swatches look natural.

5. Know your product line.

This one isn’t so much about determining the client’s level as it is about what you do with that information once you have it. Each product line is unique, and you need to know how your product line works in order to perform an effective color or lift.

6. Understand that everyone is different.

That being said, it is important to recognize the fact that people can (and often do) have multiple different levels on their head.

For example, around the hairline will often be lighter, with the hair growing darker as it moves toward the back of the head. This can either boil down to natural variations in how much sun certain parts of the hair receive, genetics, or certain treatments (like a face-framing balayage). You will need to adjust your formula accordingly to account for this fact.

Move around to different areas of the head. If there is a lot of gray it’s helpful to work more in the back of the head where there is generally less gray. Sometimes seeing that salt and pepper can throw off what their natural color really is.

Have you been struggling with your confidence when it comes to formulation? Building confidence in this area is the key to becoming a better stylist, empowering you to deliver the results that your clients are looking for. Sign up for the Salt Lab course with Christine, where you'll learn the fundamentals of color theory and real, tactical skills that will allow you to formulate with the confidence that you need! You can also sign up for our free Successful Smudging Masterclass by clicking the button below.

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