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Knowing Which Type of Developer to Use for Different Results

13 volume hair developer
As stylists, when we think of formulation we often get caught up in color theory and choosing the perfect color combinations for our client’s desired outcome. But, the truth is that knowing which developer to use is critically important to the finished result as well.

Here’s a closer look at what developer actually is and how it works, plus tips and tricks to keep in mind so you can be sure you’re selecting the right developer for your service.

Types of Developer

All Developers are essentially made up of peroxide combined with different types and amounts of conditioners.

Developer is mixed with permanent and demi permanent color lines in order to create a chemical reaction that brings oxygen to the hair. The reaction that occurs removes the protective protein coating around the natural color pigment and exposes the melanin. The oxygen released by the chemical reaction will simultaneously lighten the melanin.


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Contrary to what a lot of stylists believe, developer is not responsible for actually lifting the color out of the hair. Developer on it’s own is very acidic, and alkalinity is needed to create lift, which comes from the color you're mixing with.

The standard levels of developer are 10, 20, 30, and 40 volume. Some companies have made other levels to go along with their specific color lines, such as 5, 6,13 , and 15 volume developers.

Related: 13 Volume Developer: Everything You Need to Know

The general rule of thumb is that the lower the volume, the more conditioners are mixed into the develop. The different levels represent how much oxygen will be brought to your product.

Choosing a Developer

In cosmetology school, we’re taught that the lower the level of developer, the more color deposit you will get. We’re also taught that the higher the volume when lightening, the more lift you'll get as a result. While this makes sense in theory, it's not always true. Here are a few tips and guidelines to help you choose the right developer for your desired outcome.

1. When performing a service that involves lightening, keep in mind that higher volumes of developer “burn out” or stop working more quickly. So, if you need your lightener to lift for more than 15 to 20 minutes you’ll need to choose a lower volume of developer.

2. Using a higher volume of developer will create more intensity in tone. This is why when working with permanent colors, it’s important to use a lower volume on the root area to avoid so-called “hot roots”. However, when you want more intensity of tone, upping the volume will help you achieve that.

3. In lower levels of hair color the pigment is more intense, so a great trick is to lower your level of hair color and increase the volume of developer you're working with in order to intensify brightness. When struggling with gray coverage you can use this same trick. This is also especially helpful when working with coarse hair.

4. Remember that certain demi permanent color lines come with their own developer. Generally this either includes one type of volume or a choice of two separate ones. Some demi-permanent color lines do have the ability to lift, so using the lowest volume option is recommended. However, when using an acid line that does not have the ability to lift, adjusting the developer volume can be helpful to achieve a more intensified tone without having to drop the level. Although we always gloss on level or below, there are situations where you might want a brighter warmth or ash without using a darker formula.

5. It’s never suggested that you use a higher developer than what’s really needed. This is because, using anything above a 13 volume developer when glossing can lead to unreliable results and is unnecessary for this purpose. Use the lowest acceptable developers for situations where you need more depth or a drop in level like lowlighting, melting, and smudging.

6. Most developers can easily be interchanged with any color line. There are a few exceptions to this, so always make sure you are comfortable with the color line of your choice before breaking the rules. It’s important to remember that the recommendations of the manufacturer should always be taken into consideration for the best results.

Formulating Your Perfect Result

While color formulation requires you to have a solid understanding of color theory and how different products work together, it’s also critically important to understand the role that developer plays in achieving your final result.

To make sure that you’re always choosing the right developer for your desired outcome, it’s key to start with a clear understanding of how developer works and how different levels behave. With the tips and guidelines outlined above, you can get a better feel for how different developers impact your final result so you can make sure you’re always choosing the right volume.

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