Understanding Hair Color Formulations: 6 Factors to Consider

closeup of hair color being formulated

We get it—formulation isn’t always easy. Sometimes it's the intimidation factor behind the formulation that keeps stylists from perfecting their craft. After all, there are so many factors that can impact your final result, and it might seem impossible to crack the code.

Even though it may seem easier to stick with what you’ve been doing because it’s worked out in the past, the truth is it’s critical to develop your formulation skills and confidence to bring your services to the next level. By getting comfortable with color theory and understanding all the different aspects that go into color, it’s possible for any stylist to become great at formulation.


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Formulation is really much more than just mixing colors together. There are 101 things to consider, but below are six key considerations to keep in mind when formulating color.

Factors to Consider When Formulating Hair Color

1. The Hair Consultation

If you’re familiar with Salt Society, then you likely know how much emphasis we put on the hair consultation—and for good reason!

Analyzing the hair properly is the very first step to creating a beautiful color, and it’s the key to formulating well. Whether you are looking at damage, mineral build up, tonal issues, lifestyle of the client, the level of lift, or simply what the natural is, it all needs to be considered greatly.

Skimping on the consultation or foregoing it all together can result in a catastrophic appointment for something so small miscommunicated like how high they would like to see brightness around the face. Slowing down to understand during this time will help keep everyone informed and confident throughout the entire process.

Use the consultation to manage your client’s expectations. No one wants to be disappointed, stylist or client. Help set realistic expectations for your client so that you can give them the best option for their hair and they can leave the salon feeling beautiful.

2. Damage

If during your hair consultation and analysis you notice that there is a lot of damage to the client’s hair, you should take this into account when formulating your color. In these cases, chances are you will need to do less lifting and more tonal adjusting. This will prevent you from doing more damage during the treatment, and give the hair the opportunity to heal.

3. Minerals

Mineral buildup is another important factor to consider when formulating hair color, yet it is often overlooked.

Excess minerals in the hair is typically the result of washing with hard water, which can cause elements like calcium and magnesium to collect on the cuticle. If there’s a buildup of minerals in the hair—or it feels greasy or gritty with no shine—it can result in a color up to two levels darker or lighter than your desired outcome.

To avoid an unwanted shift in your formula, be sure to perform a demineralizing treatment if you suspect your client has mineral buildup.

4. Tonal Issues

If a client comes in with multiple tonal issues, it’s a good idea to choose one issue to address within the appointment. Attempting to take on every single issue in the hair all at once can leave you and your client both feeling disappointed.

In order to picture a finished tone, it’s helpful to look at all tones and levels in the hair as a whole. Someone who is a natural level five with golden tones in their hair might lift to a higher raw lift and you’ll be able to gloss cooler. However, consider whether or not all three levels and tones will look right together. Thinking beyond the raw lift that’s in front of you will help create more interest in your finish.

5. Porosity

Porosity refers to how open or closed the cuticle of the hair is, and therefore how easily it can absorb moisture and color. It’s crucial to get a sense of your client’s porosity level as it can really throw off your gloss if you aren’t prepared.

Porous hair will absorb color quickly, but it won't be accurate. For this reason, you’ll need to apply a porosity equalizer or add a clear component to your gloss to help counteract the color change. As a general rule, you will most likely need a lot more warmth in your formula for these situations as well.

6. The Client’s Lifestyle

In addition to the current condition of the client’s hair, you should also consider how their lifestyle will affect the outcome of your service. For example, if someone washes their hair every day, works out often, or spends a lot of time in the sun, certain tones may not benefit them. Cooler tones tend to fall out or fade easily, and this should absolutely be expressed to a client when choosing the best tone for them.

It’s also important to take factors like the client’s eye color and skin tone into consideration in order to formulate a color that will compliment their natural features.

Getting Comfortable with Formulation

At the end of the day, there are a lot of factors to keep in mind when formulating and each step you take to formulate properly will help your final result. Blindly applying a formula because, “it worked before” might be your biggest enemy. Taking the time to understand the “why” behind formulation will benefit both you and your client.

When mistakes happen (they happen to all of us, after all) try to learn from them instead of getting frustrated. Instead of assuming the client is wrong, be open to receiving their feedback so you can avoid a similar situation in the future. Even if the mishap is a result of miscommunication, turning the situation into a learning opportunity will help you create a better mindset.

Finally, don’t be afraid to try new things! It can be easy to fall into the trap of sticking to what you know, but that can also really restrict your learning. Even if you don’t understand why something might work and you’re assuming you won't like it, just try it out on a swatch or mannequin. We are allowed to make mistakes over and over on mannequins! Take advantage of that opportunity.

If you still find yourself struggling, sign up for any classes that will help in the area you're looking to develop. However, don’t assume that just one class will fix it all. It takes an average of hearing something 7-10 times for someone to absorb and accept a certain idea. Generally when you take a class you only retain and use about 10% of the information covered. Keep getting involved until you really grasp what you’re trying to do.

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 new Confidence Behind Formulation 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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