How to dye over black hair

Photo courtesy of L'Oreal Paris

"Once you go black, you can never go back" is a phrase that just may have been coined in regards to coloring hair. Once hair has been dyed black, trying to dye the hair a lighter color will be an exercise in futility. It would be like trying to draw with a crayon on black construction paper-- nothing will show up.

The only way to change the hair's color after it has been dyed black is to first remove the black dye. There are only two ways this can be accomplished: with bleach, or with a professional haircolor extractor. Both of these methods involve the use of chemicals, so this procedure is best left in the hands of a trained professional. Removing black dye from the hair is such a complicated matter that many licensed hairstylists struggle with this procedure. And if professional stylists have a hard time extracting black dye from the hair, imagine the potential mess you may have on your hands if you attempt this at home!

In most cases, the first procedure a knowledgeable stylist will try is to use a chemical extractor which removes artificial pigment from the hair. This chemical is preferable to bleach because, unlike bleach, it only removes artificial pigment and will not lighten your natural haircolor. Unfortunately, the chemical used to extract dye from the hair works best on oxidative dyes and not direct dyes or mineral or vegetable pigments. In other words, professional haircolor extractors (such as Pravana Artificial Hair Color Extractor or Rusk Elimin8) are designed to remove professional haircolor, not the haircolor you buy in a supermarket. As far as I know, the only extractor that removes direct dyes (such as Pravana Vivids) is Malibu Direct Dye Lifter. And half the time, the results are still less than impressive.

Haircolor extractors work by "smashing" molecules of artificial color within the hair. The hair is then shampooed for about five minutes with a clarifying shampoo, and the procedure is repeated until all of the artificial pigments have been removed from the hair. When removing black dye from the hair, it may be necessary to repeat this procedure several times.

Because of its unpredictability, I've never been a fan of chemical haircolor extractors. In the salon, time is money, and there's nothing profitable about putting a chemical that smells like rotten eggs on your hair for thirty minutes, shampooing, and seeing absolutely no change in the color. And even when the extractor does work, it makes recoloring on the same day a real nightmare if the stylist doesn't get all of the chemicals out.

As for the chemicals themselves, this seems to be a closely-guarded secret among manufacturers. This is another reason why I'm not a fan of using extractors. Call me crazy, but I sorta like to know what chemicals I'm putting on the heads of my clients.

For example, if you go on the Pravana website and review the ingredient list for their artificial haircolor extractor, you see: "Contains no ammonia, bleach or formaldehyde." That's not very reassuring, because there are lots of horrible things that don't contain ammonia, bleach or formaldehyde. Like rat poison, for instance.

Gee, that's real helpful.

So what is the smelly chemical used in haircolor extractors?

The answer is sodium hydrosulfite. Sodium hydrosulfite is a water-soluble salt used in the fabric dyeing industry to remove excessive pigment and, yes, it is a very safe chemical. However, there are other chemicals used in haircolor extractors that aren't as pleasant. Methylchloroisothiazolinone, for instance, has been known to cause skin irritation and allergic reactions. Methylisothiazolinone, which is found in Pravana Artificial Haircolor Extractor, is lethal to marine life and has been shown to cause cellular damage in humans.

If the black dye is a plant or vegetable-based dye, like henna, it may be necessary to bleach the hair. Bleach will not only remove the black dye, it will also affect you hair's underlying natural color. So if your hair is brown beneath the black dye, you may end up with a hideous shade of reddish orange. After the black has been removed, a stylist will then apply an ash-based brown on top of your hair in order to counteract the orange tones and return your hair to a normal shade of brown.

While some stylists may apply bleach to hair that has been colored with a mineral dye, this is a potential recipe for disaster. Some at-home haircoloring kits are mineral or metallic-based, which means the color is derived from metals such as copper, silver, or iron. Unfortunately, when bleach comes into contact with metal, a chemical reaction occurs which causes the hair to heat up rapidly. This reaction will cause hair to become "gummy" and break apart. Because of the potential damage to the hair, it is not advisable to bleach hair that has been colored with a metallic dye.

If you are not a candidate for a haircolor extractor or bleach, your only other option is to live with the color. Shampooing the hair frequently with a harsh, deep-cleansing shampoo will speed up the rate which the haircolor fades, and over time the black will gradually lighten as the pigments are stripped from the hair.