December 13, 2019

Dye, dye, my darling For today’s women, hair color is a matter of whimsy

Every few weeks, Kristie Billings dons her old, battered Culture Club T-shirt, throws on some music and dyes her hair pink. Or purple. Or red. Whatever strikes her fancy.

“I was so into Boy George and Cyndi Lauper as a kid that I begged my mom to let me dye my hair,” the 32-year-old Deer Isle native recalled. “I was 10 at the time, so she definitely said no. But then when I was 12 she finally let me do it, and I went to a salon and had it dyed fire engine red.”

Twenty years later, Billings’ hair is a vibrant fuchsia. At least it was last week. Her hair color is so striking, you can easily spot her from a block away as she goes for coffee and on other errands from her shoe store, Shoegazer, at the intersection of Main and Water streets in downtown Ellsworth.

Billings likes changing her hair color so much, in fact, she’s been doing it herself for nearly two decades.

“I’d spend a fortune if I had it done in a salon every time,” she explained. “I do it so often. I seem to want to dye my hair when I’m bored – at least once a month. When I don’t know what I’m doing with my life.”

Dyeing one’s own hair is nothing new. Clairol’s Nice ‘n Easy was the first personal-use dye to hit drugstore shelves with the catchphrase “Does she or doesn’t she?” in the 1950s. Asian and Middle Eastern people have been coloring their hair with henna for centuries. But the breadth and quality of hair-color products on the market have come a long way since the early days.

Mary Maclean, executive beauty editor at Glamour Magazine, says most of the hair color available today is virtually foolproof.

“It’s hard to have a bad result unless you’ve done something drastically wrong,” said Maclean. “[Cosmetic companies] have to make it super easy and safe to ensure that it won’t come out badly, because they want people to keep buying their products.

“So many more women are doing it at home. It’s very common nowadays,” she continued. “There’s no more stigma of ‘Does she or doesn’t she?’ It’s as commonplace as brushing your teeth.”

Karri Bailey, vice president of commercial lending at The First National Bank of Bar Harbor, is proof of that. Last winter, the corporate executive was very uneasy about dyeing her hair – herself – at home. What if it turned out terribly, and she had to show up at the office with a hair disaster?

“I was really apprehensive. You wonder if you’re going to wake up with orange hair,” the fortysomething related. “So I used a semipermanent dye just in case it came out splotchy. I used that once, and it came out great, so I just went for it.”

Bailey has dark brown hair most of the time, but during the summer she’ll try something a little different.

“I generally use L’Oreal Preference’s dark ash brown shade, which is closest to my natural hair color. I have short hair, so it grows out pretty quickly. I’ve settled on that one shade over the last few months,” she said. “But in the summer, I used a very bold red from Clairol Nice ‘n Easy.”

Bailey likes her hair color to be uniform.

“One of the biggest things is to cover that gray. You look at your female relatives and see where that gray is coming in,” she said. “I always want to keep that covered, and keep the color uniform.”

It’s pretty easy to find a shade that looks good, if you remember one simple rule: don’t fight your skin tone.

“You don’t fight it; you flatter it. If you have pink skin, go for a contrasting, cooler shade like a champagne, versus a redder shade,” Maclean advised. “For olive or darker skin, go for warmer colors, like an auburn brown.”

If you want to try something funky, but you don’t want to show up to work with pink hair, try putting streaks underneath the normally visible part.

“I call it sneaky color,” Maclean said. “You’ve got beautiful brown shiny hair, and then flip it and it’s got red and purple streaks. It’s reversible. You can work it into your life.”

Billings has had the full spectrum of colors on her head over the years.

“Oh God, I’ve had everything,” she reminisced. “I had red, purple and blue. I had bleach-blonde with flames at the tips. I had black, for the goth thing. I had it all blue, and I looked like Smurfette. And that taught me not to swim in a pool with freshly dyed hair, ’cause it turned a gross greenish yellow.”

As a strategy, she uses products such as Manic Panic, which fades after a few weeks, or Special Effects, which starts to go away after six or more weeks. Both those products work best on hair that already has been lightened. Lately, Billings has been using L’Oreal Colour Rays in either Fuchsia Flash or Radiant Red.

For Billings, dyeing her own hair saves money and time – but it’s also about self-expression.

“I had a customer in my store that I hadn’t seen in a while, and she said to me ‘What did you do to your hair?'” the shoe store owner remembered. “I said ‘Gee, looks like I dyed it.’ She asked, ‘Why did you do that?’ and I wanted to say, ‘Why do you keep your hair your normal color?’ It’s just an expression of who I am. I am more interested by things that are ever so slightly different from the everyday, and that’s one small little thing I can do to express that.”

Janice Rice of Pembroke, on the other hand, let a friend’s stepchildren dye her hair as a way to cheer them up when her friend went overseas to serve in the U.S. military.

“They probably dyed my hair four times in a month. That really wasn’t a good idea,” the 45-year-old English teacher said with a laugh. “I wanted to see them smile. It’s only hair. It’s not like it doesn’t grow back.”

Rice has been dyeing her hair ever since her first gray hairs started appearing a decade ago.

“I’m noted for dyeing my hair every other week, because I get bored,” said Rice who teaches at Shead High School in Eastport. “My students notice all the different colors. I’ll go a little bit darker, but have it lighter underneath, and then I’ll buy color to streak it so it looks sun-kissed or chunky. I use Clairol Nice ‘n Easy, because I find it not to be as hard on my hair, and it has a great creme rinse.”

But often what it really comes down to are those two precious commodities – time and money.

“I’m a teacher, so I don’t have a whole lot of extra money, and I don’t have the time either, since I’m getting my master’s degree,” Rice said. “The time it would take at a salon to go and get it done isn’t worth it. At home, you can just put the stuff in your hair, do your dishes, read your books, you rinse it out, and there you go.”

Emily Burnham can be reached at

Tips for home hair coloring

. Try a semi – or demi – permanent dye for a first attempt. If you really like it, go permanent. If you don’t, no worries – it will wash out in a few weeks.

. Before using a product for the first time, dye a small chunk of your hair to make sure it’s the color you want. Also, apply a dime-sized amount of dye to a patch of skin to rule out any adverse reactions to the chemicals.

. Cover countertops with newspaper, and wear an old towel or T-shirt so drips don’t stain you or your house. Put a thin layer of Vaseline around your hair line. If dye does get on your skin, wipe it off with a damp paper towel and a little baking powder. Add cornstarch to your dye to thicken it into a gel. Also, watch out while washing it out in the shower – dyed water could splash onto walls and low ceilings.

. For short hair, don’t use the whole bottle of dye. Once your hair is saturated, you can throw the rest away. Using more than you need doesn’t add or deepen color; it just makes a mess.

. Use the conditioner that comes with store-bought dye. It provides an instant jolt of post-coloring moisture (save half the product for another application a few weeks later). If it doesn’t come with your dye, use a deep conditioner. Color-enhancing shampoos and conditioners, such as those made by John Frieda or Pantene, can give color extra longevity.

. The darker your hair is, the more bleach it will take to lighten it. Hair has to go through every shade of red before it gets to blond. Highlighting kits, available at most drugstores, are fast, easy and mess-free, but you may need to apply it twice if your hair is naturally dark or already dyed.

. As a general rule, don’t lighten gray, white or salt-and-pepper hair. Adding bleach to hair that has lost its pigment could result in undesirable shades of orange, yellow or white. If you’ve gone gray but want blond, go to a salon. However, adding a similar or darker shade to gray hair won’t damage it at all, and will produce reliably satisfactory results.

Readers’ favorites

A number of Bangor Daily News readers responded to a query posted on our Web site regarding home hair color. The following are their favorite most popular products. Most are widely available at drugstores and supermarkets, unless otherwise noted.

Clairol Natural Instincts


For a novice home hair dyer, it’s best to stick with nonpermanent color. This product fades after 28 washes, and comes in a wide variety of shades.

Clairol Nice ‘n Easy (permanent)

It’s cheap, widely available, has lots of colors, and will cover gray and give a natural look to your hair.

Garnier Nutrisse (permanent)

Inexpensive, this cream dye is gentler than other brands. It’s good for dry or damaged hair, and less messy and drippy. It’s also packed with fruit and avocado oil, so it smells great.

L’Oreal Preference (permanent)

For a bit more money, the color retains its richness and shine longer than other brands, and it’s particularly good for covering gray.

L’Oreal Feria (permanent)

For some real oomph, Feria, which has more than 40 bright, bold shades for extra vibrancy. It also contains more dye, so it’s good for those with longer hair.

Manic Panic (semipermanent)

The original funky hair color, it fades after just a few weeks, so it’s easy to experiment. Works best with pre-lightened hair. Colors include Atomic Turquoise, Electric Lizard and Pink Flamingo. Available at and at Sally Beauty Supply.

Special Effects (demipermanent)

Special Effects lasts much longer – up to six weeks – and works best with pre-lightened hair. Available at and at Hot Topic.

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