Back to Basics: How Natural Hair Color is Formed

Hair at the root is alive and needs to be treated with care and respect; when using chemicals to change the color properties of hair, it is important to know how and why these changes occur.


The more knowledgeable you are, the more a client will trust you and listen to your advice.


Natural Pigments in Hair Melanin

Natural hair color is produced from tiny pigment granules – melanin – found within the fibrous cortex layer of the hair. Light penetrates the clear cuticle scales, some of which is reflected back to the eye. The color we perceive depends on what light is reflected back; the type, quantity and mix of the two pigments found within natural hair determine this.


A cell type, called a melanocyte, is responsible for the production of melanin within the root bulb of the hair. The catalyst tyrosine, found within melanocytic cells, is responsible for triggering a chemical reaction resulting in the formation of melanin. This is where two distinct melanins are created: the brown-to-black eumelanin and the yellow-to-reddish pheomelanin.


The combination of eumelanin and pheomelanin create the natural color in hair, and the concentration determines the color depth.


Depth and Tone

A description of color depth and tone can help define and describe different color types. Color depth is influenced by the quantity of melanins found within the hair: more melanins create darker hair and fewer pigments create lighter hair.


The pigment, eumelanin, is the more dominant of the two due to its brown to black color. Color depth can be divided into ten levels, from black through to light blonde, however within each depth of color there are several shades or tones. This relates back to the color wheel, for example light blonde can have a golden, matt or cendre (ash) hue.


Pheomelanin is mainly responsible for the underlying tones found within hair. When going lighter in color, certain natural tones called undertones will be apparent. These are important to identify when analyzing hair color during a consultation, as the primary undertone will influence final hair color. In certain cases these may need to be lightened, or counteracted with an opposing tone from the color wheel, in order to achieve a target color.


An international level system is used to measure color depth:

  • Levels 1 to 4 – red is the primary undertone
  • Levels 4 to 5 – red/orange is the primary undertone
  • Levels 5 and 6 – orange/red is the primary undertone
  • Levels 7 and 8 – orange/yellow is the primary undertone
  • Levels 9 and 10 – yellow is the primary undertone