Coloring your hair at home always sounds like fun—who doesn’t want to do a little makeover in the comforts of their own room? That is until you see all the tools and chemicals you have to work with actually to get it done.
At-home dye first-timers will be surprised to learn that coloring your hair isn’t as simple as applying dye and revealing a new rich color in your tresses.
One of the most important steps people aren’t usually familiar with is the developer, which you have to mix in with dye to get it to work on your hair strands.
But if you don’t have a developer at home (or make the conscious decision to avoid using it because of the damage it can deal with your hair), will your mission to color your hair at home still work?
What does a developer do when you color your hair?
Dye and developer go hand in hand in creating the most beautiful color in your hair. They do different things but come together to help you achieve the color of your dreams. In a way, one cannot work without the other.
Now, dye is often called “color” because it’s the actual pigment that gives your hair strands another hue. But you can’t simply saturate your hair in dye and expect the color to stick on.
Doing this is foolish because you’ll be able to wash off the pigment from your strands easily.
What you want to do is find a way to open up your hair cuticles so they can absorb the dye’s pigments—an internal change instead of just coating your hair with color, if you will. That’s where your developer comes in.
A developer is what activates your dye by altering the structure of your hair. It’s made with hydrogen peroxide, which lifts your hair cuticle to create tiny gaps and holes in your hair, making it more porous.
Once the developer has lifted the cuticle, it’s easier for the pigment to penetrate your hair cortex. The color molecules are distributed throughout your hair strand evenly, giving it a new color you can flaunt.
This method of coloring the hair extends the longevity of your color so that it can last months before it even begins to fade.
Now, the developer comes in different levels, depending on what color you want to transform your hair into.
The four most common levels are volumes 10, 20, 30, and 40—the higher the number, the more hydrogen peroxide it has in the formula.
Level 30 or 40 developers are quite strong, so they’re usually used for more intense chemical processes, like bleaching your hair to strip it of color.
You can get away with using a volume 10 developer for a simple dye job since it can easily lift the cuticle just enough for pigments to enter.
One important thing to consider when coloring your hair with permanent dye is that developer can damage your hair to a certain degree.
Remember, it’s still a chemical process, and any chemical process done on your hair can lead to dryness and damage.
Hydrogen peroxide is very drying as it is, so it can leave your hair a bit hard and straw-like. But since you’re altering your hair’s porosity, it can also be difficult for your new hair to retain any moisture.
It’s like a sponge—the more holes it has when the cuticle is lifted, the easier moisture leaks out.
After dyeing your hair with the developer, you should do whatever’s necessary to repair the damage it deals with your hair.
Treat your hair to a nourishing deep conditioner, protein treatment, or even a DIY coconut oil hair mask to make your locks strong and healthy again.
Can I still dye my hair even if I don’t use developer?
And now for the question, you’re dying to know the answer: is coloring your hair still possible if you choose to do away with a developer?
To put it bluntly, no, you can’t use permanent hair dye to color your hair without a developer.
Permanent hair dye isn’t designed to change the color of your hair unless it’s combined with a developer to lift your cuticle and pave the space for the pigment to enter your hair shaft.
If you use dye on your hair without a developer, it won’t penetrate your hair and instead just very temporarily coat your hair in color.
It can also distribute color in a very uneven, patchy way. The next time you wash your hair, you’ll be able to shampoo all that color out effortlessly.
In short, your hair can’t absorb the color from your permanent dye unless you use a developer to open up your cuticle. Therefore, your hair coloring job won’t work correctly without it.
How else can I color my hair if I can’t use developer?
Earlier, we talked about permanent dyes—the type of hair color that requires a developer to help it penetrate your hair strands.
This type of hair dye is designed to work only when mixed with a developer. So if you want the most even and long-lasting coloring job with permanent dye, the developer is non-negotiable.
But if you don’t want to use a developer for fear of the hair damage you’ll have to face as a consequence, you still have hope. Other types of hair dye don’t require the use of a developer to be effective on your hair.
See, permanent dye is the gold standard of hair coloring. It can give you the most even distribution of color, the longest lifespan in your hair, and comes out the most even and natural-looking.
But there’s also such a thing as semi-permanent dyes, which are a lot less fussy.
Semi-permanent color doesn’t need a developer to be activated. This is because its goal isn’t to penetrate your hair strand but merely stain the outer portion of your hair shaft.
That process doesn’t require your cuticle to be lifted, so you don’t need any hydrogen peroxide.
These dyes only deposit color on the surface of your strands, so it doesn’t change the structure of your hair fiber. It just leaves a coating outside of it.
That means it’s a lot safer to use than permanent hair dye, which tends to deal the most damage.
On the contrary, semi-permanent color is often very nourishing since the formulas can be infused with moisturizing ingredients like argan oil, jojoba oil, and more.
But it’s not all rainbows and butterflies—semi-permanent dye has its cons too. For one thing, it’s a lot easier to wash out. All it takes is a couple of weeks’ worth of hair wash days for the color to fade.
You also can’t lighten your hair when you’re using semi-permanent dye. The only way to lighten hair is to use a developer to bleach it or lift the cuticle to let your natural pigment out.
But since semi-permanent dye does away with a developer, you can only use colors that are darker than your starting shade.
An excellent semi-permanent dye is the Clairol Natural Instincts dye. It’s formulated without ammonia and parabens that can damage your hair, instead opting for naturally-derived ingredients that are friendlier.
These dyes are infused with coconut oil and aloe vera too, to ensure your hair stays soft and hydrated even after the dyeing process. No wonder it’s a favorite among semi-permanent dye lovers!
Another option for you if you want to color your hair without using a developer is direct-deposit dyes.
These are even more temporary than semi-permanent colors because they’re the most superficial when it comes to staining your hair.
Direct-deposit dyes are pretty self-explanatory—you deposit them directly onto the hair, where they cling onto your hair fiber without penetrating it.
These can be in the form of colored clays, color-depositing shampoos and conditioners, and even temporary hair paint.
They often come in bright, flashy colors, so they’re used a lot for Halloween, children’s parties, and other fun events. They come off super easily—sometimes, one or two washes will usually do the trick.
The best part? They don’t need a hair-damaging developer to use. Heck, they don’t even need a full-blown coloring session in your bathroom.
All you have to do is massage it into your hair, whether it’s during your shower or in your styling routine, and you’re good to go—effortless, instant color.
The downside to direct-deposit dye is that they can get stuck to your hair, a lot like gum would. This can lead to tangles and roughness until you finally get the dye out.
If you’re curious about direct-deposit dyes and want to try one out, you can opt for the Moroccanoil Color Depositing Mask.
It’s a deep conditioner that leaves behind temporary color in your hair. The colors are pretty wild and bright, ranging from girly pinks to deep purples to neon hibiscus tones.
This color-depositing mask is infused with argan oil, apricot kernel oil, and a unique amino acid complex to soften and condition your hair.
They also help seal your cuticle to extend the longevity of your temporary color while keeping your hair smooth and sleek for as long as possible.
So as you can see, there are loads of options for you if you’re a bit iffy about using a developer for your at-home dye job.
The possibilities are endless so that you can get your dream hair color without having to get into the complications (and consequences) of developers.
Needless to say, a developer is essential and non-negotiable if you want to dye your hair permanently. If you go without it, your coloring job will either end up super patchy or not work on your hair strands at all.
Either way, you’ll be wasting a lot of time, money, and energy. So do yourself a favor and make sure you have a bottle of a high-quality developer with you before you even attempt dyeing your locks at home.
But if you make the risky decision to color your hair without a developer, semi-permanent colors and direct-deposit dyes are always there for you.
They’re relatively easier to manage for newbies and will deal way less damage to your delicate locks.
Whatever route you choose to take, remember to have fun with coloring your hair at home. Do proper research and experiment with different dyes you can use, and in no time, you’ll be rocking a glamorous new color!