You know that you really should schedule an appointment with a stylist to go for that totally new hair color you’ve been lusting after, but for simpler treatments, it’s tempting to save some money and do your own color at home. But knowing what hair color is right for your skin tone is difficult — especially with all of the ombre, blonde and, gray hair color trends of the past few years. It’s easy to feel overwhelmed. Just take a peek in the hair color aisle of any beauty supply store and you’ll quickly see that the options are much, much more complicated than simply blonde or brown.
While the old beauty rules don’t really apply anymore (that is, you can really wear any hair color that you like, because it’s a free country and also because hair coloring techniques have advanced a ton), it can be helpful to know which shade of hair color to start with if you’re looking to take the color theory approach to complementing your skin tone. That doesn’t mean that you can’t do, say, blonde hair on dark skin, it just means that in order for it to look as amazing as it possibly can, you should choose the warmth or coolness of the color depending on your unique skin tone. All the stylists Bustle spoke to for this piece agreed that finding a hair color that complements your undertone can instantly make you look like you’re glowing. In case you’re next big question is, “Um, what is my skin tone?” here are a few basic tips from stylists that will help you to zero in on your specific shade and decide how to apply that to the hair color of your dreams.
1. Wash your face completely.
In order to accurately determine your skin’s undertones, you’ll need to completely remove all traces of makeup that may be changing its natural color.
2. Choose a well-lit room.
Because your skin looks drastically different under different types of light (i.e., the awful experiences that we’ve all surely had in dressing room fluorescents), choose a room with a large window or other source of natural light before doing this test.
3. Do a shirt test.
One of the easiest ways to figure out your undertone is to look in your closet. “Thin of your favorite blouse or shirt, the one that you feel best in, the one that everyone compliments you on,” Color&Co Collective founder and professional colorist Deb Rosenberg tells Bustle. “What color is that shirt? If it’s yellow, orange or peach, you likely have a warm skin tone. If it’s blue, green or purple, you likely have a cool skin tone. If you look equally amazing in both, your skin tone is neutral.” If that favorite shirt doesn’t instantly come to mind (or if you almost always wear black, gray, or white) you can still use this theory: While looking in a mirror in the aforementioned well-lit room, hold a shirt in a bright shade of green or blue against your face, then take it down and hold up a different shirt in a shade of red or yellow. If you think your skin looks better against the blue shirt, you likely have cool-toned skin. If it looks better against the red shirt, you have warm-toned skin.
4. Examine your veins and eyes.
If you’re still unsure about your skin tone, look at the veins in your wrist. Chelsea Bulte, a colorist at the celebrity favorite Nine Zero One salon, says “Flip your wrists over. Do you see greenish color veins? That means you have more warm undertones. If you see blue or purple veins, that means your skin tone is more cool.” New York City-based colorist Rachel Bodt — who has worked with Andreja Pejic, Marisa Tomei, Justine Marjan, Adesuwa Aighewi, among other big names — also recommends checking out the flecks in your eyes. If they’re more golden or hazel, you probably have warm undertones. Blue and gray mean cool, and a combo indicates neutral.
After you’ve figured it out for yourself, you can move on to the fun part — choosing a hair color. Regardless of your skin tone and the color you’re trying to achieve, Rosenberg says, “You should make sure that the depth of the color is at least two shades darker or lighter than your skin” to avoid looking washed out.
Warm Skin Tones
Warm skin tones tend to shine when paired with a warm hair color as well. If you’re looking to go lighter, Kitty Greller, a colorist at Bumble and bumble Midtown East, recommends “a blush-y, pinky blonde.” Bodt agrees, saying “golden beige and buttery blonde” are two of the best shades for someone with warm undertones, citing Lucy Boynton and Sophie Turner as two celebrity examples of the warmer blondes.
Rosenberg says that people with warm skin tones who want to go brunette “should gravitate toward shades like caramel, butterscotch, or clove.” Stephanie Finazzo, another colorist at Bumble and bumble Midtown East in NYC, says Selena Gomez is a great example of a warm brunette, and Bodt mentions Jennifer Lopez. Reds are basically the same concept: Greller and Bodt both recommend trying golden copper hues.
If you want to experiment with highlights or ombre fading and you have warm-toned skin, Greller recommends making those lighter pieces “blush-y blonde but not too golden,” like Gabrielle Union has done in the past. Bodt adds that “a wheat blonde would be great” for warm blondes.
To try out rainbow colors, the same guidelines apply: warm shades like coral, rose gold, apricot, and yellow were recommended by all the colorists. If you want to try blues and greens, Rosenberg recommends placing them toward the back of your hair, keeping warmer colors at the front to framing your face.
Cool Skin Tones
If you determined that your skin contains cool undertones, look for cool hair colors to complement it. Bodt says “platinum, beige blonde, and baby taupe blonde” are the best blondes for cool skin, while Finazzo says Nicole Kidman is a great example of a blonde who nailed it — and Bulte says she does a cool red well, too. Lucy Liu’s brief 2018 switch to blonde was another. These guidelines work for highlights too, and purple shampoos will be your best friend as a cool blonde.
The brunette shades Rosenberg, Bodt, and Finazzo recommend for cool skin tones — dark chocolate and espresso — sound super yummy. Dakota Johnson and Duckie Thot are perfect examples of cool brunettes.
The food references continue for reds: “Those with cool skin tones should opt for shades like merlot, burgundy or subtle shades of mocha,” Rosenberg suggests. Bodt calls out Christina Hendricks as an example of a cool red shade, and Bulte mentions the red Kidman sometimes rocks.
People with cool skin tones will find shades of blue (hello, Billie Eilish), green, and purple easiest to pull off in the rainbow category, though you can always play around with cool reds and pinks too.
Neutral Skin Tones
If your veins look like a mix of blue and green or you think your purple tee looks just as good as your orange one, then you just might have neutral undertones. All the colorists Bustle spoke to agreed that neutrals have the most flexibility with color. “They can really do [any type of blonde], from super cool platinum or pale beige blonde to a more golden blonde or amber blonde,” Bodt says, noting the Jessica Biel is a good example.
Finazzo says Angelina Jolie is a neutral brunette, with her mocha-colored strands. Lupita Nyong’o is another, as evidenced by how good she looks in both red and blue makeup in the photo above. Redheads have just have much fun: “Redheads can run the spectrum from auburn or strawberry blonde to cabernet,” Rosenberg says. And, of course, this means you’ll probably be happy with just about any type of rainbow effect as well.
Ultimately, all these so-called rules are just to get you started. The best part of hair color is that it’s temporary, and fairly easy to play around with until you find your perfect shade — no matter your undertone.