Yes, your dreamy new hair colour looks like magic—but it’s been achieved with a healthy bit of science. “When you lighten hair, you’re basically left with the underlying pigment which ranges from red to orange to yellow—and typically those pigments are not what people like to see,” says Christine LeBlanc, owner and creative director of Life & Colour Salon in Vancouver. This is where toner comes in. “Toning is where you get to refine and counteract anything that you don’t want, and pick what you do want to see in the hair. Plus, it also closes the cuticle and seals hair back up so it’s very protective,” she says.
Toronto-based hairstylist Jason Lee likes to describe toner as an Instagram filter for hair. “Technically, a toner is a semi- or demi-permanent colour that is put on your hair to adjust tones that aren’t complimentary,” says the owner of Jason Lee Salon. “For example, a toner could be used on brassy blonde hair to cancel a harsh yellow-y tone. By using a purple toner, you can neutralize it to achieve a more natural blonde colour.”
After several weeks, you may notice your colour looking faded or lacklustre, and that’s because your toner has partially washed out. But, the good news is that there are at-home toning products you can use between salon appointments to keep your hair looking fresh. Here’s everything you need to know about toning your hair at home.
Which hair colours benefit from toners?
We often think only blondes worried about brassiness need to invest in a toning shampoo, but Lee explains there are different types of toners for all different hair colours. “Toners aren’t limited to just blondes,” he says. “Brunettes often experience the feeling of their brown tone going orange-y or reddish, and in that case a green/blue or teal toner would actually cancel out or neutralize it to a brown that feels more natural.”
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For redheads who are keen to protect their investment (because, fact: red pigment washes out the quickest), Lee suggests a reddish toner to help refresh and prevent ends becoming noticeably lighter. “Red toners can also help with creating shades that are more coppery-red or violet-red, depending on your desired shade,” he says.
LeBlanc also recommends toner for anyone embracing natural greys. “Grey hair tends to be a lot more porous. It’s a bit of a sponge and will absorb a lot of free radicals and any build up in water, so you definitely want to use a treatment to maintain that silvery reflectiveness,” she says.
Where can you buy at-home toners?
In-shower products, like shampoo and conditioner duos that work in tandem to balance hair colour, are the most prevalent type of at-home toners, and can be purchased at most salons and drugstores. LeBlanc prefers a toning hair mask because it combines neutralizing power with intense hydration to leave hair bright and nourished. A rinse-out toning gloss is a similar treatment with longer lasting results, while a leave-in product, such as a toning mousse, uses a subtle tint to tweak your shade for just one day (or until you shampoo next).
Here are some of our fave toning products, from temporary to semi-permanent.
Color Wow Brass Banned Correct & Perfect Mousse for Dark Hair, $35, walmart.ca
Kérastase Paris Blond Absolu Bain Ultra-Violet Shampoo, $45, kerastase.ca
AG Hair Care Sterling Silver Mask, $29, aghair.com
dpHUE Gloss+ Semi-permanent Hair Color and Deep Conditioner, $45, sephora.com
Kristin Ess Hair Signature Hair Gloss in Golden Hour, $20, well.ca
When should you use a toner?
“After four to six weeks your salon toner could be faded out, but if you inject at-home toning into your ritual you’ll extend that toner’s life by probably twice as long,” says LeBlanc. Exposure to elements, like heat from styling tools, can also impact how quickly your colour fades, and Lee says that water and product build-up can cause brassiness between salon visits as well. So while four-to-six weeks is a general guideline, you’ll have to keep an eye on when it looks like your hair is in need of a refresh. “You’ll notice it’s time for a toner refresh when you start seeing your hair going lighter or brassy,” Lee says.
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“How often to use an at-home toner is a personal journey,” agrees LeBlanc. “If you’re an ice queen, who likes absolutely no yellow in your hair, then you might want to use a toning conditioner every time you wash it.” For more low-key maintenance styles, like trending to grown-out colour, using a toning shampoo or conditioner once a week or a toning gloss once a month may suffice.
So, how exactly do you use a toner at home?
For the best results, LeBlanc starts with a double shampoo. “When I’m doing a toning treatment, I like to start with a deep cleansing shampoo to remove any sort of oil, hard water or product build-up and free radicals in the hair. Remove any discolouration from those things first, so you’re starting with a clean canvas,” she says. Then LeBlanc follows up with a gentle shampoo formulated for colour-treated hair to balance pH levels and re-nourish strands. Toning pigment attaches faster to dry patches, so a hydrating step helps achieve an even finish, she says.
Hair texture also factors into Lee’s guidelines. “Timing on toners varies depending on how porous your hair texture is, some will absorb the pigment quicker than others. Highly processed blonde will absorb purple tones very quickly and so you need to err on the side of caution as things can get too purple-y!” he says. He suggests consulting your colourist, who will already have a sense of how your hair takes toner. “Type 3 or 4 curly hair will also absorb toners very quickly due to a general lack of moisture, so you have to approach with caution.
Shampoos and conditioners activate quickly, you’ll just need to massage through hair, let the product sit and then rinse thoroughly. If you’re using a semi-permanent rinse-out gloss or mask with a slightly longer leave-on time, experiment within the suggested time range to find out what works best for a final result.
“I always eyeball things to know when it’s time to take it off, rather than following exact instructions for timing,” Lee says. For your first toning foray choose to dabble, rather than deep dive, and leave the product on for a minute or two less than the directions recommend. Practice makes perfect, says Lee, it’s better to have to re-tone than have hair colour be over-toned.
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If you’re opting for a temp toning mousse, simply apply to freshly washed, damp hair. Use your hands to massage it throughout, or apply the mousse to a brush then distribute it through strands.
One last thing for toning newbies: Prep your space! Things can get messy, so protect surfaces and switch to darker towels, pillowcases and sheets to prevent fresh toner transfer.