Hair Color Numbers Explained: How To Read a Hair Color Chart

Hair Color Numbers Explained: How To Read a Hair Color Chart

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You may have noticed that hair dyes have various numbers on their boxes. Have you ever wondered what do the numbers on hair color mean?

Stylist looking at hair color samples

You may have seen these hair dye numbers when you visit a beauty store and explore shelves full of hair dyes in different brands and countless shades. 

Or you may have been at the salon previously, and overhead the hairstylists say something like, “Hey, I need a 7.3 mixed with a little 6R!”

No, they’re not talking gibberish. They’re referring to the different hair color numbers assigned to all hair dyes. But what do these hair color numbers mean?

We take a closer look and show you how to read and understand hair color numbers so you know exactly how to get the hair color you want.

Hair Color Numbering System

When you know the basics of hair color charts, you’ll better understand your color options, and it will be easier to pick from the vast array of swatches available.

Moreover, color numbers help hairstylists understand how to mix and match the right colors and shades needed to achieve a client’s desired result.

These numbers are based on the ingredients of a specific hair dye and all the coupling agents that help hair dyes produce specific colors.

Most hair charts have numbers for hair color based on the International Color Chart (ICC). However, certain brands may have their own numbering system, so it’s best to look up the brand to know which system they use.

The hair color numbering system is labeled with numbers or a combination of numbers and letters.

To understand how to read hair color numbers, let’s use Garnier Olia’s 4.62 Dark Garnet Red as an example.

Not everyone is familiar with the intricacies of garnet red. Is it a reddish brown, a warm red, or a bright red? The key to identifying the tones in this shade is in its hair color number: 4.62.

But how do we read this code?

The Color Depth of Base Color

Let’s start with the first number. The first number is the depth of the base color. This number tells how light or dark the color is. The lower the number, the darker the shade, and the higher the number, the lighter.

Let’s take a look at it below.

1Black
2Darkest Brown
3Dark Brown
4Brown
5Light Brown
6Dark Blonde
7Blonde
8Light Blonde
9Very Light Blonde
10Lightest Blonde

This is the standard hair number color chart, whether your hair is dyed or not. However, some hair dye brands also have 11 and 12 levels.

The depth level lets you know how pigmented the base color is. Lower numbers mean richer, darker colors and indicate that the dye is loaded with pigments. 

Imagine several cans of paint put together to give you a better idea of what that means.

Because the color is rich, it can easily cover your hair.

On the other hand, a higher number means fewer pigments, so the color isn’t as powerful. Base colors 8, 9, and 10 are usually made of transparent gels with a small amount of color added.

Moreover, colors 11 and 12 are almost transparent and are usually used as glosses because they have minimal effect on the current hair color.

So, let’s go back to our example. 4.62 has a base 4, which in natural colors is brown and is still considered a dark color.

You might also see duplicate base numbers, like 33/02. These numbers indicate that the base color is very intense.

Also, take note that the symbols used to separate the base color from the tones can be a decimal point (.), slash (/), or hyphen (-). So 4.62 can also be written as 4/62 or 4-62.

Furthermore, a single number without a symbol is considered neutral or natural.

infographic of the natural hair color from level 10 to 1

Hair Color Shades Numbers

Now that you know what the base numbers of the hair color number scale mean, let’s go more in-depth.  

Hair dye numbers usually have 1 or 2 digits after the base, but some have 3. Now, what do these numbers represent?

These are the added tones or shades in the hair dye formula. They are a variety of cool, warm, and neutral tones that give your hair dye its specific shade.

The number that comes after the symbol refers to the color shade. It’s the primary tone or the dominant hue in your hair color.

Color Tone

Here are the ICC’s tone numbers and the colors they represent.

.0None
.1Blue Ash
.2Mauve Ash
.3Gold
.4Copper
.5Mahogany
.6Red
.7Khaki
.8Pearl Ash
.9Soft Ash

Note that the number of tones may vary in some brands, so even the ICC isn’t a universal system. But understanding the possible tones available can help you discuss with your hairdresser which works best for you.

In our example, 4.62, Garnier’s 6 represents auburn, a very red tone, so this shade has more red pigments.

Color Reflection

As mentioned, the primary tone may be followed by another digit. That’s the secondary tone. It represents a shade that has a less direct impact on your hair.

This secondary tone is also called a color reflection. It usually just shows up when your hair is hit by sunlight. Unlike the primary tone, it doesn’t have the power to fully cover your hair’s starting color.

So back to our example, in 4.62, Garnier’s number 2 is violet burgundy. And that completes the formula. We now know Garnier Olia’s 4.62 Dark Garnet Red is a brown-based red with violet tones.

Hair Color Numbers And Letters

Additionally, some hair dye brands use letters to name the tones easily. Usually, the beginning letter of the specific shade is what’s used.

  • A — ash
  • B — blue
  • BV — blue violet
  • C — cool
  • G — gold
  • M — mahogany
  • N — neutral
  • NA — neutral ash
  • NB — neutral brown
  • O — orange
  • OR — orange red
  • P — purple
  • R — red
  • RR — really red or intense red
  • RB — red brown
  • RC — red copper
  • RO — red orange
  • RV — red violet
  • V — violet
  • VR — violet red
  • W — warm

This is the basic letter guide, but some other hair dye brands also use different letters.

Examples of shades that use letters are Ion Color Brilliance 3RV Dark Burgundy Brown (dark brown + red + violet) and L’Oreal Paris Superior Preference 6AB Chic Auburn Brown (Dark blonde + auburn + brown).

So whether the hair dye uses numbers or a combination of numbers and letters, you can determine the color.

Neutral Colors

A hand pointing at hair color samples

Additionally, neutral colors are readily available in hair dyes, and you can easily spot them using the hair color number system.

Neutral means it has equal amounts of yellow, blue, and red. It isn’t warm or cool.

The tone number for a neutral color is zero, and the letter is N.

So, let’s say you have 2N hair dye. That means the color is a very dark brown with neutral tones, and you won’t see any dominant yellow, blue, or red.

Additionally, neutral shades may vary from light to dark.

How the Hair Color Numbers Help

As a client and hair dye enthusiast, knowing what lies behind the numbers in the various hair color charts will help you get your desired color outcome. 

As a hairstylist, on the other hand, knowing hair color numbers is essential in ensuring you can help clients get the color they want. With practice and dedication in formulating the colors, you’ll be a master colorist.

Getting the Specific Shade

The numbering system creates an equal and universal reference for all hairdressers, like the Pantone color number system. 

You see, the way people describe and perceive colors can be subjective.

For example, a chocolate cherry color for someone may look like burgundy to another.

So talking about the dye shades gets more accessible when they put hair colors in numbers. This way, the shade is specific and not dependent on perception.

The hair color numbering system gives hairstylists their own language regarding hair color to make it the same for everyone.

So when a hairstylist says 8.1, they’ll know they’re going for ash blonde.

Formulating the Hair Color

The hair color numbers are good to know if you are fond of dyeing your hair and experimenting with colors. But more importantly, it’s essential to understand as a hair colorist.

Hair color numbers can help stylists formulate colors better and understand which shades and tones go with which natural hair colors, which is essential to know to get the desired color outcome.

Why? Well, as previously mentioned, it’s common not to get the exact shade you want from the hair color chart.

Not because the color you chose isn’t the color you wanted but because your current or starting hair color will also mix with the dye pigments.

This part is often forgotten or overlooked, which is why the resulting color may differ from what you wanted.

But with an in-depth understanding of the hair color numbers, you’ll know which dye to add if you want a specific color.

So, if you have 5UA or ultra ash medium brown and you’re going to dye copper blonde hair, you’d know to mix in a little amount of blue because the ash color reflection isn’t strong enough to remove the orange and red tones in the natural hair.

Neutralizing Unwanted Tones

Mixing colors and finding the right shades and tones can get tricky, but taking the time to understand hair color can help you get more precise results.

Now, let’s talk more about removing unwanted tones. Using the color theory, you can neutralize colors to prevent your hair color from becoming too warm or too cool.

As a basic rule of thumb, neutralizing the undertone requires adding a complementary tone to the formula.

For hair color, remember that cool (ash) tones can help neutralize warm (gold or red tones). And warm tones help neutralize cool tones.

For example, if you want blonde hair, you may need to bleach your natural hair first. So, let’s say you bleached your hair to level 7. You’ll find that you have yellow-orange hair. 

Your next step might be looking for the dark beige-blonde hair dye you want.

If you go straight for a beige-blonde shade without considering the impact of your yellow-orange hair, you may end up with something other than the neutral blonde you wanted. 

So what should you do instead? You need to find a dye with a neutralizing secondary tone or reflection to complement the yellow-orange. 

An example would be Matrix SoColor in 8AV shade, which is a medium-blonde ash violet. You don’t need to worry about the dye giving you violet hair because of the mix of colors.

Since you want to cancel out the yellow or orange tones, you need a hair dye with violet and blue pigments to neutralize the yellow and orange tones.

According to the color wheel, violet cancels out yellow like blue cancels orange.

hair color wheel infographic with list of arranged colors

If you get the blonde color with violet tones, you can achieve the perfect neutral beige blonde.

It can be a little complicated, but if you put in the time and effort, you can be sure to get the exact color you want.

FAQs About Numbers in Hair Color Chart

Are Hair Color Numbers Universal?

Most hair dye brands follow the same hair color numbering system. But some brands, to stay unique, have their own hair color numbering system.

They use their own codes for their shades, and others don’t have codes at all. They use unique creative names. This is typical for semi-permanent dyes.

On the whole, most dyes use the hair color numbering system.

Does Hair Color Get Lighter with Higher Numbers?

Yes. 1, the lowest number, represents black. The color also gets lighter as the number increases because fewer pigments are used.

Understanding Hair Color Numbers Ensures Better Color Results

Hair color chart numbers help you better understand which shades to use for the perfect hair color. Each number indicates the base color level and the different hair shades and tones.

Hair color numbers can also assist you in formulating the right color and neutralizing unwanted cool or warm hues.

While it may seem complicated at first, once you have a basic understanding of the system, you’ll be able to request and mix the perfect colors each time.

With the hair color numbers, you’ll be able to get the hair color you’ve always wanted and replicate it every time.

Want to Learn More About Hair Dye?

Take a look at these hair color guides:

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