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What's The Difference Between Semi-Permanent & Permanent Hair Color?

by January 13, 2021

Woman with curly hair applying hair color to roots

Image by Madison Reed

Okay, so tell us if you’ve heard this one before...semi-permanent, demi-permanent, temporary and permanent hair color walk into a bar, and the bartender says, “what’s the difference between all of you?” Getting the gorgeous hair color you want is no joke, so we’re going to scrap the funny for the factual to explain the differences between semi-permanent, demi-permanent, temporary, and permanent hair dye—and when and why you should be using them to get the hair color results you’re looking for. With so many choices, it’s hard to know where to start, so we thought we’d put together this handy guide for you. We’ll also explain which of our products fall into which category.
In this article
  • What are the different types of hair color?
    • • Semi-Permanent
    • • Demi-Permanent

    • • Temporary
    • • Permanent
  • How to apply permanent hair color

  • Using semi-permanent and permanent color together

What is Semi-Permanent Hair Color?

Semi-permanent hair color, also called gloss, adds shine and refreshes or changes tone without lightening or darkening your hair. (It’s also available in one universal clear shade.) Similar to its demi-permanent cousin, semi-permanent hair color adds dye to the surface of your hair but doesn’t permanently change hair color or structure. This type of hair dye blends in and enhances your hair’s natural color. Here’s what it doesn’t do—it will not provide 100% gray coverage like permanent and demi-permanent hair color.

In fact, semi-permanent hair dye is not designed to cover grays at all. You should use semi-permanent hair color to refresh or temporarily change tone—no developer-activator required, no mixing required. Semi-permanent hair dye doesn’t change hair structure or color permanently, so it’s great for short-term color changes—like if you’re mulling over whether or not to go red, consider trying one of our gorgeous red hair glosses, Barolo or Cannella.

Our Color Reviving Gloss is semi-permanent hair dye that provides a sheer tint, while also refreshing faded tones and adding a boost of shine. This product is a great way to refresh permanent hair color between salon visits. Gloss typically lasts up to 8 shampoos.


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What is Demi-Permanent Hair Color?

Demi-permanent hair color is a less-permanent hair color option—usually lasting up to 2 weeks—that temporarily covers grays with artificial pigment. This hair color can help you maintain your shade or darken it, although it does not lighten hair like permanent hair color. Demi-permanent color is a great option if you’re looking to extend time between salon visits or coloring at home. Our Root Reboot® is a color-depositing, demi-permanent hair color designed specifically to cover your roots between coloring sessions. This product blends onto hair for 100% gray coverage on your T-zone (hairline and roots). Plus, it has a drip-free sponge applicator for a no-mess color application.

Using our color-safe Root Reboot will extend the life of your permanent hair color up to 2 weeks...and it eventually washes out easily with shampoo without altering your underlying hair color. That’s one of the many benefits of demi-permanent hair color. 

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What is Temporary Hair Color?

Temporary hair color adds instant color to hair and washes out much more quickly than other types of color. Temporary hair color can be applied as a liquid, chalk, powder, or even from a mascara wand. These quick-fix products let you experiment with different colors with absolutely zero commitment, and provide instant gray coverage when you need a quick touch-up.

Our Root Touch Up is a temporary hair color designed to camouflage gray hair instantly. Packaged in a handy compact, like blush or bronzer, Root Touch Up easily brushes onto hair and stays put until your next shampoo. It’s rain-proof, sweat-proof, and pillow-proof, allowing you to get right-this-minute gray coverage. This is a fantastic product to use when you’re in-between permanent hair color applications.

What is Permanent Hair Color?

Now, here’s the most colorful bang for your its name implies, permanent hair color is your most long-lasting hair color option. Permanent hair dye changes hair color and hair structure, and is the best and longest-lasting gray coverage option of all varieties of hair color. Permanent hair color must be mixed with a developer and activator before use. (You can save unmixed hair dye for future use, but do not save mixed product.)

Apply permanent hair dye to lighten, darken, add, or change the tone of your hair. This type of hair dye will open the hair shaft to add artificial pigment within the hair cuticle, permanently changing the color composition of your hair. Permanent hair color grows out from the root, and this hair dye can be reapplied every four to eight weeks, depending on how fast your hair grows.

Our Radiant Hair Color is a permanent option that not only colors, but also nourishes your hair with keratin, argan oil, and ginseng root extract. With 100% gray coverage, this is a fantastic hair dye option if you're looking to cover grays, maintain your natural color, or change your hair color to a new shade that’s either darker or up to 2 levels lighter.

Our multi-dimensional formulas are free of ammonia and designed to bring out your hair’s natural radiance, letting you flaunt the gold, copper, mahogany, or ash tones in your hair. Unlike traditional permanent hair color, our Radiant Hair Color does not include PPD, ammonia, resorcinol, parabens, phthalates, gluten, SLS, and titanium dioxide. Our permanent hair dye offers 100% gray coverage and lasts much longer than semi-permanent hair color. Our Radiant Hair Color doesn’t contain harsh chemicals like ammonia, and includes natural, nourishing ingredients that helps your hair stay healthy-looking. Win-win!

Want to try before you buy? Use our virtual hair color try-on tool to try on different shades of permanent hair color—see what you’d look like as a blonde, a redhead, a brunette…it’s a game changer.

Now, let’s get into how to apply permanent hair color and semi-permanent hair color. These are very simple instructions—for more information, please refer to our more detailed instructions on how to color hair and video tutorials.

How to apply permanent hair color

Here’s a helpful hint: before you start, slip on a smock or a button or zip up shirt. It will make cleanup easier.

  1. Divide your hair into four sections and clip into place.

  2. Apply barrier cream to your forehead, ears, and neck. This keeps the color off your skin. Be careful to keep the cream off your hair.

  3. Wash the barrier cream off your hands. Put on your first pair of gloves.

  4. Fully puncture the color tube using the outside end of the cap. Squeeze half the color into a non-metallic bowl. Note: you don’t need to use a brush and bowl—you can also use the applicator bottle.

  5. Open the activator bottle and squeeze half the contents into the bowl.

  6. Close the color tube and activator bottle. Do not mix if you are saving for future use!

  7. Use an applicator brush to blend the contents of the bowl into a thick cream, like conditioner.

  8. Unclip one section of hair and apply a small amount of hair dye to your roots. Make sure you only color new hair that has not been color-treated before!

  9. Space the color in rows about ¼ inch apart. Continue coloring the roots with dye in your remaining sections of hair and skip to step 6 of the next section if not applying gloss.

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Using semi-permanent and permanent color together - the pro's secret to great hair color

For the most part, you almost never apply permanent hair color all over—unless you are coloring your hair for the first time or changing shades. We’re big fans of what we like to call the Perfect Pair: permanent hair dye on your roots, semi-permanent gloss on your mid-lengths and ends. (Otherwise known as the salon-secret system for shiny, healthy-looking hair color).

Whether you’re using gloss on its own or pairing with permanent color, here’s how you’ll get started:

  1. Open your tube of Color Reviving Gloss and peel foil away from the applicator tip.

  2. Starting at the crown of your head, close to where you stopped applying permanent color, apply gloss directly to dry hair.

  3. Use one hand to squeeze out a little gloss at a time with the applicator end of the tube touching your hair. Use the other hand to massage the gloss into strands, working down your hair toward the ends.

  4. Continue applying gloss and working into hair a little at a time. Make sure hair is fully saturated: it will feel completely coated and silky through your gloves and will look shiny and wet.

  5. After you’ve applied to all your lengths and ends, close the tube to save remaining gloss for another use. Use a wide tooth comb or massage with your hands to evenly distribute the gloss.

  6. Put on the cap and take off your gloves. Use the cleansing wipe to clean up any hair dye that dripped onto your skin.

  7. Set a timer for 35 minutes and relax. You did it!

  8. Rinse your hair until the water runs clear. The easiest way is to get in the shower and let the water loosen the color. Then massage gently while rinsing to help lift excess color off hair and scalp.

  9. Wash your hair and lock in dye with our sulfate-free Color Protecting Shampoo and Conditioner.


Bottom line? We’ve got something for everyone

From quick-washout temporary color to long-lasting permanent dye, Madison Reed has gorgeous, easy-to-use hair color solutions to get you—and your hair—looking and feeling your best. Whichever option you choose, you can’t go wrong. Happy coloring!


Originally published: 12/19/2014

Updated: 1/13/2021