Difference between semi-permanent and permanent hair dye EXPLAINED.

What’s the difference between semi-permanent and permanent hair dye?

When it comes to dyeing our hair at home, we’re faced with many choices that bamboozle and confuse the best of us. Hair dye for roots, hair dye for greys, hair dye for the latest trends, even hair dye when you’re pregnant. There’s plenty to think about.

Perhaps the biggest decision to make is whether we want to use semi-permanent or permanent dye and what is the difference between them anyway? Let’s find out!

Choosing one can be overwhelming.

No matter what style or colour you’re looking for, it’s hard to know what to choose and why.

We’ll help you make the right decision by explaining the difference between these two types of hair dyes, as well as their pros and cons.

This way you’ll find out which one is right for your needs! Plus we’ve got all of our top tips on how to get great results at home using both types of dyes.

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Difference between semi-permanent and permanent hair dye


Is a slight tonal change

Covers and coats your hair

Can cover greys

Contains no hydrogen peroxide

Last for about 10-12 washes


More coverage

More change

Covers greys

Absorbs into your hair

Contains hydrogen peroxide

Lasts 12-24 washes

How does hair dye work?

Let’s look at what dye actually DOES to your hair. How does hair dye work?

Here’s the sciencey bit – hair colour contains tiny colour molecules that barge their way into your hair’s cuticle, or outer layer, and burrow deeper into your hair’s cortex.

How deep they go and how much they stick is what makes them different.

How Does Hair Dye Work?

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What are semi-permanent hair dyes?

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This hair dye is the one you use when you want to experiment with colour. They typically wash out in between 10-14 washes, so you can change up your colour as often as your heart desires.

This is because semi-permanent colour contains tiny colour molecules that enter the hair’s cuticle, or outer layer, and go into your hair’s cortex in a minimal fashion. So they add colour without dramatically changing the structure of your hair like permanent colour does.

They don’t interact with your natural pigments. And since the molecules are small, they eventually wave goodbye and leave your hair after several shampoos, fading until your hair goes back to how it was before treatment. 

How long does semi-permanent hair dye last?

This formula enhances your natural colour so you won’t get roots growing out like you will with permanent dyes. But it’s also not as effective at covering greys and the effects won’t last as long – around 10-12 washes.

The thing about semi-permanent is that it won’t lighten your hair colour because it contains no ammonia or peroxide. So no reaching for the blonde shades if your hair is darker, it’ll need to be stripped first (by your hairdresser).

Because it’s more temporary, you can have LOADS of fun experimenting with colours and the ones available tend to be as bold as they come!

Liven up your locks by trying coloured hair streaks, vibrant highlights or even half and half style hair!

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Fades faster than permanent but it’s kinder.

These dyes fade with shampooing and exposure to sunlight and air and generally tend to last for about 8 to 12 shampoos.

This means they need to be frequently reapplied, which can be damaging to your luscious locks but not as much as permanent colour that goes deeper into the hair. So if you’re dying your hair a darker colour or tone, and you’re not too grey, this could be for you. 

Which is the best semi-permanent hair dye?

Absolute top of the list is the L’Oreal Colorista Washout range. The colours are hot, with loads of on-trend pastels to transform your locks. We also love the permanent Colorista range for when you find the colour that steals your heart. Swoon.

L’Oréal Colorista Washout Aqua Blue Semi-Permanent Hair Dye.

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What are permanent hair dyes? 

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Permanent hair dye is what you need for great grey coverage and strong, long-lasting colour.

This dye doesn’t just rinse across your hair and stain it. It actually has to break through a couple of barriers in your hair to set…well…permanently. In order to get into the hair shaft, the dye has to get through the hair’s natural protection: the cuticle.

How long does permanent hair dye last?

Permanent changes the actual makeup of your hair. It does this by the use of peroxide which opens the cuticle of the hair shaft allowing the colour to really penetrate to the core. Tiny molecules enter all the way into the cortex, where they react and expand to a size that cannot be washed out.

This means your hair colour actually has to grow out over time which is why you end up with roots which you typically need to get touched up every 4-6 weeks.

Permanent colour also can’t lighten your colour. COLOUR NEVER LIGHTENS COLOUR. You need to get your hair lightened by a professional for that. But if you want to go a new shade or a darker shade, permanent will definitely give you the best results for longer.

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It may fade, but it won’t wash out.

Because of the changes in the structure of your hair shaft, the end result of using permanent dye is a combination of your natural hair pigment and the new shade you’ve chosen. 

That’s why the colour may appear different on you than on someone else using the same colour. Now you know why the “strand test” is so important – it’s not to test allergic reactions, that’s a patch test.

This also makes these dyes more damaging to your hair. The chemicals used are stronger and the mixture usually has to be left on for a longer period of time. 

So only use it if your greys are really stubborn or your colour change needs to be dramatically different.

Which is the best permanent hair dye?

If you want to dye your hair a permanent colour at home, John Frieda’s Precision Foam are the top types of hair colours we recommend because of their easy to apply, non splash wonderousness and lasting colour. You can read about why they’re the best in our John Frieda review here.

John Frieda Precision Foam Hair dye.

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Is semi or permanent hair dye better?

The best way to decide what type of hair dye is right for you and your lifestyle, is by looking at the pros and cons of each option.

Semi-permanent dyes are a great choice if you want a temporary change or have an active schedule that might require frequent touch-ups.

Permanent dyes leave no room for error but can last up to 8 weeks with proper care.

If you’re pregnant, it’s important to be careful with permanent hair dye as chemicals like ammonia can be harmful during pregnancy (though semi-permanent dyes may still be okay).

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Ultimately though, there isn’t one perfect hair dye – we just need to find something that will work for us!

The true answer lies in the condition of your hair right now and how much coverage you really need. You can always ask the advice of a professional. 

We recommend getting a free consultation at your local salon to find out a) what colour they would recommend for your skin tone and b) whether you should be using permanent or semi-permanent.

Loading yourself with as much advice as you can will mean you choose the right dye for you and will get the results if you choose to go for it and dye your hair at home.

With both options, you want to take care not to quicken the pace of fading. Follow our advice in How to look after coloured hair and keep it luscious for longer and thank us later.