Hair Color Numbers | What Do They Mean? [Ask the Experts]

From dark brown to baby blonde and everything in between, hair color numbers provide a foolproof way for stylists and colorists to accurately communicate the exact hue you’re looking for.

But if you’re anything like us, you might have found yourself scratching your head when your stylist starts rattling off numbers or you see them written on a box dye!

Don’t worry, we’ve got you covered. Read on to learn more about what each number means so that next time you hit up the salon or bye that box of dye, you can make sure your hair is exactly how you imagined it!

What are hair color numbers?

Hair color numbers are used to categorize and identify various shades of hair color.

This hair level numbers system provides useful information about the depth, tone, and intensity of each shade, which helps stylists determine the best match for their clients’ hair. 

The first number is the base color and indicates how light or dark the color is on a scale from 1 (black) to 10 (the lightest blonde). For example, if your hair color is 5.0, it would be a light brown. 

The second number (and sometimes third number) indicates which tones make up your hair color. This number follows after the period mark and show primary and secondary tones.

These are: .1 Blue, .2 Violet, .3 Gold, .4 Copper, .5 Mahogany, .6 Red, .7 Mat/Green , .8 Mocha.

So let’s say your desired colour is 2.7 – this would be a dark brown with mat or green tones; while 9.2 would indicate an iridescent light blonde shade with both warm and cool tones present in the mix. Simple!

hair color numbers light ash brown example infographic

What about letters?

Some brands of hair dye or hair color use letters in place of numbers to denote the tone. These letters range from A (ash) to V (violet).

This can be confusing, because the same letter can mean different tones in different brands! But it’s usually – N (natural), G (gold), C (copper), R (red), or B (blue).

As an example, if your current shade is 4N and you want to go slightly lighter, then 5N would be an ideal choice since it wouldn’t change your tone too much.

But if you wanted to take a bigger leap in terms of lightness and tone shift, then 6G would be recommended since it has both an increase in lightness and a warmer tone than 4N. 

The letter at the end of each number does not always denote what shade that particular number will look like; it only indicates its tonal intensity so make sure to consult with your stylist before making any drastic changes! 

What is a base hair color?

The first number on the hair colour chart is the base number and the guide to selecting the right shade.

The base hair colour is like an artist’s canvas; it’s the starting point for all your hair colour dreams.

Whether you’re looking for a sun-kissed balayage or bright blonde highlights, this important first step will determine just how light or dark your result will be.

Hair base color chart inforgraphic
10 lightest blonde
9 very light blonde
8 light blonde
7 blonde
6 dark blonde
5 light brown
4 brown
3 dark brown
2 darkest brown

What is a natural base hair color?

Your natural base color (or ‘level’) is the shade of your hair without any chemicals or dyes applied.

This is usually determined by looking at the darkest parts of your hair, such as around the roots or around the ears and temples.

Hair that has never been dyed or color-treated is known as ‘virgin hair’ and is usually around a level 6 (light brown) on the color numbering system.

What is a hair tone or reflect color?

When deciding on your new hair color, your colorist will take into account more than just the main base shade; they’ll also pay attention to the tones and reflects that can help enhance and personalise your hair color further.

After they’ve chosen the main shade, they will then look at the two numbers after the period mark on the color chart – these numbers indicate any primary and secondary reflect or tone colors in play.

These levels can drastically change how your hair colour looks in different lighting – either bringing out an extra shine or neutralizing it to get rid of unwanted yellowy or orangey tones.

For example, adding a .2 or an iridescent tone can lend a cool violet effect to counteract any warmness in blonde shades, while a .3 is sure to give you plenty of golden shimmer!

hair tone and reflect infographic
.2 iridescent
.4 Copper
.5 Mahogany
.6 Red
.7 Mat
.8 Mocha

Watch and learn: Hair color charts explained.

Here’s a great video that talks you through the different types of hair color charts, the hair color wheel and hair color theory!


Step 1. First, decide how light or dark you want your hair color to be. (Base color chart 1-10)

Step 2. Next, choose what type of reflect you want in the shade – cool, warm or no reflect. (Tone & Reflect Chart 1-8)

That’s it! When choosing your hair color make sure you don’t pick a shade that is more than 2 levels from your natural base color for the best results. 

How can I use hair color numbers?

When selecting a new hair color, it’s important to start with some basic questions such as what kind of look do I want?

Am I looking for something that’s more natural-looking or do I want something bolder?

Do I want my highlights or lowlights to stand out more?

Once you have answered these questions, you can better match your desired look with specific shades based on their level and tone numbers.

It’s also helpful to bring pictures of looks that you like when meeting with your stylist so they can get an idea of what type of style/color combination works best for you. 

Which Hair Color Suits Me?

Parting words

No matter what type of look you’re trying to achieve–whether natural or bold–understanding how to use hair color numbers can help make achieving that look easier.

By familiarizing yourself with levels and tones, knowing which questions to ask yourself when selecting a new shade, and bringing examples from Pinterest or Instagram when meeting with your stylist -you will be well on your way towards creating a unique look that expresses who YOU are!

So don’t be afraid—make way for your next shade today!


This article was written and reviewed by:

  • Nicola Freeman, Creative Director & Content Lead
    Creative Director & Content Lead

    With over two decades of passionate hair dyeing experience, I've experimented with nearly every shade imaginable. My journey began long before blogging; as an award-winning copywriter in London and New York, I shaped narratives for iconic brands. However, when friends sought advice during lockdown for at-home hair dyeing, I realized my true calling. Beyond being your hair color expert, I'm a mom of two girls, wife to artist Tony, and an avid soccer player!

  • Enza Piazza, Hair Stylist & Color Consultant
    Hair Stylist & Color Consultant

    I’m Enza Piazza, your go-to hair stylist and color consultant with over 23 years of professional salon experience bringing vibrancy and life to hair of all hues. My Italian roots from sunny Sicily infuse passion into every snip and color, a passion that’s been recognized with top honor awards including bridal and party hair at the National Hairdressers Federation’s Championships. After training in Surrey, UK’s most prestigious salons including Head Master Academy, I embraced the entrepreneurial spirit and set up Enza Hair Styling, offering tailored hair care for 13 years, and treating each client like family. Away from the salon, I cherish moments as a proud Nonna to grandson Joseph and as a playful companion to my Jack Russell, Bo.