27/08/2010 17:30 BST | Updated 22/05/2015 10:12 BST

Hair Colour: The Beginners' Guide

Toni and Guy model Toni & Guy

Sultry brunette, sexy blonde or fiery redhead and everything in between, there's no end of choice if you're looking to change your hair colour.

But whether you're aiming for subtle highlights or a shocking new shade, it's vital to stay safe when it comes to dying your hair. If not, you risk not only damaging your locks but could even be at risk from an allergic reaction.

A worrying survey by home hair colourant Naturtint, recently discovered nearly 80 of salons wrongly said it would be fine to go ahead with colouring just 24 hours after a test.

Naturtint, whose range includes PPD- and peroxide-free Naturtint Reflex, £10.99, is campaigning for all salons to perform the skin test. Even if you've had no problems in the past, you could experience a reaction because of recent hormonal or lifestyle changes, or even tattoos, making the test essential.

Celebrity colourist Marc Ramos, who works with Naturtint, says, "Inflamed and painful scalps are definitely not the look people are going for when they dye their hair, but unfortunately some hair dyes can cause severe skin irritations. Always, always be responsible."

So if you're planning a new colour and you're not sure where to start, what else is essential to know? We asked some of the UK's top colourists for their tips.

Why go to a salon?
With more home dye kits available than ever, including the newest 10-minute versions, it's tempting to do it yourself. But the reason is simple, say the experts; you'll get the best results in a salon, especially if you're a novice.

"Visiting a professional salon is the only way to get a true colour analysis of your hair. Its current state, its colour history and what will bring out the best tones for you. All of this will lead to the perfect result - beautiful, head-turning colour," says Luke Walton at Rainbow Room International, one of the colourists backing the new Keep Colour Professional campaign.

Jo O'Neill, international education technical director at Toni & Guy points out, "The experts can advise on what shades will suit your skin tone and facial features. If your colour change is drastic, you may need to rethink your make-up to suit your newfound shade."

What's on offer if you want a new colour?
"There are many options which can introduce you to colour without commitment," says Chris Williams at RUSH London and British Hairdressing Awards Colourist of the Year. "Vegetable colours aren't so popular now, as they have been superseded by the latest developments in semi, quasi and permanent colour.

"Semi-permanent colours are the perfect introduction. They last up to 10 shampoos, although they have their limitations as you can't really change the shade much. Tone-on-tone colours, or quasi permanent colours, can provide a greater change, taking the hair three to four levels darker but not lighter.

"Highlights and lowlights allow you to enhance your own natural colour without too much of a commitment. Personally, I would avoid permanent colour if this is your first experience. Permanent means permanent and the only way to go back to your natural hair is to grow it out."

For another alternative, O'Neill suggests the natural glossing technique at Toni & Guy. "It's the perfect introduction to colour and for trying out new shades. Natural glossing gives an all-over colour that gradually wears out of the hair in six to eight weeks, with no re-growth, and gives incredible high-shine results."

What are the latest colouring options?
"There is one very exciting new development in hair colour products," says Walton. "Inoa by L'Oreal is a fantastic new permanent colour that really enhances hair. It's ammonia free and leaves hair looking and feeling fabulous. It also gives 100% coverage of grey hair."

Another option? Skye Norman at Anita Cox Chelsea recommends the new Schwarzkopf Professional's Igora Color10. "It is the first professional 10-minute colour to deliver perfect coverage, vibrant shine and outstanding care," she says.

What should you consider before you make a decision?
Walton says, "First and foremost, you need to be comfortable with the person colouring your hair. It's a big step for many people - they need to feel confident that the result is exactly what they are looking for. That's why the consultation is so important to see that the colourist or stylist is on your wavelength, understands what you are looking for, makes suggestions and provides information. That way you can make informed choices."

"Be realistic when choosing a colour," adds Norman. "If you are naturally very dark, it will be difficult to achieve light blonde tones in your hair. The hair could be left with a great deal of damage, breaking and snapping the hair in the process.

"If you are considering colouring your hair a particularly vibrant shade, you should take into account that you may need to visit your colourist for an in-between semi permanent treatment to top up."

"If you want to lighten your hair, then a permanent colour is the only option," says O'Neill. "If it's your first time, rather than opting for highlights, pieces of colour positioned around the face may be an option."

What should your salon do before you get the foils on?
"Call the salon and book a consultation," says Walton. "During the consultation the hairdresser will explain what they would do, why they are doing it and advise on upkeep and maintenance. If you are unsure about your consultation, get a second opinion and visit another salon as the consultation is complimentary."

"Reputable salons will ask for a colour sensitivity test, carried out 48 hours before your colour appointment," says O'Neill. "A small sample of the product is applied to the skin (usually behind the ear) to ensure that the client doesn't have a reaction to any of the products used during the colouring process."

If you do have any reaction following the skin test, contact the salon for more advice.

How can you choose your colourist?
Ask around, say our experts. Get a recommendation from your hairdresser, ask your friend who has great hair colour or visit several salons for consultations until you find someone you like.

"Do some research and look on the internet for reviews of good salons in your area," suggests Norman. "If they have a website it will also tell you about qualifications, any awards they have won, examples of their work, what products they use and so on. The consultation will give you a chance to get a feel for the salon prior to your appointment too."

What kind of aftercare advice should you get?
"Coloured hair needs extra TLC, so make sure to keep your locks alive with regular hair treatments, as they are a great way to rejuvenate and refresh solid colours," says Norman.

"Maintaining vibrant colours such as reds and plums in coloured hair can be difficult as it can fade very quickly, so invest in a good quality shampoo and conditioner specifically designed for coloured hair."

And don't neglect your colour in the sunshine, says Toby Brown, Manager and Creative Director at Browns. "Always be careful in the sun. Use products that have a UV filter, and wear a hat when sunbathing."

Last but not least, don't be shy if there's anything you're not happy with, adds Adam Browne, Artistic Director at Fordham Soho. "Don't be afraid to contact your salon if your colour didn't work out the way you wanted."