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Katie's Direct Dye Fading Treatment

Published on 22nd July 2016

There really is a science to color removal, and to removing direct dyes specifically. The process of removing color can be quite multi-faceted and can require some patience. Very specific products/processes are needed, prep work, aftercare, and the understanding that one may need to space out the removal process over some weeks, which may mean living with a less than desirable color for a little while. Even with proper technique and care, one may find that the hair is stained. Depending on the hair history and goal, it can be quite a commitment! Patience and proper care are necessary though and frankly, a small sacrifice to ensure the best results and to maintain the integrity of the hair.

After being in the salon, being active on hair websites, forums, and Facebook Groups for some years, I saw that many people, stylists and at home colorists, often struggle with color removal, particularly when it comes to direct dyes. There are so many methods of removal out there, some excessively drying or damaging, some end up permanently staining color deeper into the hair, and all methods being inconsistent. Though three people may have had the same color deposited on the same day, the same hair type/condition, and used the same products at home, using the same method of removal, one may have a quick, easy, flawless removal, one it may permanently stain her hair and discolor it, another it may barely even phase it.

I saw and experienced first hand that the struggle was real. Even very experienced and seasoned celebrity stylists often ran into hiccups. So I wanted to make a direct dye fading treatment that would work across the board, on creme based and water based direct dyes, professional and non, regardless of build-up, brand, hair type, something not involving hydrogen peroxide, something that isn’t as damaging or drying as many fading treatments out there.

Once I took a step back and looked at direct dye removal from outside the box of the components I already knew, the chemistry needed for removal made sense.

About Direct Dyes

Direct dye color molecules generally have the largest molecular structure out of all the classes of color and are intended to deposit onto the layers of cuticle scales. Permanent color molecules start out small and colorless, but then polymerize, creating visibly colored, large molecules that remain trapped in terms cortex, for the most part. Some oxidative color, particularly box color, contains both, in about a 80%/20% ratio of oxidative to direct.

Most direct dyes are basically the equivalent of a creme conditioner, and pigment – water, penetration enhancers, viscosity controllers, emulsifiers, preservatives, some nourishing ingredients, pH adjusters, and preservatives. Most direct dyes fall into this range of creme based, conditioning direct dyes, like Pravana, Joico, Special Effects, La Riche Directions, Punky Color, Arctic Fox, etc.

Some brands are more watery though and don’t contain many nutrients, these ones typically feel a tad bit drying sometimes, like Adore, Nirvel ArtX Nutre Color, Splat, Nrage, etc.

Common Methods for Removing Direct Dyes

There are many methods used to remove color, but what works for one often may not work for another, particularly when it comes to oxidative color removal methods, or products intended for oxidative color. When we use products designed for oxidative color on direct dyes, unexpected, bizarre results can happen sometimes.The various components in a direct dye color can break down at different rates, causing unexpected discoloration. Violets and purples often turn green, pinks can turn blue, orange, red, etc. Sometimes you get lucky and using lightener + developer, a high lift + developer, or clear + developer will completely remove the direct dye (primarily with professional color and Sparks), but the chemical and structural changes in the hair that occur when you use oxidative processes can drive and allow the broken bits of color molecules to slip deeper into the hair, staining it, sometimes it becomes discolored, and sometimes even makes the color (or discoloration) appear brighter. Sometimes a vitamin C treatment may do the trick, but the hair may be severely compromised after. This is why I always recommend using fading treatments that are chemically, specifically designed for direct dyes, and if you do want to try an oxidative method, always test strand it first. This is also why I sought out to create an entirely different fading treatment, so that Direct dyes could be effectively removed without the fading treatment potentially permanently staining the hair, without reducing the internal/external protein significantly, and so there would no longer be a guessing game as to which fading treatment may or may not work effectively. Below are some commonly used color removal methods:

Clear + developer, high lift + developer, permanent color + developer

Alkalizers soften and swell the cuticle, allowing for potential direct dye color fading. The degree of damage will be largely determined by the volume of developer used and processing time. With higher volumes, the damage can be quite significant especially when left to process longer. Disulfide bonds are broken, the cuticle and cortex are reduced, the natural base will lighten according to volume and processing time, and the direct dye color molecules can break down, potentially removing the color, but it could potentially permanently stain the hair also.

Oxidative specific color removers: Rusk Elimin8, Color Oops, One n Only Colorfix, Pravana Color Extractor, Decolour Remover, Kenra, Power Tools, Jo Bazz, etc. Colour B4 for Fashion Colours is the only color remover that is intended for direct dyes. Color removers are nowhere near as damaging as using lightener and developer or color strippers, but they do damage some disulfide bonds, and do chip away at our cuticle a bit. They are not completely damage free. The degree of dryness or potential damage is almost completely dependent on the condition of the existing hair. They are generally safe to use unless the existing hair is already compromised. With oxidative color, they lift the cuticle then deoxidize the enlarged, linked, polymerized, visibly colored molecules, returning them to their original, tiny, separated, colorless “tube” state, then a these tiny, colorless molecules must be rinsed out. Being that Direct dyes are not oxidative, it is primarily the lifting of the cuticle that allows for potential color fading.

Using your typical color removers intended for oxidative color on direct dyes, not only can you get discoloration, but you can experience an effect just like when reoxidation occurs after using a color remover on oxidative color. The color will appear gone, but that color can reanimate when you put oxidative color or lightener on it, or even from your next wash, even the air alone can cause it to happen. I knew a girl that used an oxidative color remover on her clients orange and yellow melt. Looked great and completely gone, so she put her next color, Turquoise all over..perfect! Until the next day when she woke up she got a panicked text and photo sent to her, her orange and yellow were coming back, it was an ugly, muddy mess. So I always recommend only using color removal methods specifically designed for direct dyes.

Oxidative specific color strippers: L’Oreal Color Zap, Effasol

Color strippers are like a first cousin to lightener. They are essentially a bleach powder that you mix per manufacturers Directions with developer/water/shampoo. Minimal melanin lightening capabilities compared to lightener, though they do still lighten our natural base. They do damage the cuticle, cortex, disulfide bonds, have a high pH, soften and swell the strand, and can break down direct dye color molecules, which although can allow fading, can also cause permanent staining and discoloration, the color (or discoloration) can even appear brighter. The amount of damage will vary depending on what you mix it with. When using a color stripper the hair should be treated as if one was using actual lightener + developer.

Bleach powder + water

Making a paste out of bleach powder and water. This method requires a higher concentration of bleach powder with a smaller amount of water, so it has quite a high pH, which can easily, greatly reduce the hair. This method is effective at fading color, but can be extremely harsh on the hair due to its high pH/high concentration of bleach powder.

Lightener + developer or bleach bath

Should always be a very last resort, and always performed on a test strand first. It has a high pH via its alkalizers, softening and swelling the strand, lifting the cuticle, breaking disulfide bonds, reducing the cuticle and the keratin fibrils of the cortex, oxidizing our melanin, lightening the natural base, and can unpredictability break down direct dye color molecules, causing potential discoloration. It may fade, though it may permanently stain the hair.

Malibu CPR

Malibu CPR is a fading method intended for oxidative color. Malibu CPR is Vitamin C based, quite acidic (falls within the range of 3-4) unlike and not to be confused or substituted with the home remedy Vitamin C treatment, which is a higher pH than CPR, and much more aggressive. CPR can be quite drying but not as drying or potentially harmful as the home remedy. Fading wise it fades about the same as doing the home remedy on oxidative color would, up to a couple levels. CPR softens and swells the cuticle with prolonged acidity exposure, allowing for potential fading. Using it immediately after some other fading methods can cause the color to reanimate, similar to how the color can reanimate after using a color remover on direct dyes.

Malibu DDL

A color stripping product intended for Direct dyes. It is much like a clay (kaolin) lightener. This product is typically the most effective on Professional direct dye lines and Sparks. DDL can be mixed with water or developer, and behaves and reduces the hair much like lightener and other color strippers do in that it damages cuticle and cortex protein, breaks disulfide bonds, and lightens the natural base. The hair should be treated the same as if you were using an actual lightener. The amount of damage will vary depending on if you are mixing it with water or developer.

Vitamin C Treatment

Mixing crushed up vitamin C tablets with clarifying shampoo. With home remedy vitamin c treatments one must be extremely, extremely careful with. They can be extremely, extremely drying and damaging! It softens and swells the cuticle with crushed up vitamin c tablets, but with an uncontrolled pH (which will largely be that of whatever shampoo is used) and ingredients commonly found in shampoo, like harsh surfactants, penetration enhancers, drying alcohols, the effects can be devastating. The scales get lifted whilst the strand is softened and swelled, the scales become very vulnerable, and can get stuck lifted amongst the layers of scales. When this happens, the hair’s front line of defense is compromised, resulting in the inability to retain moisture, constant snagging and tangling, severe dryness, and ultimately breakage. This can even happen on very healthy hair. Also, some can be very sensitive to this method, resulting in burning, irritation, and even blisters on the scalp.This is not a safe or consistent fading method and should be avoided. If you are curious, perform several test strands throughout the hair first.

Clarifying caps

Soaking the hair in shampoo, capping it, and warming with a dryer. You can also use coconut oil as a pre treatment to help shift more color molecules, applying the shampoo directly over it. The coconut oil should be applied at least 2 hours prior. This is more of a gradual fading method, that is slightly amplified by incorporating a pre Coconut oil soak. This is safe compared to other fading treatments, though of course it can be drying.

Epsom salts soak

Adding Epsom salts to your tub, soaking the hair in it. This is another safer, gradual fading method, but can be drying.

Baking soda + shampoo

Adding some baking soda to a clarifying shampoo. Baking soda has a higher pH, and can start reducing the hair, just like prolonged exposure to other alkaline substances. This can be extremely drying, and seriously compromise the cuticle. If curious about this gradual method, a test strand should always be performed first.

Potential Damage

Potential damage is something we all must consider when choosing our methods of color removal. The thing to really remember when it comes to using oxidative fading methods, is the hair history. Internal and external protein loss/damage is permanent and cumulative. Every time we use developer, we occur some protein/structural damage, on top of any damage we accumulate from day to day from brushing, heat styling, sun exposure, friction, etc. On already pale or processed hair (which the majority of the time with direct dyes the base is already pale yellow, lightened close to it, or has gone through at least several oxidative processes from the age of the ends) why would you want to add more damage to it when there are less damaging methods available? Developer damages our cuticle, cortex (keratin fibrils), disulfide bonds, and it oxidizes our melanin (naturally occurring protein pigments), lightening our natural base. With the hair already pale/processed, we need to maintain the protein and bonds we still have left.

There is no way to repair damaged/lost protein. The only thing we can do to help bandaid hair protein loss/damage is to incorporate products that include the proper protein size/form that we need into our routines. These temporarily fill/coat the hair, and fade out as we wash. The hair can only withstand so much protein loss though, after a point there is nothing that can be done, and it should be cut to prevent the damage from traveling up the strand. Protein loss issues will always be accompanied by moisture issues as well.

There is a way to repair broken disulfide bonds though, and that is by using Olaplex. Though disulfide bonds only make up about 8% of our hair, they are absolutely critical to the hair’s health. When we break disulfide bonds, half of them will oxidize, creating the sulfate group SO3, producing cystic acid, which then eats away at the protein in the hair. Olaplex stops this negative oxidation domino effect from occurring, by pairing the broken disulfide bond’s single sulfur hydrogen molecule end with a single oxygen molecule via a covalent and ionic bridge. It is not a film former, nor protein, it is impossible to overuse, it does not leave any residue or anything foreign in the hair at all. Once it is rinsed out, you have nothing but your bare hair in which the repairs will forever remain unless you break those bonds again one day. And remember, there are thousands of disulfide bonds in our hair. Olaplex is something that will benefit anyone that has broken disulfide bonds, which we all do to varying degrees. Broken disulfide bonds are just part of the package when you are removing color as well, but they can be mitigated and repaired by using Olaplex. It is not a magic wand though, nor free reign to over process the hair. One must always use their best judgement, even with Olaplex.

About my Fading Treatment

I spent about 8 months developing this fading treatment through trial and error, using all the above methods and 20 something concoctions utilizing components from the above methods plus many more. I wanted an effective, minimally to non damaging, minimally drying fading treatment that would work on any direct dye, regardless of brand, color or build-up. I saw people frying their hair or clients hair, staining it, all in efforts trying to remove direct dyes, and I wanted a solution. Since i created it in early/mid 2013, it has been used over 3,000 times by both professionals and non of every experience. As long as it’s followed exactly, you do any necessary prep work, and you don’t have any permanent staining of course, it always works. Remember though, color may not all come out in one application. Most colors will come out in 1-2, though some need more.

Professional direct dyes (aside from Goldwell Elumen) and Sparks (which is like Pravana) are typically the easiest to remove, and can be the most versatile when it comes to fading methods. For example using an ammonia based clear with developer or Malibu DDL tend to work much better on professional brands and Sparks vs non professional products. These colors are typically removed in 1-2 applications with my fading treatment.

Some direct dyes are tougher to shift, requiring more patience, like Directions Plum and Turquoise, Punky Color Plum and Turquoise, and Manic Panic Atomic Turquoise, which typically need 2-3. There are also Ion’s blue tones, which have a unique, durable, color/deposit technology similar to specifically grey coverage box color. Natural grey hair tends to be very resistant to deposit and tends to fade quickly. So, manufacturers incorporate a silicone modification to the color, so it embeds deeply and is very resistant to fading. Schwarzkopf Live XXL incorporates a technology like this.This is much like how Ion’s blue pigments are, which is why traditional color removal methods typically fall short, to the surprise and disappointment of many stylists, clients, and at home colorists.

There are some specific direct dyes that have the tendency to stain the hair permanently, like Splat’s warm tones/undertones, Manic Panic Vampire Red (which I have seen permanently stain virgin hair before), and using Special Effects colors neat (undiluted) as they are really a concentrate. Color that was applied to damaged, porous hair is more likely to stain also, regardless of which color was used.

Goldwell Elumen is a professional line of direct dyes that is very unique and is extremely difficult to remove. Freshly deposited Elumen is much easier to fade though than “old” color. Goldwell’s product called Return should be used first, then test strands of whichever removal methods you want to try. If the color has been in the hair for months, or there’s color build-up, it is usually impossible to fully remove, regardless of the removal method.

With my fading treatment, there is a purpose to every ingredient and measurement. My fading treatment is roughly 80% clarifying shampoo, 15% bleach powder, and roughly 5% oils. There’s the alkalinity from the bleach powder to help lift the cuticle a bit, and to slightly soften and swell the strand. There’s sulfates from the shampoo, which help lift the cuticle scales also. So all of these things raise the cuticle just like most fading treatments, allowing the color molecules to slip out. This alone will fade most direct dyes, but not as dramatically or safely as it will by incorporating the oils. This is similar to using bleach powder and water, which was the turning point in my months of experimentation and trial and error.

With my fading treatment you have to let coconut oil absorb into the hair first. You have the coconut oil absorbed deep in the hair, you have the added coconut oil to work just below the surface, and the olive oil which is more surface working in this treatment, as it takes longer to absorb. You have the entirety of the cuticle where all the color molecules are, completely covered in oils which are mingling with the color molecules, loosening them if you will, which allows them to shift out at a greater capacity than just simply using ingredients that raise the cuticle. But there’s not too much acidity to level out the alkalinity and just make the whole thing ineffective.

Prep Work

It is always important to assess the true condition of the hair prior to any chemical process. Doing this will not only allow you to evaluate the true condition of the hair, but it will also allow proper penetration and efficacy of the following process.

To do this, remove product build-up and mineral deposits with a clarifying shampoo and a demineralizing/chelating shampoo or treatment days prior to doing any type of chemical process. Do not condition, then let air dry. If the hair is compromised, use your best judgement to decide if it is safe to continue.

If hair is compromised, Olaplex can be used to repair broken disulfide bonds. Protein and moisture should be assessed with the appropriate products as well.

Wait until natural oils build up before proceeding with your process, regardless of what process it may be.

My Direct Dye Fading Treatment

Apply pure coconut oil to dry hair. Let absorb for 2 hours. Then mix:

  • 4oz clarifying shampoo
  • 1oz bleach powder
  • 1 teaspoon organic olive oil
  • 1 teaspoon coconut oil

Liberally apply directly over oiled hair, do not wet or rinse oil out. Work it through the hair well, like you’re exfoliating the hair. Cap and warm with a dryer for 5-10 minutes. Shampoo out in hot water.


After shampooing, this is when you would use Olaplex. Then, or if not using Olaplex, use a silicone free moisturizing conditioner or masque to restore moisture balance. After rinsing that out, you can restore pH balance by using an acidifier or by doing a vinegar rinse. If another application is needed, wait for natural oils to build back up before doing another application.

Product Recommendations

Clarifying shampoo: For both the fading treatment and for prior clarifying, a basic clarifying shampoo is ideal, such as Suave Naturals Clarifying Shampoo or Malibu Undo Goo. You want a shampoo that has stronger surfactants, without any damage masking, coating silicones or non water soluble film formers in it.

Chelating/demineralizing It is important to chelate prior to any chemical process, to prevent discoloration, to prevent potential chemical reactions which can result in severe hair damage and scalp harm, and to prevent them from hindering the penetration and efficiency of products/processes. Products to use can vary depending on your water/exposure, but Malibu and Ion make an array of products to choose from. Malibu Crystal Gel treatment is the most versatile, popular, and widely used. Ion has their own Crystal Clarifying Treatment which is comparable. There are also various shampoos and other treatments for swimmers, well water, hard water, etc.

Repair: As described above, Olaplex cross links broken disulfide bonds. It is patented chemistry, developed by two of the world’s leading PhDs in Materials and Chemistry, Dr. Craig Hawker and Dr. Eric Pressly. It is the only product on earth that can actually repair hair. There are 40+ knockoffs that have all came out after Olaplex, but none have any chemistry to back up their false claims. They all just temporarily fill and coat the hair. So if your hair isn’t in its best shape from having broken disulfide bonds, Olaplex will help.

Coconut oil: Pure, virgin, unrefined, cold pressed coconut oil is best whether using it topically or internally, as it is the least processed and purest in chemical composition.

Olive oil: Certified organic extra virgin olive oil is best to use, no matter what you are using it for topically or internally. Non certified organic olive oil often is not pure olive oil, but a mixture of olive oil with other oils.

Bleach powder: Just like with lightening, the quality of thr bleach powder plays a large factor in the efficiency of the fading treatment. Matrix Light Master is very good, L’Oreal Infinie Platine, or from Sally’s there’s Wella’s 7 level lift powder.

Protein and Moisture: Shea Moisture products are absolutely legendary. They are free of sulfates, harsh surfactants, silicones, synthetic film formers, synthetic preservatives like parabens and Methylisothiazolinone, synthetic dyes, “fragrance” and fragrance additives (they use essential oil blends), phthalates, mineral oil, paraffin, petroleum, DEA, they’re cruelty free, include many certified organic ingredients, their packaging is made up of a minimum of 25% recycled materials, they practice sustainable, fair trade through community commerce, creating entire thriving communities in which their ingredients are grown and harvested, and they are still family owned and operated to this day, over 100 years later from when it was established by Sofi Tucker, who was a young, widowed mother just selling her homemade beauty products in the markets of Sierra Leone. Her skills and recipes were passed down through the generations in her family, and Shea Moisture makes their products as if they were intended for family. They are jam packed with natural, beneficial, high quality ingredients. Their Tahitian Noni and Monoi conditioner is a great protein source that’s more intensive. The most intense product for moisture is their Manuka Honey masque.

Acidifiers: Used to help balance pH after rinsing out your last product, be it a conditioner, masque, treatment, etc. There are products available such as French Perm Stabilizer Plus conditioner from Sally’s.

Before & after:

Removing stubborn Pravana and Special Effects colours

Also check out this video where Mummydactyl uses the technique!

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My Thoughts

Always do strand and sensitivity tests before embarking on any hair treatment, even if you’ve used the ingredients before. If you experience any discomfort when using a product rinse it off immediately. Always keep hair treatments away from your eyes and never use them on broken skin.This article is a home remedy and is not intended as professional advice, so proceed with caution and at your own risk. Keep in mind that if you have food allergies, using food-based oils may also trigger the allergy.