The art of choosing the perfect colour
When it comes to always looking your best, the right haircut is important – but the right hair colour might be even more important. Certain shades can look beautiful or blah on you, depending on how well they complement your skin tone. “I have clients on a daily basis requesting a hair colour they’ve seen on an actress or model that they just must have,” says celebrity colourist, Kari Hill. “The obstacle isn’t the colouring of their hair – it’s understanding whether or not the colour is going to match their skin tone.”
If you’re looking to colour your hair at home, you’ll undoubtedly find a walk down the pharmacy hair-care aisle to be overwhelming and confusing. And it’s too easy to make a hair mistake that ages your face or simply causes you to look less than amazing. Don’t worry – we’re here to help. We asked veteran stylists to explain exactly how to determine your skin tone and identify the best colours for you, whether you want to go natural or be a little more dramatic.
How to determine your skin tone
As with complexions, hair colours can be warm, cool or neutral. Cool-toned skin has pink, red, and blue undertones, while warm-toned skin has yellow, peach, and golden undertones. If your skin tone is neutral your undertone most likely matches your actual skin tone. No mystery there!
So, how can you determine your skin tone? An easy way to find out is with a “wrist test.” Simply flip over your wrist and look at the colour of your veins. If they are blue or purple, you’re likely cool-toned. Green and yellow veins mean your skin is warm-toned. Here’s another neat trick: “Place a silver piece of jewellery and a gold [one] next to your face, near your eyes,” says celebrity hairstylist Michelle Cleveland. “If silver complements you, go for a cool hair shade. If it’s gold that works best, then choose warm.”
You may have heard that the golden rule when it comes to hair colour is to select a shade that’s the opposite of your skin tone, but that actually may not be accurate. “My advice is to find a colour that brings you confidence but also respects your complexion,” says colourist, Sophie Georgiou. “Lots of women dream of being blonde, but it’s doesn’t suit all complexions.”
For fair skin with cool undertones
Fun fact: the paler your complexion, the lighter you can go with your hair colour. “Cool blonde shades (like platinum and baby blonde) are great on porcelain skin,” says Georgiou. And you’ll want to avoid overly warm tones, like golds, coppers and caramel, which can look unnatural. “Michelle Williams has a very pale cool complexion, so very light, icy blonde works perfectly on her. The reason I love this is because it also contrasts beautifully with her brown eye colour. It shows that, contrary to popular belief, you don’t need to have blue eyes and also pale skin to wear this tone,” says Hill. Considering a deeper hue? Matt King, a colourist, suggests dark red violets and jewel-toned colours, such as rich true red, solid jet (blue) black, and dark deep brown.
For fair skin with warm undertones
According to colourist, Jasmin Rainieri, if you have fair skin with warm undertones, a la Emma Stone and Emma Roberts, copper red, butterscotch, rust, golden blonde, strawberry and caramel tones will bring out the warmth in your skin. Remember the copper red on Stone? “The warm golden copper tone [was] beautifully complemented by her very fair but also warm skin tone,” says Hill. “Conversely, with warmer undertones on fair skin, you want to avoid the overly blue and violet-based colours. I actually wouldn’t suggest anything in the black family at all for someone with this complexion, as it could appear too harsh against their skin tone,” says King.
For fair skin with neutral undertones
Blonde may seem like an obvious choice for people with fair skin and neutral undertones, given the popularity of the shade and just how well it traditionally blends with fair skin. Just look at Jennifer Aniston and Julia Roberts, who have donned blonde tresses over the years. But according to Ian Michael Black, global artistic director of hair colour at Aveda, it’s all about choosing the right shade of the classic colour. “[Try making] a bold statement with platinum blonde, but steer clear of having too much of a blue undertone in the colour,” he says.
Not your style? For a “slightly softer” but statement-looking light blonde, he suggests a complimentary champagne beige tone: “It will look soft and flattering because it will finely balance cool and warm.” Another option, he adds, is to make a statement in the other direction with a very deep brown, which “will be feminine but with a strong edge,” he says.
For medium skin with cool undertones
With a medium complexion, you can experiment with almost any colour. Just avoid going to extremes, King advises. Brunettes should stick with a natural medium to light brown – something like walnut is great. For blondes, look for sand, wheat and beige to complement your skin tone and still look natural. Taylor Swift is a great example of medium skin with cool undertones. “She also has very cool blue eyes that work well with this ashy natural blonde,” notes Hill. And when it comes to red, you’ll want to stick with something in the medium auburn family or a cinnamon tone, according to King.
For medium skin with warm undertones
Blake Lively is a perfect example of medium-toned skin with warm undertones. “Her complexion looks even more gold and radiant because she stays with a golden tone, no matter how light or dark her hair,” explains Hill. “If she went pale or cool in her blonde choices, it would wash out her skin, almost ageing her, due to it being so unnatural with her skin tone.”
According to King, people with this skin tone can’t go wrong with something in the middle. “Personally, I have one absolute favourite for a medium complexion with warm undertones: bronde,” she says, referring to a combination of brown and blonde. “I’m not sure there can be anything better than having the best of both worlds.” Warm butterscotch or light golden brown a la Jessica Alba are great. “Copper and golden reds will add just the right amount of pop in these situations while fully complementing the skin instead of stealing the show.”
For medium skin with neutral undertones
If your skin tone is similar to Shay Mitchell’s or Vanessa Hudgens’, try combining both warm and cool tones for a gorgeous look. “Let your hair gently transition in depth and tone as it goes down the hair shaft. A deeper base with a soft golden tone toward the scalp can be blended into a cooler-toned lighter end to give a complementing and gentle look that works with your skin,” advises Black. Or if you’re looking for more of a brunette look, try “a clean gold tone that radiates and brings warmth against the skin.” The key to making sure it works perfectly and gives you a slightly warmer look and glow? Avoiding red tones.
One more thing to keep in mind: “When you have medium or dark olive skin, stay away from shades that can appear to be the same tone as your skin colour, specifically light brown or dark blonde,” says colourist Marie Robinson. “You are better going brighter, adding highlights, or adding richer tones and darker hair colour to add contrast to your skin.”
For olive skin with cool undertones
“For olive skin, living in a more brunette family is preferable – and adding in a subtle highlight can really help to add dimension and open up a look,” says King. “I wouldn’t really venture into blond too much here, though I think keeping a darker base with hints of caramel or a honey blonde can add incredible texture.” Reddish browns like chestnut, autumn and cinnamon also look great with this skin tone.
If you want a darker hue, stick with warmer blacks like mocha, which can help cancel out any underlying pinkish tones and smooth the appearance of the skin. Olivia Munn’s gorgeous olive skin tone works amazingly with this dark, cool brown hair. “Her hazel eyes not only marry her skin and hair colour, but they keep her looking dramatic and not extreme or harsh,” says Hill.
For olive skin with warm undertones
For those with olive skin and warm undertones – think Jennifer Lopez and Eva Mendes – you can’t go wrong with deep golden and caramel hues. “Jennifer Lopez’s skin tone is the most golden caramel olive tone out there! Her golden-brown eyes literally glow because she doesn’t stray from the warm tones both her skin and eyes dictate,” says Hill. Ebony and mocha tones are also stunning. If you’re going red, stick with the violet reds – keeping colours deep and rich. When it comes to going blonde, you’ll want to embrace warmth and stay with tones that are more honey-based. “While blue-black is an option, I would stick to a more violet black for a striking appearance – it’s also just a little more fun,” says King. “Warm blacks also work here to give a very natural exotic look.”
For olive skin with neutral undertones
Rich, dark tresses are stunning on those with olive skin, from Penelope Cruz to Padma Lakshmi. Black agrees: “Rich chestnut and chocolate tones bring out some warmth from your skin’s neutral undertones.” But there’s no need to limit yourself to darker tones if you want to mix things up! “If you want to go on the lighter side, soft balayage works well with darker natural levels and lighter pieces that have a cool honey-colour,” Black explains. “This will add warmth and glow without looking too stark or brassy against the skin. It works really well to complement those with bright hazel eyes to create a well-rounded and flattering look.”
For deep skin with cool undertones
“Deep, cool complexions, like Viola Davis, are where inky black truly shines. The colour and light-catching factor really help to add to the multitudes of depth in this skin tone,” explains King. Other hues to consider? Espresso, blue-blacks, and deep violet shades, according to colourist, Jason Dolan. And for highlights? “Choose cool hues, regardless of whether they’re brown, blue-red, or platinum blond,” says Hill.
For deep skin with warm undertones
“The richness of a deep, warm skin tone – like Beyoncé’s and Halle Berry’s – is something that you can play up with simple colour tricks,” says King. Considering a blonde hue? He suggests staying in the caramel and toffee family. Brunettes should favour maple and mahogany tones, which help enhance skin’s natural radiance. Similarly, if you’re going dark, warm blacks are best. For redheads: “As contradictory as it may sound, a blue-red works best with this skin tone. It will help to appropriately balance underlying tones while enhancing the warmth that you want to see.”
For deep skin with neutral undertones
Deep skin with a neutral undertone looks best with a strong contrast. (Think Kerry Washington and Zendaya.) “A really light cool-toned blonde, from platinum to softer cool beige, can work beautifully to bring out the warmth in deep brown eyes,” says Black. “Brunette shades with soft warmth, from gold-toned chestnut to rich mahogany with red-violet undertones, can create a flattering complementary look that brings warmth to the face.”
If you’re still unsure, Cleveland recommends a combination of skin tone and eye colour to determine the best hair shade. “The ideal look is achieved by one of these two combinations: warm, warm, cool, or cool, cool, warm. For example, if your eye colour is warm and your skin colour is warm, then your hair colour should be cool,” she says.
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