Anyone who has ever colored their hair has likely heard about toner before. But what is hair toner, exactly? Not to be confused with the stuff you swipe on your face, hair toner is an essential part of the bleaching or highlighting process that colorists seldom skip. Adding toner is what helps you get your perfect shade. Here’s what it is and why it’s so important, plus a few of our favorite hair toning products to use at home.
What Is Hair Toner? Everything You Need to Know About This Essential for Color-Treated Strands
Meet the Experts
- Carlos Rojas is an ambassador for Schwarzkopf Professional. The Texas-based hairstylist has been working in the industry since 2015 and has since become one of the most sought-after colorists in his area.
- Tom Smith is a celebrity hairstylist and the international color creative director for evo hair. He has over 15 years of experience and is also the color director at Billi Currie Hair Salon in London, as well as a senior educator for Olaplex.
What Does Toner Do for Your Hair?
“Toner either neutralizes or cancels out unwanted tones in your hair color—or it enhances tones you want to bring out more,” explains Rojas. Smith agrees, adding that toner is kind of like an Instagram filter in that it's added on top of your your existing color to enhance it. "For example, let's say you have gold hair, but want it to be strawberry blonde, a toner can help you achieve that," he says.
When Do You Use Toner for Your Hair?
After your hair is lightened, toners are used as the final step to adjust or blend the shade to your desired hue. Your stylist will do this by mixing a customized concoction and applying it to your hair. This step usually happens in the shampoo bowl, which is why you might not have known it was happening.
Beyond just revitalizing the color, a toner can also help condition dry strands and smooth down frizz so that your hair looks shinier and healthier overall; this is why some colorists may refer to toner as a “gloss” or “glaze.” And, according to Rojas, toners are also used when your color has begun to fade and you want to bring back some richness and dimension to the hair.
Does Toner Only Work on Pre-Lightened or Bleached Hair?
Even though toners are typically applied as part of a lightening service (like getting highlights or balayage), you don't have to be a blonde to benefit from using one.
On redheads and brunettes, toners can help eliminate brassy tones, enhance the existing color and boost shine. Notice we didn't say that they'll change your color. Toners can only enhance what you already have or deepen the shade; they won't lighten up your hair.
How to Choose the Right Toner for Your Hair
Knowing which toner to choose for your hair comes down to the basic rules of the color wheel. Opposites attract, so say for example, you want to soften some of the warmth in your hair color, then you’d go for a toner in a shade that sits opposite your current hue on the color wheel.
As Rojas further explains, “If you’re a brunette and it’s faded out, ask your stylist for a neutral to warm (not cool) toner. If you’re a blonde and your hair feels too yellow and brassy, ask for the lightest cool toner that your stylist has (especially if you’re afraid of having your blonde look dark),” he adds.
Note that in most cases, choosing and using hair toner is a job that’s best left to the pros, but there are some at-home products that are less concentrated and can be used to help maintain your color (though we'd still recommend consulting with your stylist first).
What Are At-Home Toners (And How Are They Different from the Toners Used in Salons)?
The toners that hairstylists use in salons are usually demi-permanent formulas that involve a developer (aka hydrogen peroxide) to slightly lift the hair cuticle to deposit color pigments. At-home toning products (like purple shampoos or masks) tend to just sit on the surface of your hair and deposit just enough pigment to offset some of the brassiness that may have crept in.
And with that, here are some expert-approved home toners to consider adding to your haircare routine.
Best At-Home Toner for Blonde Hair
"If you want to make blonde hair cool again, you need to use a toner with violet pigments in it," explains Smith. You can typically use violet or purple shampoo about once a week to keep brassiness at bay, but we'd recommend checking with your colorist for a more personalized plan.
Best At-Home Toner for Brown Hair
If you're a brunette whose hair tends to get orange over time, you can cool down your color by using a blue toning product. A note of precaution from Smith: "The longer you leave a toner on, the stronger results you'll get. One minute will give you a subtle touch up, whereas five minutes will give you more color, which isn't always a good thing."
Best At-Home Toner for Highlights
Bumble and bumble
"Your toner should always be matched to the needs of the lightest part of your hair, otherwise you risk losing or dulling your highlights," warns Smith. If your highlights are blonde, go with a purple-tinted toner like this leave-in conditioner. Not only does it help neutralize brassiness, but it also smooths down your cuticles to reduce frizz and protects against heat. Note: It can stain fabrics so maybe don't wear your favorite white shirt when spraying this.
Is There Anything Else to Consider When Using Hair Toner?
“Toner doesn’t last forever. It’s like long wearing makeup, after a while you’ll need to reapply it,” says Rojas. So how long does it last? Usually the pigment from toners will last for up to four weeks max, but this will depend on various factors like how often you wash your hair, what type of shampoo you’re using, how much you’re in the sun and your hair color (reds and pastel shades tend to fade the fastest).
This brings us to our last point, to prolong the results of your toner (and hair color in general), use a color-safe shampoo, and limit the amount of UV and heat exposure your hair gets.