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Does Toner Damage Your Hair?

Toners are a great way to enhance your hair colour and get that perfect shade you’ve always dreamed of. They are helpful in correcting imperfect dye jobs and can give your locks a lovely shine. But are they also safe or do they damage your hair in the long run?

Knowing that frequently dying and bleaching your hair can cause chemical deterioration is enough to make you wonder about the other products you use on your tresses.

However, you will be happy to learn that toners are largely gentle on your hair and usually cause little to no harm to its fibres.

Read this article to find out more about:

  • What toner is and how it changes the shade of your hair
  • Who and what hair toner is useful for
  • Whether toner can damage your hair
  • How long hair toner lasts and how you can make it last longer
  • The best ways to tone your hair colour naturally
Table of Contents

What is hair toner?

A toner is a hair colour-enhancing product which contains very little to no ammonia. Regular hair dyes normally use this alkaline compound to increase the pH of hair, lifting the cuticles and allowing colour to be deposited at the core of the fibre. Since toner does not penetrate the hair fibre, it only temporarily coats the strands on the outside. The result is that it does not completely alter the colour of your hair, it only corrects or slightly tweaks its existing shade.

Toner is most often used after bleaching or conventionally dyeing, in order to reduce brassiness and balance out excessive warm tones. However, it does not have to be done immediately afterwards, it is sometimes recommended to only do it days or even weeks later, depending on your hair type and the desired effect.

While it used to only come in the form of a dye, today you can also find temporary toner under a variety of other forms, such as:

  • Shampoo
  • Conditioner
  • Hair mask
  • Hair gloss
  • Hair foam

This makes it easier to safely change the hue of your tresses at home, without always having to enlist the help of a professional. However, if you opt for the longer-lasting variety, it is a good idea to leave your curls in the hands of a colouring professional.

the results of using toner
Shade and texture changes before and after using a hair toner [1]

How does hair toner work?

The way toner works is rooted in the composition of the hair fibre and the substances which make it colourful. The natural shade of your locks is provided by the quantity of a pigment called melanin, which is also found in your eyes and skin. This pigment is of two kinds [2]:

  • Eumelanin – darker and responsible for brown and black shades.
  • Pheomelanin – responsible for the lighter shades, ranging from light red to yellow

During hair discolouration processes, such as bleaching, eumelanin is chemically removed, leaving only the pheomelanin in your strands. This is why your hair can magically go from black to blonde in minutes.

However, due to the remaining reddish pigment, the shade obtained may be too warm for your desired look. This is where the toner comes in. It balances out the warm tones by coating your hair fibres in the hue which is on the very opposite side of the colour wheel.

Thus, if you are trying to cool down a brassy orange, a hint of blue will do the trick, a touch of green will even out the red and a dash of violet will remove the undesired yellow tint.

Toner pigment chart
Pigment chart for different hair shades [3]

Based on their composition, some hair toners will also add shine, giving your tresses a healthy, glossy look.

Using toner to tune your hair shade is a very quick process, requiring only a short salon appointment. It normally only takes between 5-15 minutes to work, according to the desired result.

Is toner damaging to your hair?

Research [4] shows that when used properly, hair toner itself will not cause significant damage to your hair. That is because it does not penetrate the hair fibre deep enough in order to cause any harm.

The only type of toner that may cause some dryness or frizziness in your tresses are the permanent ones. The ammonia they contain lifts the cuticles of your hair fibre, potentially damaging them in time [4]. But professional stylists should be able to help you avoid this outcome.

microscopic view of a healthy hair follicle (left) and a damaged hair follicle (right)
The microscopic difference between healthy and damaged hair cuticles [6]

You may want to cut back on toning or change the product brand or formula to one with lower quantities of ammonia if you notice any of these signs after using it:

  • Flat, lacklustre tresses
  • Dry, brittle hair that breaks off easily
  • Straw-like strands that are difficult to style
  • More hair breakage than usual
  • Dry, irritated, or itchy scalp

Like any other beauty product, toner also has a small chance of giving you an allergic reaction if you are sensitive to any of its ingredients. This could cause scalp irritation and swelling and in rare but severe cases, it could even lead to anaphylactic shock. That is why it is a good idea to test every new formula on a small patch of skin before using it.

While toning is generally safe, the same cannot be said about the bleaching and dying that usually come before it. The high ammonia and hydrogen peroxide content of these products can, in time, damage the hair from the cuticle to the core. This can make your hair dry and brittle, and even lead to the appearance of bald spots (partial alopecia), due to excessive hair breakage [2][6][7].

And since toning is usually done soon after lightening and colouring, it is easy to get the wrong impression that your toner is at fault for the hair damage already sustained.

hair structure informational graphic

Is toner less damaging than hair dye?

Yes, as studies show, toner is significantly safer for your hair than permanent dye. That is because it causes no structural harm to the hair fibre, but only coats the outsides of the strands.

Dye, on the other hand, contains significantly higher amounts of hydrogen peroxide and sometimes ammonia. Applying these substances frequently can have negative consequences for your hair and your scalp alike [6]. In time, overuse of bleach and hair dye can even lead to hair loss.

So if you have a choice between recolouring your hair or refreshing it with toner, experts recommend using the second option. While bleaching and dyeing are chemically invasive, simply enhancing the tone of your hair occasionally is unlikely to damage it.

How can you reduce toner hair damage?

If you want to get the best experience out of toning but at the same time, minimise any risk to your tresses, here are some recommendations:

1. Avoid permanent toners in favour of toning shampoos

Permanent toners contain ammonia, which means they can penetrate the hair fibre and are generally rougher on your strands. However, purple/silver shampoos are quite gentle and can be safely used as often as weekly without causing any significant harm.

2. Always moisturise your hair and scalp after toning

Since overusing toners can make your hair dry and brittle, it is a good idea to balance this by using moisturising hair masks after toning. This will keep the scalp properly hydrated and the hair fibres will remain soft and supple.

3. Limit the use of other products that dry out your hair

Many women choose to tone right after dyeing or bleaching their hair. This process already puts chemical strain on the hair strands and dries them out, making them more fragile and easier to break.

Increasing the time between bleaching/dyeing and toning can give your hair time to regenerate. It is also a good idea to reduce heat styling in the time period surrounding a toning session, because done frequently, it can also dry out your hair.

4. Choose the right toner formula for your hair and scalp

Different toner brands and formulas contain slightly different ingredients. While some of them contain a small amount of ammonia, others do not. Some toners are hypoallergenic, some are fragrance-free.

Therefore, it is always a good idea to get a personalised recommendation from a colouring professional, especially if you have a sensitive scalp or dry hair.

5. Let sufficient time pass between toning sessions

One of the advantages of toning is that it can refresh your hair colour, extending the time between dyeing sessions. However, using toner too frequently can also dry out your hair or even irritate your scalp. Make sure you know how many washes the product you are using is supposed to last and try not to reapply it sooner.

6. Whenever possible, use professional toning

While some toners are safe to use at home, others require care and experience to ensure the best result and the least amount of damage to your hair. A seasoned colouring specialist will know exactly the right formula and amount of toner to use and how long to leave it on for optimum results.

How often can you tone your hair without damaging it?

This generally depends on several factors, such as the type of toner you are using, and the texture and condition of your hair.

If you are merely using purple or silver shampoos, you can use them as often as weekly with no adverse effects.

If, however, you are using permanent toners, it is best to ask a stylist when it would be safest to reapply. This especially applies if you already have dry or damaged hair.

How long does toner last in your hair?

The amount of time that a toner can endure in your hair depends on the type of product you choose to use:

Purple/silver toning shampoos

These products are the gentlest on your hair and cause the least damage, as they don’t penetrate the fibre or cuticle at all. They do not normally contain any harmful chemicals and are most often sulphate-free. This means that you can use them at home as often as you need to. But on the down side, they also fade away quickly and need to be refreshed at least once a week.

Semi-permanent toners

This variety of toner does not contain ammonia and is unlikely to cause damage to your hair with normal use. However, its effect will last significantly longer than that of purple shampoos. Depending on your hair type, you can expect to go 3-4 weeks (up to 12 washes) before needing to reapply.

Permanent toners

These toners last the longest – up to 6-8 weeks (or 20 washes) with proper hair care. However, they are also the strongest and can contain more ammonia. While home use is generally not advised, they are usually still safe when applied by professionals who ensure they will not damage your hair.

before and after toning with purple shampoo
Before and after toning with purple shampoo

How can you make hair toner last longer?

Unlike dye, toner is a temporary colour enhancement and will eventually wash out in a few weeks. However, there are ways to get the most out of it:

  • Avoid washing your hair daily
  • Use dry shampoo occasionally instead of wet washing.
  • Limit your time in the pool
  • Use UV protection for your hair during summer
  • Reduce the use of heat-based styling

Who can use hair toner?

It is a common misconception that only people with blonde (or otherwise very light-coloured) hair can benefit from toning. In fact, brunettes and redheads can also enhance their shade with the right product.

However, it is generally a good idea to enlist the help of an experienced hair professional if you would like to tone your darker locks, as it may require a formula with a higher amount of pigment.

So, regardless of your hair colour, toner may be a good way to go if you need to:

  • Enhance your hair tone when it is starting to get a tarnished look.
  • Efficiently blend grey hairs to avoid the salt and pepper look [8].
  • Correct a dye job that did not come out precisely right.
  • Make your hair look shinier and smoother
  • Refresh your colour and make it look more vibrant.

However, always ask a specialist before toning your hair if you have:

  • Very dry or damaged tresses
  • Active scalp conditions, such as irritation, inflammation, psoriasis, etc.
  • A history of allergies to substances found in hair products.

Can toner be used without any additional hair product?

While toner is usually gentle on your tresses, it can dry some of the natural oils which help protect your hair fibres and keep them supple. That is why it is a good idea to use moisturiser alongside it.

Also, while no specific hair care is required in order to safely tone, creams and masks that protect your locks from UV radiation or from being damaged by heat styling will also make the effect of your toner last longer [9].

What are some natural alternatives to hair toner?

If you would like to enhance your hair colour but don’t like how toning looks on you or are allergic to its ingredients, here are some good organic alternatives:

Botanical hair dyes

Made from natural ingredients, these dyes can be used to change or enhance the shade of your hair. While they may not be as strong and effective as synthetic hair dye, they are gentler on your hair and have low allergenic potential. [4]

Use Botanicals
Red hair Beet, chamomile; to add highlights hibiscus, marigold
Blonde hair Golden seal, chamomile; to add highlights marigold, southern wood, Oregon grape, grapefruit, broom, cowslip, mullein flowers, elder, lemon peel, blonde henna (neutral)
Brunette Sage, chamomile, rosemary; to add highlights black walnut, nettles, southern wood, raspberry, jaborandi, brown henna

How different hair colours can be obtained using botanical dyes [7]


This is one of the oldest plants ever used to dye hair. You can opt for the natural variety, which will give your hair an auburn look, or the neutral kind, which does not dye your hair, but instead makes it shine.

Black henna is actually not true henna, but a chemical compound that makes your hair jet black. This plant has antifungal and antimicrobial properties and can also help with your dandruff [10]. But you should not use it on dry or brittle hair, as it can further damage it.

Are you concerned your hair might be damaged?

If your locks have been looking dry and brittle and you worry about the amount of hair falling out in the shower, your hair may indeed be damaged. There are multiple reasons why this could happen, the most common including:

It is normal for signs of hair damage or hair loss to be concerning for women. But do not worry, there are ways to restore your struggling curls to their former glory. The first thing you need to do is to find out exactly what is causing the issue.

Book a consultation today with the specialists of Wimpole Clinic and get to the root of all your hair woes. They will run hair loss blood tests to confirm your diagnosis and provide you with the best female hair loss treatments.

Does Toner Damage Your Hair?, Wimpole Clinic

The Wimpole Clinic offers FUE Hair, Beard & Eyebrow Transplants & Trichology.
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