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How to have your best hair color this summer, according to a celebrity colorist

Tracey Cunningham, hair colorist to the stars, shares her tips and advice.
Illustration of Tracey Cunningham coloring someones hair and her book True Color
Redken / Amazon

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Many of us are pouring back into salons for the first time since the pandemic began. It’s time to finally hand over our heads and let a professional deal with the “quarantine bangs” and at-home bleach attempts.

As summer approaches, we talked to Redken Celebrity Colorist Tracey Cunningham, colorist to the stars, to learn the hair care secrets she gives her very famous clientele.

Over the past year, Cunningham has not only been working on a book (“Tracey Cunningham's True Color,” now available) but also guiding her celebrity clients including Isla Fisher, Portia de Rossi and Ellen DeGeneres through their own at-home hair color sessions via FaceTime.

But as we (and the celebrities) head back into the salon chair after a year away, Cunningham shared her top dos and don'ts for getting — and maintaining — your best hair color ever this summer.

Come prepared

You have a perfect idea of what you want your color to be: something warm but not too warm or blonde but not too yellow. But unless you come armed with photos, your colorist won’t be able to give you the hair of your dreams.

“If you’re like oh I love butterscotch caramel whatever, nobody is going to understand that,” Cunningham said. “Because what butterscotch means to me in my brain is completely different from what butterscotch means to you in your brain. It’s just better to have a photo.”

Plus, when you bring a photo, your colorist will be able to pick up on important details about color placement that you may have missed. They are highly trained professionals, after all.

Come healthy

If you want to undergo a massive change in color, Cunningham recommends doing a conditioning treatment the night before your appointment. “It’s all about hair health,” Cunningham said, “and a hairdresser doesn’t really want to touch you unless they think your hair can handle it.”

Ensuring that your hair is healthy and able to withstand the effects of bleach could make the difference in getting your dream color.

Check your water

There’s nothing wrong with just running your hair under water, right? Wrong.

“Water messes up hair more than anything,” Cunningham said. “It’s a hair colorist’s nightmare, what’s in our water. Doesn’t matter if you’re a brunette, red head or blonde. The minerals that get into your hair, not only are they damaging to the hair, they’re also very damaging to the color.”

Harsh chemicals in your shower water could be what’s turning your hair green. Invest in a filter for your shower that will reduce hard water. You can also buy water testing strips, then bring the results into your colorist. With that information, they can recommend the best mineral-removing treatments at the salon.

Don’t confuse your colorist with your doctor

There are certain questions that a hair colorist simply isn’t qualified to answer. Questions about hair loss and scalp health may actually be answered best by a physician. Someone who knows more about your environment, your medications and your lifestyle is best suited to answer health questions — although colorists can give some great advice on lifestyle changes that may help.

Don’t stress about trends

“People always ask what’s new for fall and I’m like ‘blondes, brunettes, red heads,’” Cunningham joked. While it may be tempting to pore over pieces about the hottest trends for summer hair, don’t take them too seriously. Styles and techniques may subtly change over the years but, at the end of the day, what always looks best is a healthy scalp. Work with your colorist to find the shade that will make you feel your best and don’t stress over what other people are doing.

Don’t worry too much

If you’ve spent money on new color at the hair salon, you obviously want to keep it looking fresh for as long as possible. But Cunningham insists that you shouldn’t let it take over your life.

“This is what I tell my clients: You go and enjoy yourself and when you come back, we’ll deal with whatever happened,” she said. “Please don’t make it about your hair when you’re on the beach.”

But if you have a bit of time before heading to the beach, you can put your favorite conditioner in your hair, then wrap it up in a tight bun. Also consider taking a quick shower to wet down your hair before getting in the pool.

“If your hair is porous and dry, when you go into the chlorine, it will soak it all up,” Cunningham said. “But if you go in and your hair is wet already with your shower water, and you put some conditioner in and put it in a tight bun — then you just enjoy yourself.”

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