Hair color has been a touchy subject over the last year. With salons being forced to close as we all sheltered in place, many were left with few choices for maintaining their color. For the bravest souls among us, this year has meant getting comfortable with DIY box dye or customized at-home kits from a colorist, if you were really lucky. But for a lot of folks, limited or no access to professionals meant abandoning their hair color maintenance altogether, leading to overgrown roots, dull highlights, and generally unkempt color that's likely now in need of some serious TLC.
Thankfully, we're almost out of the woods, and salons are finally starting to resume operations so we can book in with our trusty colorists to make hair color magic once again. And after a year away, you might need some inspiration for what statement to make. We've got you covered on that front. We tapped three of the most sought-after celebrity colorists, Ryan Pearl, Laura Gibson, and Jeremy Tardo, to get the scoop on the most popular hair colors of 2021. Keep scrolling for the top colors they've been doling out so far this year, along with their predictions for the hues and styles that will continue to pick up steam in the coming months.
Trust us—you'll want to screenshot these for your colorist.
Meet the Experts
1. Honey-Gold Accents
As we all emerge from our caves of box dye and overgrown roots, our pros all agree on one thing: People will be amping up the warmth with honey- and golden-hued accents all over the hair. "This glowy feel to hair is becoming very popular as a lot of people are abandoning the super-ashy-toned highlights that we saw so much of the last few years and opting for a warmer vibe," says Tardo. "This trend adds golden edges to soft brunette tones. It works great with natural hair colors and grows out beautifully." Pearl agrees, adding that these golden hues will be particularly prevalent as we enter the summer months. "As people get tanner, they tend to go with that light, golden hue," he says. And according to him, this goes for both blondes and brunettes. "Even when I do a brunette, I still highlight it—I don't just dump up a color all over it." It's all about dimension, people.
"Products like Iles Formula’s Finishing Serum are good to leave in your hair when getting out of the shower," Tardo adds. "This will protect from color fading as well as repair split ends that can happen from highlighting."
2. Burst of Brightness
Where blondes are concerned, Pearl says he's seen an updated placement of highlights picking up traction. "We’re seeing a lot more pop and brightness through the very bottoms of the hair. It’s still bright through the top, but it's more blended as it travels down the mid-shafts of the hair and then accentuating the most pop through the very bottom. So it's kind of like a grown-out look, but you still have the brightness around the face and through the bottom," he says. That might sound complicated, but this is a color you've probably seen more times than you know. Overall, Pearl says you can identify this "sunburst hair," as he called it, by marked lightness around the face, with slight shadowing and longer roots, blended highlights through the middle, and another burst of brightness in the ends.
Aside from just looking chic, this color pattern has utility, too, according to Pearl. "The grow-out is a lot easier and the upkeep is super minimal because as long as you stay pretty up-to-date with that face-frame highlight, then that whole look really does stay very bright, even if there is a lot of depth in it," he says.
If you live in a coastal city or will be spending time outside or near the water this summer, Pearl says you've got to shield your hair from the sun. He's based in Miami, where people spend tons of time at the beach, and he notes that it tends to make hair fade a bit faster. "I like the Redken Shades EQ gloss, and I will do that to them in between their highlight visits. So if they wait 12 weeks between highlights, at the six-week mark, we'll do the gloss, and that’ll just kind of blend everything back together. It also really, really conditions the hair, especially if they have any sun damage or heat damage," he says.
3. Almond Highlights
A lot of the time, highlights are associated with adding blonde tones into the hair. But Gibson is seeing an uptick in brunettes staying true to their brown hair color with more dimension via light-brown highlights. "Almond-toned highlights are every brunette who's looking for dimension's dream," she says. "They are perfect for a dark-brunette base who doesn’t want to be blonde. It adds soft warmth to the hair that creates a glow," she says.
Pearl agrees, adding that the effect of this kind of color is a mirror-like reflection of tones bouncing around in the hair. "You want there to be enough reflection in there so that you see the dimension and it doesn't look heavy or untoned," he says. So how do you achieve this? While a method like the ever-popular balayage might come to mind first, Pearl says you can also lift the base color a bit first. "Sometimes when you do balayage, you overcompensate with the toner to try to cut out all that brassiness and the warmth, so instead, I like to lift the hair light enough that when it fades, you're getting this second round of color that still looks good—it will just fade into a lighter version of what it was and still look pretty. You can basically get two different looks out of it," he explains.
Gibson recommends this color-preserving shampoo, formulated with antioxidants from pomegranates to strengthen the bond between the hair fiber and color pigments.
4. Goin' Gray
Natural gray hair is officially in. Not that it was ever out, though. Some of the chicest people on the planet rock silver locks. But with so many of us being separated from our stylists and colorists for more than a year now, there's been a trend of widespread hair acceptance, whether it be embracing natural curls or letting grays come in unencumbered. For those who routinely colored their grays, especially with deep-brown or black dye, you know the grow-out is rough. Thankfully, we've had an entire year and some change to deal with the worst of that in private. Now, you can schedule a trip to your trusted stylist to discuss a new haircare regimen for your gorgeous gray rather than a plan of attack for covering it.
Keeping your gray hair bright will be a priority, and you'll also want to reach for shampoos that help with softness and hydration since gray hair can be wiry.
5. Ultra-Custom Color
Trends are fun, but they aren't for everyone. And according to Pearl, this year is all about finally nailing down an ultra-customized color that works for you on every level. "I like to do what fits the person's skin tone, eye color, and what's most suitable rather than what's trendy," he says. "And I think that's a big thing where people try to hop on a trend just because they see it, but it doesn't suit them." The key? Balance. "For example, if you're doing really, really dark hair, like Asian hair, it needs to have that dimension and different tonalities. If you just have black hair and then this highlight, it looks super fake. So you need those different colors running through it. And if you were to go the extreme route, then I think with super-dark hair, you have to go really extreme. If you go in between, it's going to look like too much contrast."
As a rule of thumb, Pearl says your ideal hair color will essentially neutralize your skin tone while picking up your skin's undertone and that highlights should be a shade or two lighter than your skin tone. He also recommends talking to your colorist about the best placement for your highlights, as they'll be able to advise based on your face shape, facial features, and more.
No matter what you're doing in terms of color, Pearl says maintaining your hair's bond strength and pH are imperative. He loves Redken's Acidic Bonding line to get the job done. "When people are heat-styling their hair a lot because of humidity or doing all this stuff in pools and in the oceans, the pH level of the hair gets really off. And when the pH level and the hair is off, that's why your hair might not look as shiny, because the cuticles raise and the texture feels a lot different than it should," he explains. "By using these, you're going to prolong your color a lot more because it's kind of working from the inside out."
6. Money Pieces
Long live the money piece! This trend has been popping off for a while now, and by the looks of it, it's not going anywhere anytime soon. "The face-framing money piece is still the hottest trend for color," Gibson calls out. "The reason is you can do a few variations of it. You can rock it '90s-style and have it thick and bold. For those leaning more to a natural version, you don’t have to have the top be as thick. It can gradually cascade into the pop," she goes on. She also mentions that you'll want to care for this type of color the same way you look after any other kind of highlights, with shampoos and conditioners that keep both brassiness and dehydration at bay.
Gibson says this leave-in spray primes, detangles, and helps smooth the hair without weighing it down.
7. Dark Cedar
For those looking to go darker, Tardo says this rich, dark-brown color is the ticket. "This look is being worn as an allover color that walks the line between coolness and warmth. Because the hue is neutral, it works well on most skin tones, and the richness of the color creates a shiny finish that really reflects light on the hair," he says. And when you're going dark, that shine and reflection are essential. No dullness here! "I think we are seeing so much of this trend in 2021 because it's effortless, healthy-looking, and it works great with a lot of the fresh new 'coming-out' haircuts that our clients are ready for after last year’s quarantining," he adds.
If you're a DIY diva, Tardo says this Clairol at-home semi-permanent dye is the one to reach for to achieve this dark-cedar look. "It's super conditioning and washes out over time, which allows you to play with other brunette options later," he says.
"This range of shampoos deposits a bit of pigment back into your hair almost like a toner," says Tardo. "For lighter browns, use the Hazelnut, and for darker browns, go with the Mocha Drench. Leave this is your hair for a minimum of five minutes in the shower."
Copper hair has been the unexpected sleeper hit of the year, for sure. Perhaps we can attribute this to everyone watching The Queen's Gambit on Netflix during quarantine and falling in love with Anya Taylor Joy's copper-colored bob. (Gigi Hadid admitted that was her reason for going red.) Whatever the reason, it's an adventurous hue we're looking forward to seeing more of in the months to come.
9. Playful Panels
Here's an option we've certainly seen all over TikTok that, according to Tardo, will only continue to grow in popularity. "This whimsical hair moment is perfect for everyone who is tired of wallflower hair colors," he says. "Instead of tiny highlights, we are seeing a big surge in large sections of '90s-inspired color contrasts." These panels are reminiscent of the chunky highlights of yesteryear, with a more fashionable flair. "Hair always follows fashion, and it seems like the recent wide-legged pants and Dr. Martens resurgence in streetwear have accurately forecasted our next 2021 hair movement," he explains. Bring on the grunge vibes!
"I love a color-protect shampoo and conditioner like Okara from René Furterer to keep fun tones fresh for longer. If you are wearing a bright color, try to shampoo the hair a bit less frequently. If needed, you can always rinse hair in the shower and then just condition it," he says.
"Fun colors often require a bit of bleaching the hair first. You can use Number 4 Restore & Repair Oil as a leave-in treatment at home to seal your cuticle and polish split ends. It’s like a haircut in a bottle!"
Up next: 9 Hairstyles People Are Actually Asking for in Salons Right Now
Courtney Higgs is a Cancer sun, Libra rising beauty enthusiast with about six years of experience in the editorial space. She was previously Who What Wear's associate beauty editor after spending many years working on the West Coast edit team at InStyle Magazine. She graduated from California State University, Northridge, with a BA in communication studies and pivoted to editorial after spending her college years working in the legal field. Her beauty philosophy is simple: She believes there are no wrong answers and that discovering our favorite beauty products and rituals is a journey, not a sprint. When she's not geeking out over products, she can be found adventuring around L.A. with her fiancé; watching reality TV with their French bulldog, Bernie Mac; or relating way too hard to astrology memes.
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