These days, it seems like finding a woman with “virgin” hair—the type that’s never been touched with dye—is like trying to track down a unicorn. One UK-based study showed that the average woman changes her hair color and style 104 times during her lifetime. And in this ever-persistent quest to maintain or try out a shade, it’s all too tempting to do it on the cheap with at-home hair color. Unfortunately, these amateur attempts often turn disastrous. Here, we’ll identify the most common at-home hair coloring mistakes—and better yet, we’ll teach you how to steer clear of them.

Mistake #1: Going Full Throttle Your First Time

If it’s your first run-in with a box of at-home color, or even if you’re trying out a brand new shade, dodge the temptation to dye your whole head. The best way to start out is with a lighter, more sporadic touch. For instance, take a toothbrush and highlight a few strands around your face with a semi-permanent formula. This will help you test the results in a more controlled manner, and if you don’t love it, it will wash out after roughly 28 shampoos anyway.

Mistake #2: Straying Too Far From Your Natural Hair Shade

You may envy Christina Hendricks’ fiery mane, but it will be challenging to get that precise color if you’re anything other than a natural redhead without a professional. Pick a shade that’s one-to-two degrees of separation from your natural or current hair shade, and leave the more drastic color changes to the experts.

Mistake #3: Relying on the Box’s Front Image

As we all know, looks can be deceiving. This is especially true when it comes to the hair featured on the front of a box of dye. Rather than picking a color based on this image, choose a hue by comparing the swatches and descriptions on the back or side of the box instead. There should be a graph of “before” shades, and one for “after.” Match your original hair color to the closest “before” swatch possible, and use its accompanying “after” image to more accurately measure the color you’ll likely end up with. You may need to pick up a few boxes you wouldn’t have otherwise considered to get the look you’re really going for. Try: Garnier Nutrisse Haircolor, which offers a wide array of swatches to compare against.

Mistake #4: Not Choosing the Right Formula

When deciding whether to go semi- or permanent, consider the condition of your hair and the effect you’re after. If your hair is healthy and you’re looking to lighten your shade, stick with a permanent formula. It’s the only type that can lift a color, and hair that’s in good shape should be able to withstand the dyeing damage. If you hair is dry and you’re looking to go darker, stick with a semi-permanent version. It’s kinder to weaker strands, and it can add depth to your mane with results that are comparable to longer-lasting formulas. L’Oréal Paris Healthy Look Crème Gloss Color is a gentle semi-permanent option that’s both ammonia-free and also infused with deep conditioners.

Do you have any other tips for avoiding at-home hair coloring snafus?

 Photo: Getty Images