All About Developers

hair coloring in the salon

Every colorist needs a range of hair color developers. Here’s what you need to know.

Hair color developers, which are really hydrogen peroxide, have been a salon mainstay for a long time. Hydrogen peroxide was adopted as a bleaching agent in 1867, and really, there’s no substitute. Colorists may ask for it by several names, mostly “developer,” “peroxide” or even “H2O2.” It’s available in liquid and crème forms, and for both, the mixtures contain a variety of additives, which is important to understand when it comes to storage and display.

The old-school way of thinking was that liquid developer was best for gray coverage and crème developer was best for greater conditioning. Not so. Today, most developers are a crème format, unless they are dedicated developers created specifically for a demi-permanent color brand.


Inside the Bottle

In addition to hydrogen peroxide, generically speaking all developers contain stabilizers, surfactants, thickening agents, water and solvents. These all combine to create a relatively unstable mixture that is light sensitive and can be contaminated easily. So, developers must be kept in sealed containers and protected from strong light and heat. They would not be a good product to display in a window!

When displayed properly, they have a shelf life of about three years, but any good store will go through inventory much sooner.


How Developers Work

When hydrogen peroxide is mixed with oxidative dyes (permanent color), the oxygen molecules in the peroxide combine with the hair color molecules. This causes the coloring agent to develop and locks the color molecules within the hair haft, thus making the results “permanent.” In regards to using developers with hair lighteners, the hydrogen peroxide activates the bleaching agents, which attack the natural pigment content of the hair. They disperse and destroy the melanin, and the result is lighter hair.


Why Developer Strengths Matter

Hydrogen peroxide or developer strength is typically measured in volumes of oxygen liberated per volume of solution. The strength may also use percentages to indicate the percentage of peroxide. For example: 3% = 10 volume, 6% = 20 volume, 9% = 30 volume and 12% = 40 volume. (It’s not reasonable to go higher than 40 volume.)

There is an easy way to convert peroxide volumes into percentages, and percentages into volume measures. Multiply the volume strength by .3 to arrive at the percentage of peroxide. Or, multiply the percentage by 10 and divide by 3. Knowing this will help you help your customers, when they ask for 6% developer.

Basically, when mixed with permanent hair color, 20-volume developer gives equal color lift and deposit of color. As the strength is lowered, there is less lifting action and a greater deposit of color. Conversely, when the volume is increased, there is greater lift of color and less deposit of permanent hair color.

Why does carrying a variety of strengths matter? Typically, in a mixture with permanent hair color, 10-volume developer is used for deposit, but can yield up to one level of lift. Twenty-volume developer is considered the standard and lifts up to two levels. Thirty-volume developer lifts approximately three levels. Approximately three-to-four levels of lift is achieved with 40-volume developer—this strength is generally recommended for use with “High Lift” permanent hair color.

Demi-permanent hair color generally has a dedicated developer that is less than 10-volume in strength. That’s just enough to develop the dyes in the hair color mixture. (Colorists should never use anything but the dedicated developer when working with demi-permanent hair color, or they could get unexpected results.)

Any good colorist will do a variety of services, from demi-permanent color to high-lift lightening, in a single day. So, you should always have the full range of developer strengths fully stocked. Colorists don’t want to run out of a particular strength developer, and end up faced with the need to mix two different volumes to get what they need!


A Word About Displays

Dedicated developers in volumes 10 through 40 should always be displayed with their corresponding hair color brand. It is not advised to mix and match developers with different brands of color or bleach. Doing so may result in thinner viscosity, improper dilution of ingredients and unpredictable results. Bulk generic or store brands should also be displayed together.

When speaking to customers, stress that they should always use the proper dedicated developer and follow the manufacturer’s instructions regarding the quantity of developer in the color or lightening mixture, or the “mixing ratio.” This ratio is crucial for liberating the ingredients and creating the right amount of lift and deposit in the amount of time the manufacturer indicates.

If you are uncertain of how many bottles of each volume to stock, 20-volume is the most widely used, followed by 30, 10 and lastly, 40.

Says David Stanko, a celebrity colorist at Licari Cutler Salon in NYC, “Twenty-volume is my go-to developer for gray coverage and minimal lifting of the natural color, as well as for use with powdered lighteners when I need slow, steady lifting.”

Just remember, hydrogen peroxide is mandatory for all permanent hair color and lightening mixtures, and hair color is the biggest dollar generator in most salons. These days, you can never have enough developer inventory on hand to meet colorists’ demands!