Toner vs Semi-Permanent Hair Color: Are They The Same Thing?

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Are toner and semi-permanent dye the same thing? The simple answer to this question is: in a lot of ways yes, but no.

The language changes quickly, and terms are used interchangeably. It can get confusing!

The sheer number and range of products now available is mind-boggling.

There’s permanent, semi and demi-permanent dyes, toners, developers, highlights, purple shampoos, not to mention combination kits that have a multitude of different products to create different effects! It feels like you need a chemistry degree to figure it all out.

In this article, we are going dig into toner vs semi-permanent hair color. We’ll go over what toners and semi-permanent dyes actually are, the difference between dyes and toners, and how they are used.

You’ll be sure you’re ordering the correct product when it’s time to buy.


Toner vs Semi-Permanent Hair Color

If you’d asked this question just a few years ago, the answer would have been a definitive ‘yes’.

To fully understand why these two terms have recently become almost interchangeable, we need to look at what toners and semi-permanent dyes are, and how they’ve changed.

What is a Toner?

Hair Toner

Toners have been traditionally used to help neutralize any unwanted red, brassy, or warm tones in blonde and grey hair. They are also often used to achieve that perfect ‘blank canvas’ after bleaching when applying a different hair color (but they can be used before or after dying).

Natural blonde hair tends to get brassy very easily from things like environmental exposure, and chlorine. As anyone who’s ever bleached their hair will tell you, the end result often comes out with yellow, brassy or orange tones, depending on the color you started with.

Because grey or white hair lacks the pigment of younger hair, it’s quite susceptible to picking up colors from the environment. This can include traces of color in things like the water that you’re showering or swimming in, smoking, traces of color in your hair care products, and even reactions to certain medications.

Grey or white hair can often become dull and have a yellow tinge. Toners specifically created for naturally grey, silver, or white hair will get rid of those yellow hues.

A toner just coats the exterior of the hair strand, rather than penetrating the hair structure. Because of this, you cannot ‘lift’ or lighten your hair color. Toner that is meant for blonde hair will not make much difference on dark hair.

A toner just coats the exterior of the hair strand, rather than penetrating the hair structure. Because of this, you cannot ‘lift’ or lighten your hair color. Toner that is meant for blonde hair will not make much difference on dark hair.

Toners are used to neutralize unwanted tones. And while they can be used somewhat interchangeably, they are different products.

What is Semi-Permanent Hair Dye

Semi-Permanent Hair Dye

Semi-permanent hair dye is a non-damaging, short-term way to color your hair. Like toner, it just coats the exterior of the hair strand.

It doesn’t contain ammonia or peroxide like traditional bleaches, and is not mixed with a developer that would come with permanent hair dye. You don’t need to mix them and worry about waste.

A semi-permanent color will not lighten your hair it will just add color on top of what’s already there.

What’s Changed In the Marketplace?

The hair care and color market has been flooded with new products that used to only be available in hair salons.

That’s great for consumers. But many of us don’t fully understand how they work, nor do they know how to use them.

Try looking up “DIY hair color fails” on YouTube and you’ll see what we mean.

This lack of knowledge has led a lot of people to refer to semi-permanent dye as toner, and vice versa.

Nowadays, toners aren’t just reserved for fighting brassiness in blonde hair. They make toners now for darker hair to bring out the warmth in your natural color and add more dimension.

So if you want to add a mahogany undertone to your brunette hair  or tame your reddish highlights to a more ashy brown, they now make toners for that! 

Brunette Toner

A Whole New World

Now that every color of the rainbow (at the same time) has become trendy, you can achieve that perfect violet or periwinkle shade, if you have blonde hair, by using a toner.

You can use blue or purple toners (which are really meant for either toning yellow or orange hues) to add a hint of temporary color. Of course, this only works on blonde hair.

Using a toner to achieve a different color is yet another thing that has people calling toners a semi-permanent dye. 

To add to the confusion, toners can be mixed with developers to increase the intensity and make your toning effect last longer.

Most toners for home application come in the form of either a amazon link=”B07P7L1HFN” link_text=”purple shampoo” link_icon=”amazon” /] or amazon link=”B07VF9D484″ link_text=”mask” link_icon=”amazon” /] for blonde hair and amazon link=”B07FCW6KWL” link_text=”blue shampoo” link_icon=”amazon” /] for darker hair.

How are toners and semi-permanent dyes the same?

Both toners  and semi-permanent hair dyes  only coat the exterior of the hair strand.

Neither product requires a developer and neither will lighten your hair.

Toners and semi-permanent hair dye do not contain ammonia or peroxide. Both are a safe, non-damaging way to enhance the color of your hair, give it shine and depth.

How are they different?

Though they now make toners for darker shades of hair, toner will not likely have any effect on naturally brown or black hair.

Most stylists will agree that toner only works on colored hair.

Though they do make toners now for darker shades of (colored) hair, the darker your hair, the less likely you are to see a change.

Although a lot of semi permanent dyes now claim to ‘tone down’ unwanted hues, it’s more of a matter of using colour to balance out undesirable undertones.

The darker your hair, the more likely a semi-permanent color  will work on your hair. It will never lighten your hair, but if you have naturally black hair, for example, and you were going for the trending ‘black blue’ that’s popular right now, a semi-permanent color  will get you the results that you would not get by just using a toner.

Black-Blue Color Hair

Final Thoughts

The terms toner and semi-permanent dye are often used interchangeably these days. This is because they both are semi-permanent and wash out. Both don’t use ammonia or peroxide. And while toners used to be only for blond hair, they’re now available for multiple shades.

That said, there are some key differences:

  • Toner is meant to neutralize unwanted tones.
  • Semi-permanent color is meant to deposit color.
  • Toner is unlikely to work on naturally dark brown or black hair.
  • Semi-permanent color can be used on all hair, colored or not.

So bottom line: both toners and semi-permanent dye are non-toxic and will not cause damage to your hair. They will both enhance the color and add shine.

Toners are the better choice if you have lighter hair, and are looking to balance out unwanted hues. Semi-permanent color is better for adding temporary color.

Written by Kayla Young

Kayla is the founder of LuxeLuminous. She has worked professionally in the tanning industry for years. She has been interested in esthetics since childhood, and has tried every hair, skin, and makeup product ever produced (more or less).