What is hair toner? The answer to the most Googled beauty question

Hair colour in urgent need of a refresh? Don’t worry – you’ve come to the right place.

In the last year, more than 195,700 of us in the UK have typed ‘what is hair toner?’ into Google – making it the nation’s most-asked beauty question.

This data was recorded pre-pandemic, so we’re pretty confident the number will only have risen in recent months.

If you happen to be one of the nearly 200k people who are confused about hair toners, allow us to explain…

What is hair toner?

These are semi-permanent hair colour treatments that don’t change the hair’s shade, simply its tone. If you get your hair dyed at a salon then you may have had one without realising. Often these are offered in salons as an extra at the backwash, and most commonly are used to bring down yellowness and add icy tones to blonde or highlighted hair, give extra vibrancy to redheads or add depth and shine to brunette hair.

Savvy brands also offer colour-toning products to use at home and keep your colour looking great between salon visits. These can come in the form of shampoos, conditioners, glosses, glazes and masks.

Why should I use hair toner?

If you’ve noticed your colour isn’t quite as fresh as when you stepped out the salon, or is developing unwanted tones, it’s time for a toner.

Pollution, heat styling and even the minerals in our water can distort or fade your shade, so using colour-protect products might help your colour from altering in the first place.

Toners are also a low-commitment way to experiment with a new colour. ‘Applying a pastel toner to blonde or grey roots will give your regrowth a cool update until you can get to the salon,’ advises Katie Hale, Head of Colour at Charles Worthington.

The lighter and more porous your hair is, the more likely you are to see a vibrant result from your toner.

Can I use too much hair toner?

As hair toner is just a shade-shifter that sits outside the hair strand, regular use won’t damage your hair in the same way permanent dye can.

Whether you can use ‘too much’ toner is really down to personal preference. The more often you use it, the more the colour pigment will build. For example, if you keep using an ashy brown toner, your hair will become slowly darker and cooler over time.

But the likelihood is, if you’re repeatedly reaching for your toner it’s because you love the colour - so that's not a problem.

If you do feel you’ve gone a over-board with your toner (punchy purple shampoos can leave blonde and grey hair with a slight lilac tinge) then don’t worry – it’ll wash out in a couple of shampoos.

What hair toner is best for my hair colour?

Best toner for brunette hair

Color Wow Color Control Blue Toning + Styling Foam, £19

Sitting on the opposite side of the colour wheel to orange, this teal-toned blue is the perfect antidote to brassy brunette. Apply liberally to damp locks, the drier your hair, the stronger the colour pay off will be. And because you’re not rinsing it off like you would an inky blue shampoo or mask, it’s much lighter in colour, reducing the risk of blue-stained palms. The mousse formula gives you greater control of where you place the product too, handy if you only want to target a specific area.

SHOP NOW: Color Wow Color Control Blue Toning + Styling Foam, £19, Look Fantastic

Christophe Robin Shade Variation Mask in Ash Brown, £39

If your brunette starts to develop uninvited orangey-red tones after a couple of post-salon shampoos, give this a go. It works in as little as five minutes for a speedy shade refresh, or can be left on for up to half an hour to achieve a more intense colour change. Keep applying every time you wash until you’ve achieved your desired shade, then once a week after that for maintenance. The parma-violet scent is surprisingly addictive.

SHOP NOW: Christophe Robin Shade Variation Mask in Ash Brown, £39, Look Fantastic

Best toner for blonde hair

Fudge Clean Blonde Violet-Toning Shampoo, £14

‘Be warned – the result of this is slightly addictive,’ says Tracey Hayes, Head of Colour at Fudge Professional. ‘For the initial shampoo, leave the product in for 1-2 minutes before rinsing. It contains max-strength violet pigments, so you’ll be amazed at the transformation after just one wash. If used too often the violet will build up and the hair will appear slightly silver or grey rather than clean, platinum blonde. To avoid this, just use it like a treatment a couple of times a week.’ We’d recommend wearing gloves when you apply it too, to steer clear of staining.

SHOP NOW: Fudge Clean Blonde Violet-Toning Shampoo, £14, Look Fantastic

Living Proof Colour Care Whipped Glaze Light, £24

A fuss-free way to refresh your colour, this applies like a mousse, depositing small amounts of lilac pigment to stop highlighted hair from yellowing. It’s good for all-round hair manageability too, leaving it shiny, soft and tangle-free.

SHOP NOW:Living Proof Colour Care Whipped Glaze Light, £24, Cult Beauty

Moroccanoil Color Depositing Mask in Champagne, £28.85

‘Purple shampoos are great for creating a clean, pale blonde, but if you want a more golden finish, stick to products designed for warmer tones,’ recommends celebrity stylist Michael Douglas. This mask blends the benefits of a deep conditioning treatment with a hint of colour to enhance the vibrancy of your blonde. The colour pay off isn’t huge, so it’s a nice starting point if you’re new to toners.

SHOP NOW: Moroccanoil Color Depositing Mask in Champagne, £28.85, Feel Unique

Best toner for grey hair

Redken Color Extend Graydiant Anti-Yellow Shampoo, £14.40

People grey at different stages and different ages and I have seen a number of my clients want to transition from all over tints to start to embrace some grey,’ says Redken’s Global Creative Colour Director Josh Wood. ‘The Redken Graydiant range offers a way to retain grey tone in the hair, keeping it subtle and shiny.’ This shampoo tones out yellowness, while the co-ordinating conditioner deposits light-reflecting silver pigment onto hair.

SHOP NOW: Redken Color Extend Graydiant Anti-Yellow Shampoo, £14.40, Look Fantastic

Best toner for red hair

Clairol Natural Instincts Conditioning Colour in Dark Red, £6.99

‘Red fades quickly because the red colour molecule is much larger than most other colours,’ explains celebrity stylist and Clairol UK Ambassador Michael Douglas. ‘Rather than lots of smaller pigments, there are fewer larger pigments which make the colour more vulnerable to fading when washing the hair or styling with heat.’ This is more heavy-duty than most home toners, lasting for around 20 shampoos depending on how often you wash your hair.

SHOP NOW: Clairol Natural Instincts Conditioning Colour in Dark Red, £6.99, Look Fantastic

Josh Wood Colour Gloss in Rose Brunette, £19

Josh Wood’s coloured glosses became something of a cult buy during lockdown, helping tide us over until salons could reopen. The latest addition to the range is four different reds, from sophisticated burgundy to copper-toned strawberry blonde. ‘Launching one red would be a tokenism,’ he said. ‘There are so many different tones of red and not all customers are the same. I took the approach I would in salon when coming up with these.’ Complete with nourishing shea butter and a colour-shielding UV filter, one use lasts for up to six washes.

SHOP NOW: Josh Wood Colour Gloss in Rose Brunette, £19, Josh Wood

So now you know the answer to 'what is hair toner', next time you're sitting on the sofa pondering beauty, you'll have one less burning question to Google...